Zachary Cichocki

Damian Marley

Following in his Fathers Footsteps

 

Damian “Jr Gong” Marley is quickly becoming a commanding voice in the genre of Reggae. He is Rastafari and thus advocates for the Rastafarian guiding principals of one love, one planet, and freedom for all nations in his music and in his life. Over a career of almost two decades he has put out three solo albums and one remix album and has been awarded three Grammys. He is an extremely versatile musician whose songs vary from upbeat to solemn, from love songs to songs with social messages. Damian Marley started his first band when he was only 13-years old. The band consisted of himself along with two other children of famous Reggae musicians. Named “The Sheperds,” the group performed a number of shows in Jamaica mostly covering songs first made known by their parents. Of these shows the biggest was the Reggae Sunsplash music festival in 1992.   Twenty years later he released the controversial “Welcome to Jamrock...” The album highlights the poverty stricken state of Kingston, Jamaica, as well as remaining true to Rastafarian beliefs by promoting love and speaking out against war and oppression. The title track “Welcome to Jamrock’s raw depiction of the way of life for a Jamaican citizen living in Kingston upset many people since it directly contradicts the image of beautiful sandy beaches and the hedonistic paradise that is marketed aboard.     I hope to bridge those two decades by examining the meaning behind his lyrical message as he progressed from a young man trying to follow in his famous father’s footsteps, to the man who uses his unique style to attempt to better the world he lives, carving out his own niche by melding the history of Reggae music and  Jamaica itself.  As Damian Marley said in a 2002 interview with Urban Exchange Magazine:

"It's the message. Rastafari  music is not everyday typical, it's something you can learn something from. We see ourselves as spiritual revolutionaries, that's really what we're about." (Damian Marley 2002)

 

Damian’s father, Bob Marley, was born in the northern half of Jamaica in an area named Nine Miles. He was taken by his father to Kingston as a child beleaving that he would receive an education. However, instead of enrolling Bob in school, his father simply left him with an elderly couple and left never to speak to Bob again.  When his mother discovered the truth, she immediately brought him back to Nine Miles. This 18- month trip to Kingston would end up shaping Marley’s life forever; it was during this time that he was first exposed to music.  His family would eventually move to Kingston permanently, and when he was 16 he recorded his first single there. Over the years the senior Marley cultivated a style of song writing that both sounded good and conveyed a meaningful message to his audience. Various experiences in his life shaped his beliefs and led him to begin practicing the religion of Rastafarianism. The influence of Rastafarian beliefs can be clearly seen in his music. Not only did Marley use his music to spread his Rastafarian beliefs but also as a means to speak about the oppression and injustices he witnessed occurring in people’s everyday lives.  “Could You Be Loved” for example, was written by Marley after witnessing the poor quality of the Jamaican school system along with the poverty and oppression that was daily life in Kingston. Gary M. Dorsey interprets a few lines in his own words after each line:

Don't let them fool you
(Them are referring to the leaders of the community and Babylon. Do not listen to their rhetoric, because it is false)
Or even try to school you, oh! No
(In its simplest form this is saying do not allow them to fool you, similar to the previous analysis, however the message is larger; the lines may be speaking about the deplorable treatment Rasta children receive in Jamaican Schools. Children are not allowed in the schools without shoes. For a country whose average weekly income is less than fifty dollars, many are unable to afford shoes. The lyrics may also be speaking about the validity of what is taught in Jamaican schools. Schools in Jamaica use outdated books and teach predominantly of white explorers as heroes and Great Britain as the light at the turn of the century that helped the Jamaican people. The history books do not speak about slavery, and do not mention where many of the children descended from, and instead the books refer to Great Britain as a savior, instead of an oppressor. Bob Marley wanted the world to know about the educational injustice that is taking place in The Jamaican school system.) (Dorsey)

Marley also attempted to educate people with his music. As noted, he did not have any respect for the Jamaican school system because of its treatment of Rasta children. This negative feeling towards the school system caused Marley to write Buffalo Soldier, after reading about the black American soldiers decorated in the late 1800s. Gary Dorsey again offers his insight into the lyrics:

Buffalo Soldier, Dreadlock Rasta There was a Buffalo Soldier
In the heart of America
Stolen from Africa, brought to America
Fighting on arrival, fighting for survival
(Buffalo Soldier is a symbol of a strong free animal, but in this context it refers to Africans who were brought to America, and forced to fight against the Native American Indians- The Native American Indians called the Black men Buffalo Soldiers because their hair was tightly woven and to them, resembled that of the curly and matted Buffalo's coat. It is ironic, that the Africans who were being oppressed, fought for the American Cavalry, who was fighting against the Native American,  another oppressed race. The Dreadlock Rasta, signifies Bob Marley and the Rastafarian movement. Today, the war of “downpression” (sic) is being fought by Rastafarians, wearing their hair long in dreadlocks. They have been fighting for their freedom for centuries. Africans were fighting for their freedom when they were in Africa. They kept resisting the best they could upon being captured in Africa- The resistance continued when they were put on ships for Jamaica and America, although the resistance was survival because of the misery on the ships. The Africans were forced from their homes, families, and forced to live a life without freedom. They continued to fight after their arrival) (Dorsey)

 

All of these convictions shaped the artist that Bob Marley became and neither Reggae music nor Jamaica itself would be the same without him.

