History has shown artists emerging from the shadows of a global superstar will always have immense difficulty attempting to carve a name for themselves. Sharing the surname with arguably the most iconic artist the world has ever seen makes it harder to be anything other than "Oh, you mean [insert superstar's name] relative?" especially when two of your older siblings are Grammy Award winners.
Father Bob Marley's legacy will forever be at the forefront of the Marley name, but youngest son Damian "Jr. Gong/Gong Zilla" Marley manages to be a respected artist in his own right. Born in Kingston, Jamaica to Cindy Breakspeare, Jamaica's winner of Miss World 1976, the future legend deejay has two Grammy-award winning albums under his belt and a critically-acclaimed collaborative LP with legend hip hopper, Nas.
Despite winning Best Reggae Grammy-award in 2002 for Halfway Tree, the self-proclaimed youngest veteran burst on the international music scene telling of the harsh realities of inner-city Kingston in 2005 via “Welcome To Jamrock”. “I knew it would have a little spark, but no, I didn't know to the extent of it,” he says of the songs breakout success. Vocalled on a popular ‘80s reggae rhythm track, “World A Reggae” by Ini Kamoze, “Welcome To Jamrock” embraced a life of its own, following it's feature during the opening credits of the cult-classic Jamaican gangster movie Shottas, taking him from another Marley son doing music to international star in his own right. “I never knew it was so internationally accepted in terms of playing on radio across middle America and those certain places, but I knew it would get played in street communities like New York and London.”
Live at Glastonbury
"Welcome To Jamrock" peaked at 55 on Billboard Hot 100, entered top twenty in both R&B/Hip Hop and Rap charts, #13 in UK Singles Chart, plus listed at 270 on Pitchfork Media's "Top 500 songs of the 2000's". Rappers including Akon and G-Unit's Tony Yayo recorded remixes. Lil Kim based "Lighters Up" on "Welcome To Jamrock" conceptually and borrowed his flow.
The classic album of the same name won two Grammy awards, Best Reggae and Best Alternative, at the 2006 ceremony, receiving Gold-certification in USA despite little promotion and mainly based on the strength of one single.
Marley’s inspiration for his gritty-anthem was one-time popular ode to another hometown in form of US-rapper Ludacris’ "Welcome To Atlanta".”I was listening to the lyrics at the time and I thought ‘Understandably, I get there's a ghetto wherever it is, but a ghetto in the first world like America is different to a third world ghetto’,” he explains. “That is what I was really trying to get across and also, show that the Jamaica that is advertised to the world to attract tourists is not really the Jamaica that many who live on the island get to really experience.” The song was banned from radio airplay in Jamaica, however, that didn’t do much to halt its popularity amongst the people to whom the lyrics resonated with.
Jr. Gong himself had a well-rounded upbringing; living with Miss World 1976 mother, politician/defense attorney step-father and two siblings, attending one of Jamaica’s top schools, hanging with his father’s family vacations to socialising with less fortunate in the harsh Kingston ghetto’s. “All my needs were met; I went to a really good school, one of the best schools in Jamaica. My mother was always adamant on education. A very good upbringing in that sense,” he shares. “I have family who live in the rural part of the country, close friends who live in the ghetto,” which is something he credits his father for. “Because of who my father is, I was exposed to people from all walks of life. My step-father is into politics in Jamaica, he's one of the leading defence attorneys. I meet people from all walks of life, so very well-rounded and exposed to different cultures, people and things.”
Music and Marley’s go together like ackee & salt fish - it's just something they're great at. However, it wasn’t the sounds of revolutionary roots reggae much like his father's that inspired him to pursue music as something more than a hobby. “Pretending to be like Shabba Ranks is how I got into pursuing further,” he exclaims. “When I started going to concerts as a youth and seeing people like Shabba Ranks, Tiger and Super Cat perform live that's when I really started to get excited about music and wanting to do it also.”
Bob Marley died when Jr. Gong was a mere 2-year old, yet the legacy and words of wisdom contained in his father’s material meant father-to-son teachings were received via a pounding rhythm. “His songs are like lessons to me more than something that I just sing along to. I listen to the words and take the words seriously," as many of us can relate. “That regurgitated in my music also. And obviously, the same way he has influenced everyone doing reggae music today where he is an example for us all really.”
“His influence goes beyond just reggae artists, a lot of musicians were inspired by Bob Marley's songs and I'm not exempt.”
Gongzilla paired with heavyweight hip-hop emcee, Nas for the groundbreaking collaborative effort Distant Relatives which saw the dynamic duo tour across the world, one Nas credits for taking him to places he’d never performed prior to the project. “I'm really proud of that project. What it stands for, the inspiration behind the project and the messages behind the project is something to be proud of,” he proclaims. “It's historical for a reggae artist and hip hop artist come together to do a full project, that's all intertwined and on every song together,” something evident from the diverse crowd the pair attracted at their immensely popular shows in across the world including many places Nas had never performed - such as Belguim below.
