His is an angular Jamaican face, framed by chestnut brown dreadlocks, forever young, frozen in fame’s spotlight, shrouded in ganja smoke and nostalgia. His shy smile is sincere, but his eyes are shot through with Rastafari prophecy and pain.
No matter where you see it, Bob Marley’s face is the world’s best-known symbol of Jamaican ganja, and reggae music.
Earlier this year, backstage at a concert hall in Virginia, I thought I was seeing Bob Marley reincarnated.
Performing a few feet away, flashing in a maelstrom of strobe lights, a young man leapt and spun, his dangling dreadlocks whirling as he sang and rapped.
Had I not known that Bob Marley died on May 11, 1981, I would’ve thought I was caught in a time warp, seeing Bob in his prime ? a world icon, a minstrel vessel of Jah, an Irie prophet.
Yet, the onstage vision in front of me was not a ghost or hallucination. Instead, it was an embodiment of the deceased man’s spirit and physique, in the form of his youngest son, 23-year-old Damian Marley.
Young Marley was barnstorming through a powerful, eclectic set of songs from his Grammy-winning 2001 recording, which is titled Halfway Tree.
The title refers to a specific crossroads in Kingston, Jamaica, a lively junction where ghetto poor and moneyed elites mingle in tropical sun and refreshing shade.
Some of Damian’s songs have direct musical and lyrical links to his father’s work. I closed my eyes in sad prayer while he was performing the song Catch a Fire, which included eerie, note-perfect segments from Bob Marley’s classic Slave Driver.
When I spoke to Damian after the concert, I paid my dues to him and his dad by pressing phat buds of sticky Marley’s Collie weed into his hands. His eyes lit up as he brought the ganja gems to his nose and inhaled the scintillating sinsemilla scent.
“Respect,” he murmured, clutching the Kind herb.
Later, Damian admitted that people often tell him they see him as his father.
“I feel Bob in me every day, every hour, every second,” he explained, in a lyrical patois that was frequently punctuated by the phrase “Know what I mean?”
“His blood runs through me,” Damian said. “His heart beats in me.”
Halfway Tree won a Grammy award in the “reggae” category, but Damian Marley’s recording feat contains a lot more than reggae, and it reflects the tumultuous political and personal terrain he navigates as the son of an icon and of Jamaica, and as a member of one of the world’s most famous musical families.
Bob Marley believed in free love as much as he believed in free ganja; he fathered at least a dozen children before he died at age 36. Damian is a product of his father’s relationship with a “light-skinned, uptown” woman, Cindy Breakspeare.
Damian was just a toddler when his father died, but he speaks poetically on Halfway Tree and in person about his childhood. He jokingly says that some people call him “the youngest veteran” because he began performing with roots reggae groups and as a deejay when he was barely a teenager.
“The life we had was all family and community,” he recalls. “My father would play football [soccer]and feed the poor at his house all day and night; it be a center for healing and musical jamming. They had much laughter but they work hard to help Jamaica.”
Damian and I discussed how his father’s Rastafari roots have been sanitized by corporate media, which avoid playing Marley’s political songs in favor of more personal songs like Could You Be Loved.
Describing his father as “first a Rastafari with a message of righteousness, rather than only being a musician, ya know,” the younger Marley says that the early Jamaican reggae scene was “caught up into the street and what was happening to the country.”
Reggae legends Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer and Bob Marley were pot-inspired pioneers who combined public protest with musical innovation. While Jamaica simmered in the 1970’s with election-related violence and oppressive ganja laws, Tosh, Marley and other reggae stars risked their lives singing about marijuana and Rastafarian uprising.
Would-be assassins shot Marley, his manager and his wife in 1976, and Marley mysteriously became ill shortly thereafter with melanoma, which killed him five years later. Peter Tosh became increasingly radical in his music and political persona; he was gunned down in 1987, as were other reggae stars who had dared to become Third World cultural spokespersons.
Today, Jamaican performers like Luciano, Bushman, Bounty Killah, and the Marleys continue to use music as a form of protest.
Damian’s brother Ziggy has won three reggae Grammies. Brothers Stephen, Julian and Ziggy nurtured Damian’s career, and were instrumental in helping him create Halfway Tree’s haunting mix of reggae, hip-hop, acid jazz, rap, evangelism, and roots music.
“Ya want to sell records and give positive feelings to the people so they can move their body, but ya also have a message of righteousness that talks about what the politicians are doing to ya, and how ya should be dealing with it and with your family and friends,” Damian explains. “Ya want to lift people to connect with the most high, and this goes into who be powerful in the world and who is held down, and how to fight Babylon.”
Halfway Tree is notable for its musical adventurism and its lyrical content. Instead of the gangsta sex, drugs, and violence attitude that often permeates albums by young black artists in the US, Damian’s recording is anchored by soul-searching, depth, and maturity.
You can dance to Halfway Tree’s infectious grooves and lose yourself in its sinewy singing and mind-bending multi-layered soundscape, but its lyrics are a revelation of revolution, decrying “educated demons” and “political liars,” and warning that Rastafari warriors will rise up to “mash down” greedy oppressors.
“We have a loving message, but it is tough love,” Damian emphasized. “The truth is not meant to be an offense, but we must talk about sin because it hurting this world. It be sin in the bankers, the police, the politicians, all who hold down the people. In reggae music, we talk about fire, as in cleansing and purification. The music is a revolutionary weapon, like if you use a needle to remove a splinter, you have to put it in the fire to purify it. Then you have to feel pain before you remove the splinter. We trying to help the fire by lighting it in the minds of the people.”
Marley’s album also lights a fire that creates sweet ganja smoke. Halfway Tree contains numerous references to marijuana, such as “big skunky blunt a blaze,” and Marley is one of few famous musicians willing to openly sing the praises of Jamaica’s favorite plant.
“Ganja is one of the attractions of Jamaica. Sure, there are beaches, rivers, and reggae,” he explains, “but herb is a strong instrument in Jamaica and in Rastafari culture. Rastas use it to bake cakes, to make teas and medicines ? it is for the healing of the nations. A lot of people benefit from it being illegal, so for us, herb is part of the revolution. Our music is against the Babylon world system that tries to fight down the herb.”
When our time together was nearing its end, I asked Damian about his music’s controversial political message, and about rumors that his father’s death, and the death of other Third World cultural leaders, might have been engineered by the CIA and other dark forces.
“I not be afraid of whatever they do to me, it is in the hands of the Most High,” he said. “Over the years, the system always try to get rid of black leaders who speak truth and righteousness, but we always triumphant in the end. Rastas don’t see death the same way other people do. We see life as spiritual thing; we see spirit inside that lives on. So whatever happen to my father, whoever did whatever to hurt him, his love is with us, he is still alive.”