Damian “Jr Gong” Marley was born in Kingston, Jamaica on July 21, 1978. He was the only child of an extra-marital affair between Bob Marley and Jamaica’s 1976 Miss World, Cindy Breaksphere.  Bob Marley died when Damian was only two years old.  Still, at a very early age the youngest of Bob Marley’s sons began singing in his aunt’s living room.  It soon became apparent that he would follow in his father’s footsteps when at the age of 13 he started a band called The Shepherds. Along with Damian, other members included Shiah Coore, who is the son of Third World guitarist Cat Coore, and Yashema Beth MecGregor, the daughter of Freddie McGregor and Judy Mowatt. The group mainly preformed covers of their parent’s music and in 1992, when Damian was 14 years old, they were featured at the Reggae Sunsplash and Sunfest music festivals in Jamaica. This is a prime example of how the group’s roots played a large role in its exposure.  Even as a young man Jr. Gong had tremendous stage presence and confidence which improved after every performance. The Shepherds success was short lived and the band members went their separate ways. This did not hinder Jr. Gong’s musical career in any way, and he went on tour with the 1993 Shabba Ranks World Unity Tour. Later that year with the help of his older brother, Stephan, Jr. Gong released his first single “Deejay Degree,” on his father’s record label, Tuff Gong.  This early single revolved around the “hook,”

 

Fresh new deejay wit a deejay degree,

com a chat with Jr. Gong the youngest Marley,

 

Even at this relatively young age Damian’s style and technique was unique from that of the rest of his family. He utilized “toasting” or “deejaying” which is talking or chanting, usually in a monotone melody, over a rhythm or beat. Over the next two years he would release two more singles on as many labels. In 1995 he earned a slot on the charity compilation “Positively Reggae” with the song “School Controversy.” The proceeds of the record sales benefited the Leaf of Life Foundation, a Jamaican organization that helps HIV-positive children. He was even selected as the spokesperson for the Positively Reggae campaign.  This was a high-profile position for a 17-year old and it granted him significant exposure.

            After performing with his brothers Julian and Ziggy a number of times in the mid-1990s Damian made his debut album which was released in September of 1996. The album was named “Mr. Marley” and was recorded while Damian was still in high school. Once again older brother, Stephen, produced the album along with co- writing many of the songs. Throughout Damian’s career Stephen has been an ever present influence helping him and teaching him from when he first started making records. In an interview with IFCs Henry Rollins, Damian described this relationship:

He (Stephen) is my producer, so it’s that same relationship that you’ve had from when you were just learning to do, play ball and these things. It’s that same kinda relationship that carries over into the studio where you have an older brother who is a mentor, you know dat, who is true to ya, you know what I mean, who’s really care for ya an know what you like you know what he likes, you know what I mean, so it works great that way… (Damian Marley)

 

 The album is a combination of Damian’s reggae roots along with upbeat dancehall tracks. One song, “Old War Chant,” is one example of the latter. The track’s beat is very fast and although it seems somewhat simplistic at first when you listen closer you realize that there are numerous subtle changes in the beat and it actually has a much longer progression before repeating. Jr. Gong showcased the flow of a professional keeping a constant pace throughout. Despite having the definite feel of a dancehall track, the lyrics do have something to say, comparing Jamaica to “Old Vietnam” and outlining the struggles of Jamaica and her people throughout history. The song starts:

Down in a the ghetto is like old Vietnam
Gun shot a bust with grenade and bomb
First fi survive a fi iron lion
Learn fi trod through great tribulation
Learn to survive off the plantation
Plant up potatoes wi plant up yam
Turn over soil cause food have fi nyam
Satta a mi yard a mi base a mi ranch
Mi saw mouth shotgun and mi gold sixpence
Jus yesterday a man rip off mi fence
And if mi catch him a shhhh silence

 