The critically-acclaimed project produced two proud moments for Marley, behind the desk and gaining friendship with his partner-in-rhyme. “I got to become friends with someone I've been a fan of for years and that's one of the greatest things I got from the album - friendship,” he says of the Queensbridge rapper. “Otherwise than that, it was the first project where I really took up most of the production work on my own shoulders. In the past, my bigger brother Stephen [Marley] would help to finish up the tracks and make sure everything was pristine. It was a learning process to really shoulder the production."
Since then, Marley collaborated on the diverse SuperHeavy self-titled album with the group comprising of Mick Jagger, famed producer Dave Stewart, Indian composer AR Rahman, soulstress Joss Stone. Although reported in UK tabloid, The Sun, a collaboration with the now deceased singer and friend Amy Winehouse never materialised. "What I think had happened is she made some comments that she would have liked to work with us, but it never manifested."
A pressing question on the lips of many in the reggae fraternity is why Jamaican acts are yet to capitalise on reggae whilst international mainstream acts like No Doubt, Rihanna, Justin Bieber, Bruno Mars and Snoop (Dogg) Lion embrace it. Damian believes “experimenting and trying things” will help the advancement of Jamaican artists something he's recently done with electronica/dubstep producer Skrillex on "Make It Bun Dem".
Taking risks is another thing he believes in: “A lot of reggae artists wouldn't go to where they aren't welcomed in terms of only doing shows where they draw huge crowds, but don't really do shows where there's only a few people coming to the concert,” he reasons before crediting Romain Virgo and Tarrus Riley as two amongst others he feels adhere to advancing themselves.
“You have to do things like that to spread, because today you go and there's only two people, next week 8 people come and you build. That is a philosophy which has to be taken with the music, those little steps which help to seek out areas that you're not strong in, but you can work in those areas to become stronger.”
The beautiful tropical island of Jamaica gained independence from Great Britain, 6th August 1962. 50 years later the influence of their various music forms still influences mainstream consumers either directly or indirectly. Jamaican culture still produces a style, slang and persona others gravitate toward, in some cases emulating without knowledge of origin. Overall, Jamaica's presence far outweighs it's land space and minute approximate 2.5 million population. "Jamaican culture is part of our personality and our make-up. Jamaican people have a certain drive and will to win, not accept defeat. This is the kind of people that we are and the country has had a great influence on who I am today and we're proud to represent that," he boasts.
Recently involved in the heavily criticised euro-dance infused official Jamaica 50 song, "Find A Flag" he responds: "Well, there is truth to what they are saying, I mean, the track doesn't have what is a traditional Jamaican rhythm. I'm a part of it because I just wanted to be a part of the celebration of Jamaican independence and I think that's why most are. It's probably now that everyone is sort of thinking in detail about it. At first we were thinking its just music and everyone is happy to be celebrating. Now that it's coming under scrutiny, everybody is starting to analyse it or maybe overanalyse it."
The 33-year old hopes for 50 years and beyond are that Jamaicans continue to value their culture, maintain tradition as well as love and support one another instead of fighting against each other. "For the country moving forward, I was saying earlier I've read some books about what the country was like when we were getting independence 50 years ago. Everyone had pride in that. I don't think my generation understands that because we were born after independence, so I'm hoping this year restores that pride in Jamaicans that we come together as a nation instead of the crab in the barrel style of one man at a time."
Damian’s current focus is on launching the Ghetto Youth International label founded by him and brothers Stephen and Julian.
Together they aim to make stars of crew members reggae/dancehall singjay Wayne Marshall, Christopher Ellis - a British lovers reggae singer and son of rocksteady pioneer Alton Ellis - and roots reggae newcomer Black Am I whom will have their maiden show as part of the Respect Jamaica 50 concerts at the Indigo2 in London’s o2 Arena.
“Basically, the Jamaica 50th celebrations in the UK are going to be the first opportunity that we will be able to do that. We're bringing everyone out to introduce them to the UK and it will be a moment to show what we have coming for the rest of the year,” he states. "One thing that makes a show great is when the audience is as energetic as you are on stage. UK always shows out in that way, so expect that.” Street anthem "Set Up Shop" and romantic ode "Affairs of the Heart" are the current singles from the as-yet untitled highly anticipated follow up to Welcome To Jamrock Marley confirms work will begin on after the summer. "Right now we have a few more singles that we'd like to release for the summer... At the end of the summer, we'll be going into the studio to focus on my album."
Tickets for Damian Marley + Ghetto Youths International on 26th & 27th July (this Thursday and Friday) as part of Respect Jamaica 50 are on sale now. Buy tickets + more info at wwww.RespectJamaica50.co.uk
Purchase Damian Marley songs/albums on iTunes and them things there