The scion of reggae legend Bob Marley and former Miss World Cindy Breakspeare, Damian Marley (aka Junior Gong) takes his nickname from his famous dad, as well as his mission: to uphold truth and rights, and forward consciousness "in this generation triumphantly," as Bob would say.
Nowadays, the roots reggae promoted by his dad and others has become associated with an older audience, so Damian has made it his concern to speak the truth to the youth, whether in Kingston or Kansas, with a style much more attuned to dancehall and hip-hop. This summer's breakthrough smash "Welcome to Jamrock" -- which sampled Ini Kamoze's '80s dancehall hit "World-a-Music" -- resonated strongly with urban audiences, while his subsequent album of the same name (featuring guest spots by Nas, Roots emcee Black Thought, reggae mainstays Bounty Killer and Eek-a-Mouse, and Bobby Brown, who actually doesn't embarrass himself) set a sales record for the genre, only to be eclipsed one week later by fellow dancehall crossover king Sean Paul's The Trinity.
Damian sees the competition as healthy. "The music and the genre is gonna continue to grow, until it reaches where it deserves to be now, you know?" he says. "Over the years, we've had one artist at a time ... like it was either Shaggy or Sean [Paul], or before them, Shabba [Ranks], or whether it be Diana King, it was always one at a time. But now we see that there is a number of us kinda bubbling on the Billboard right now. That's great for reggae music as a genre; it helps expose our peers."
Now Damian is spreading the word as the opening act for U2, while Welcome to Jamrock continues to reel in hip-hop and even pop crowds without compromising his message or his integrity. "Music is music," he reasons, adding that he sees little difference between the various forms of black cultural expression these days. "I think as time progress too, the lines that we draw between the genres get more blurred. Because we just start borrowing from one another." As an example, he points to No Doubt, whose influences include new wave and reggae: "What would you classify that as?" By the same token, he adds, "What's the difference between a dancehall and a hip-hop record?"
Very little, judging from "Welcome to Jamrock," which was obviously both. The song's runaway success didn't surprise Damian much; he attributes its power to the relative uniqueness of its message -- which maintains that violence in the ghetto is a direct result of miseducation -- as far as mainstream pop is concerned. "Right now there is a lack of music out there with substance," he says. "It's a fresh thing in that sense, and the sound of it, it doesn't really sound like a lot of things out there, but at the same time, it sounds like something that the Now Generation is doing still."
While many other crossover reggae artists water down their messages for international audiences, Junior Gong refused to go that route. Welcome to Jamrock sets an appropriately dread tone from jump: Opening track "Confrontation" samples Rastafarian icons Haile Selassie and Marcus Garvey and features a sermonlike benediction by Rasta high priest and elder Bunny Wailer, linking the dancehall of today with the roots of past eras. "I am a reggae artist," Damian explains. "I don't really separate the both, meaning roots and dancehall. I can just say it's all a part of reggae culture. Because a lot of artists who are considered dancehall artists, if you really check their catalogue, they have roots music also, depending on what beat they're rhyming over."
Damian acknowledges that being Bob's son can be a double-edged sword, yet in his career (which earned him a reggae Grammy for 2003's Halfway Tree), he has consistently updated his father's songs. That tradition continues on Welcome to Jamrock with "Pimpa's Paradise" and "Move" (a remake of "Exodus"). He has looked often to the elder Gong's oeuvre, he says, because "most of my father's messages are more relevant now than when he first said them."
For example, he points to the proliferation of pimp-related themes in today's pop culture: "When you listen to a lot of songs, they're talking about 'Pimp this' and 'Pimp that' and 'Pimp right' and 'Pimp cup and juice.' This is a sad ting." By updating "Pimpa's Paradise" -- whose original version appeared on Bob's 1980 album Uprising -- he figured youthful listeners would gravitate toward the song first because of its title, then understand the reality of pimping on a deeper level through the lyrics, about a woman whose party-hearty ways lead to cocaine addiction, and ultimately, prostitution.
As for "Exodus," Damian feels its message is "still relevant in this day and age because of what's going on. A lot of our rights are being taken away from us ... a lot of immigration situations are getting stickier as time goes by." Even so, "People have to really take their destinies in their own hands ... get on the move with it."
That's just what Damian and his brother, Stephen, who produced Welcome to Jamrock together, have done, breaking dancehall out of the formulaic rut it's been in by using original music. This was by design, Damian says. A conscious effort was made to eschew the similar-sounding "juggling riddims" ubiquitous to numerous dancehall artists -- which is why his album sounds like an album, and not just a collection of singles using the same beats as everyone else. And though roots purists have long lamented dancehall's "slackness" as responsible for the dumbing-down of reggae, it's clear that the genre is in good hands with the Marley boys.
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