“First if surive a fi iron lion” is a reference to Bob Marleys “The Iron Lion Zion” which is a song directly related to the Rastafarian beliefs that Zion is the promised land, modern day Ethiopia and the “iron lion” is the Lion of Judah which represents Haile Selassie I, the former Ethiopian emperor whom Rastafarians regard as their Messiah. The “great tribulation,” is referring to hardships faced during slavery as well as the next line “learn to survive off the plantation.”  He continues speaking of new problems. Now people own homes but they still live in a world of violence, the last four lines describe him sitting in front of his house with a shotgun to protect his possessions “mi gold sixpence,” and his home, saying that if he finds the person who stole from him, “rip off mi fence,” he’ll kill him. In another verse he denounces the callousness and the violence by saying no matter how big or tough you are he will not respect you if you live like that, “everyday you get up tek on, you naw give.”  Then he gives a shout out to “Raggamuffins” which is a slang term for people who listen to Raggamuffin music, a sub-genre of dancehall music or reggae, in which the instrumentation primarily consists of electronic music. For example:

You use to brag how you kill and laugh
How you wicked and a rip out men heart
Carry dead man gwan thing of a wharf
Well I Jr. Gong a show you say you soft
Now Jr. Gong no matter how you brawd or you big
We naw show respect if you don't love how you live
Everyday you get up you tek on, you naw give
Big up Raggamuffin you respect, him solid
Back to the issue wey wi di a deal wid

 

Before long “Mr. Marley,” was gaining Damian a fair amount of publicity.  He noted,  "When we went to Hawaii in 1997, we had three songs on the charts there: "Me Name Junior Gong,' "One Cup of Coffee' and "Now You Know,' a tune from Julian's debut album."(Damian Marley1997)  This popularity earned both Damian and Julian an appearance on the 1997 travelling alternative rock festival Lollapalooza which exposed the two to a completely new group of music fans.

            This success however, turned out only to be the beginning. In 2001, Jr. Gong released “Halfway Tree” on Ghetto Youths International/Motown, which showcased not only his talent as a singer songwriter but also his versatility and his ability to put a social message across. Stephan Marley produced the album as well as singing on it, and helped Damian meld traditional reggae rhythms and more contemporary hip-hop beats. The title “Halfway Tree” comes from an intersection in Kingston which separates the city’s privileged areas from its less privileged areas. The name also refers to Damian himself, the son of an underprivileged father and an uptown mother. The title also reflects Damian's wish that all segments of society would be able relate to his music.

            “Paradise Child,” a song featuring Mr. Cheeks, an American rapper who was once a member of the Lost Boyz, is a love song that has a definite hip-hop beat. This embrace of hip-hop is something that was not seen in “Mr. Marley,” and shows a great deal of growth in Jr. Gong’s development up to this point. He still has tracks like “Educated Fools,” which are politically and socially charged and which follow in the reggae tradition his father made famous.   But it is clear he embraced his own style and sound. Damian explained in an interview on Juice TV, “…I am a fan of urban music, I love urban music, hip-hop music, that style of music, so of course I want to make the music I’m a fan of…” (Damian Marley) He also said:

I love hip-hop music, ... It's rebel music is how I like to speak about it. Hip-hop and reggae come from the same community as far as class -- they both come from the bottom of society. (Damian Marley) 

 

The album won Damian a Grammy for Best Reggae Album in 2001. However despite all the success he had seen in his career to that point, Damian remained humble. Speaking of his 2001 Grammy award he said: 

“A Grammy in reggae is good..,” but the ultimate goal for Damian and his brothers is the advancement of Reggae itself. He puts it best by saying: “We just want to uplift Reggae music. So it can reach the levels where it can be nominated as "Album of the Year" not just "Reggae Album" of the year. It's not just something one person can do but something that more than one people can contribute to. I do some of the production on the drum machine. Stephen is the head - the big brother. He's the captain of the ship and the ship always needs other sailors. We really want to uplift reggae music and bring it to front. (Damian Marley)

 

This drive and commitment, stemming from a desire to educate people about Jamaica’s plight and the promotion of reggae and Rastafarianism  to the rest of the world separates him from other main stream reggae artists today whose only goals seem to be to make money and promote violence. But despite winning the award the public at large in America was still generally unaware of  Damian's music. 

All that changed when “Welcome to Jamrock” hit stores. “Welcome to Jamrock,” was put out on the Tuff Gong/ Ghetto Youths label and hit the streets running with over 86,000 copies sold in the first week alone. The title track, “Welcome to Jamrock,” became an instant classic in clubs and on the radio in both Jamaica and America. The album itself is a hard hitting, unapologetic social commentary on the state of Jamaica and more precisely the state of Kingston. “Welcome to Jam rock,” was the product of several years of work and planning by not only Damian himself but also a number of other artists.  When asked about whether the success of the project was surprising, Jr. Gong responded:

I spent a lot of time thinking and this is the fruit of that labor. The song might be a 'success' so why be blind to that? But success can't surprise given the time put into it. (Damian Marley)

 

 As noted earlier, the album is an in-depth look at the poverty and political violence ravaging the streets of Jamaica. This depiction is in stark contrast with the beautiful beaches and exotic jungles advertised in tourism ads. Jr. Gong sings:

Welcome to Jamrock

Camp whe' te thugs dem camp at

Two pound a weed inna van back….

Some bwoy nuh know dis

Dem only come around like tourist

On the beach with a few club soda, Bedtime stories…

Di thugs dem wi' do whe' dem got to

And won't think twice to shot you

Don't mek dem spot you

Unless you carry guns alot too...

 

These lines illustrate two worlds on opposite sides of the tracks, whose only contact with each other is facilitated by the sale of drugs and where violence is a way of life. He goes on to say that the police are aware of this illegal activity but are powerless to stop it and heeds a warning to whoever makes the mistake of running their mouth or who acts “tuff” because this violence is a way of life and nothing is stopping “dem” from dropping you “like a bad habit.” 

Police come inna jeep an' dem can't stop it

Some say dem a playboy, a playboy rabbit

Get drop like a bad habit

So no bother pose tuff if you don't have it,

This is also paralleling the line,

Don't mek dem spot you

Unless you carry guns alot too,

 

This last line in particular, seems to speak to the perpetuation of violence that has become a necessity as well as a life style in a world where the strong, or rather the ones with the guns, take what they want.  The last line in the verse is, “Rastafari stands alone!” which addresses the fact that all this violence is in direct contrast to the Rastafarian way of life and that in this city of drugs and bloodshed Rastafari literally and figuratively “stands alone.”

Another song on the album is named, “Confrontation.”  This song begins with an ethopian prayer said by Haile Selassie and a strong drum beat acompanied by some violins come in which create a feeling of urgencey. The track peaches peace and all the downfalls and pointlessness of war. The chorus demonstartes Jr Gong’s utter disdain for war:     

 

See it deh know the innocent going up in vapors and

propoganda spreading inna the sunday papers

not even superman coulda save you with him cape cause

Red-a judgement a blaze, blaze, ya

and Babylon a gamble the youth dem life like racehourse

and gi dem a uniform and shave dem head with razors

and now the clock a strike war, don't be amazed cause

inna dem churches tryin to save...saviours…

 

In the first line Jr Gong is saying that innocent people who have no personal qualm or reason to fight “go up in vapor,” dissapear as if they never existed. The use of the word “propoganda” in the second line is pretty clear. Propoganga is not news, it is something that is fabricated to insight fear and hate. He goes on to say in the last few lines of the verse that the government, “babylon,” is leaving the lives of the youths to chance and the only thing anyone can do is go to church and pray. Later in the song he highlights all the sacrifices individuals have to make for war:

can't wear jheri curl...IN WAR,

no diamond and pearl...IN WAR

can't drink weh a serve...IN BAR,

gas we fuck up yuh nerves...IN WAR

 

With this song and with this album Damian Marley addressed a number of highly provocative issues in an intense and thoughtful way. After listening to “Welcome to Jamrock,” it is clear that Damian Marley is not only a talented musican but someone who will ask the questions that no one else will ask and be the voice of thoses without a voice, just like his father before him. The Jamaican Journalist Ian Boyle has hailed Jr Gong as a "cultural prophet" revitalizing the degraded and decadent contemporary dancehall scene (Boyle), and goes as far as to say, “Bob Marley has, indeed, been reincarnated.”  He puts it best when speaking of Damian Marley’s role in Jamaican culture when he says,

God knows Jamaica needed a Damian Marley. That he is part of a whole renaissance of consciousness, roots/rock reggae music is particularly delightful to people like me who have long stood against the backwardness, slackness/bling bling and gun talk lyrics of the dancehall. How refreshing to see a concert recently with only culturally conscious Rastafarians 'bunning fire' on Babylon's false values, its materialism and oppression of the poor and marginalized. (Ian Boyle)

Rather than rest on the artistic laurels and social awareness of his father, he has been able to lift the cause even higher with his own work.  He has effectively emerged from his father's shadow, not to pass him but to stand with his memory in an effort to raise awareness of Jamaica's plight and plant seeds of hope for Her future.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bibliography

 

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“Damian “Juniour Gong” Marley Lyrics.” Sing365. 29 Oct. 2009 <http://www.sing365.com/music/lyric.nsf/Damian-Junior-Gong-Marley-lyrics/C3EEB8D55D693B3648256D9C0013C4DB>

 

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“The Henry Rollins Show.” IFC.com. 28 Oct. 2009 http://www.ifc.com/videos/interview-damian-marley.php