The Marley Family Legacy

From left to right: Ky-mani, Julian, Ziggy, Damian and Stephen Marley.

“Be fruitful and multiply; a nation and a company of nations shall be of thee, and kings shall come out of thy loins.” Genesis Chapter 35, Verse 11.

Thanks to a trio of groundbreaking albums – Halfway Tree, Welcome To Jamrock and now Distant Relatives, shared with Nas – it’s Bob Marley’s youngest son Damian who provides the face and sound of reggae music for a younger generation. The artist also known as “Junior Gong” is one of the world’s most important musical voices, except it hasn’t always been that way. Twenty years ago, older brother Ziggy was being hailed as successor to his father’s crown, and it was his music playing on the Billboard charts.

This shift in the family’s fortunes has kept the Marley name in the spotlight ever since that fateful day in May 1981, when “the Gong” was laid to rest in his native St. Ann’s. His legendary status is now unassailable, and following him remains an unenviable task for any would-be reggae star, and not least those bearing his name. To be fair, those of his sons taking up the baton have worked hard in trying to assert their own personalities, and keeping their brand of reggae sounding fresh and modern. Despite this, people have been quick to criticise them – mainly because of envy, and the fact they haven’t paid much attention to local goings-on, but looked further afield. They are plenty of commentators then, who’ll draw attention to the fact that their name gives them an unfair advantage and they all receive generous monthly allowances – this in addition to what they earn individually by touring and recording. It’s also a concern to some that they’re worth considerably more than the musicians who actually earned them all that money in the first place – i.e. the Wailers. Others will point out that despite such privileges, they still needed to deliver the goods, which is what Damian, Stephen, Ky-mani, Julian and Ziggy have more or less continued to do over the years, or at least since the younger Marleys came into their own, during the mid-to-late nineties.

Rita gave birth to Ziggy, real name David, in 1968, during a time when the Wailers were struggling to survive. Bunny Livingstone was in jail on ganja charges, and Bob and Peter had signed to Johnny Nash and Danny Sims’ label as songwriters – an arrangement that led to songs like Guava Jelly and Stir It Up getting international attention, even before they signed to Island. Bob and Rita already had two daughters by then. The oldest, Sharon, wasn’t Bob’s child but he treated her as his own, whilst Cedella – known affectionately as “Nice Time” – was born a year before Ziggy. Rita had to combine singing with nursing, and they weren’t all that better off when they had Stephen four years later, in 1972. Bob was closest to these four children than any of the others he’ll have outside of his marriage to Rita. They saw him at work on stage and in the studio, and witnessed firsthand how he wrote and recorded his music, and handled his business affairs. They are the primary keepers of the Marley flame and took the first steps in making music of their own after Bob wrote them a song called Children Playing in The Streets, which Tuff Gong released on 45 just a year or so before the Melody Makers, as they were then known, sang it at his funeral.

Their first album, Play The Game Right, was released in 1985, when Ziggy was just seventeen. EMI had signed them around the time of the Legend tour, headlined by the I Threes and Wailers. Yet it was the youthful quartet with the bright, poppy songs and dance routines that caught the eye. Stephen even flashed a little dancehall style on Unuh Listen Yet, but it was songs like Reggae Is Now that pointed the way forward. Hey World followed a year later, in 1986. The group was now billed as Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers since he was the undoubted focal point. It was Ziggy who wrote the majority of their songs, and sang lead vocals. He also kept the group together, and helped arrange the girls’ harmonies. Ultimately, the Melody Makers’ pop sensibilities will lose them support from reggae audiences except they still managed to retain a roots element on each of their albums, as songs like 666 or Police Brutality from Hey World would clearly demonstrate.

Their breakthrough will arrive with Conscious Party, produced by the Talking Heads’ Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth. By now, the Melody Makers had signed to Virgin, who helped steer Tomorrow’s People into the Top 30 on both sides of the Atlantic. This was in early 1988, when the likes of Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, Prince, Cher and Kylie Minogue ruled the airwaves. Fellow reggae chart acts included Maxi Priest, UB40 and Aswad, who also had to water down their sound in order to attain crossover success. Conscious Party and the Melody Makers’ follow-up album, One Bright Day, both won Reggae Grammy Awards as the eighties drew to a close. By this time Cedella had embarked on an acting career (after appearing in Mighty Quinn, starring Denzil Washington), and Ziggy was viewed as a major star, at least in mainstream circles – reggae audiences being too caught up in the battles between Shabba and Ninjaman, or Steely & Clevie’s futuristic ragga innovations to really notice.

The Marley family’s reputation would diminish throughout the nineties, despite the Melody Makers making music of increasing maturity (on Jahmekya and Joy And Blues respectively) and the emergence of various “outside” siblings. Such lack of regard was probably linked to Rita’s handling of Marley’s Estate after she was accused of fraud, had attempted to freeze out the other mothers and sidelined the Wailers. Her four children switched to Elektra for their 1995 album Free Like We Want 2 B. Stephen was noticeably growing in confidence, and now sharing vocal and writing duties alongside Ziggy as the band charted a course between reggae, hip hop, pop and dance music. Cedella was duly installed as A & R at Tuff Gong, where she’ll balance stewardship of newcomers like Yvad with further acting roles. Yet there’ll be little to shout about from Tuff Gong, despite the rest of Jamaica reeling from a next generation of roots messengers led by the likes of Garnet Silk, Luciano and Sizzla. A new crop of Marleys will emerge however. 1996 marked the arrival of Julian (with Lion In The Morning), who’d been born during the triumphant Natty Dread tour of 1975; Damian (with Mr. Marley), whose mother was former Miss World Cindy Breakspeare, and Ky-mani – the son of Jamaican table tennis champion Anita Belnavis, who made his debut with an album of Marley covers called Like Father Like Son. Another brother, Rohan, played professional football in Canada but it was Ziggy and the Melody Makers who scooped up most accolades after winning a third Grammy for their 1997 album, Fallen From Babylon – a progressive-minded set featuring guest slots by Wyclef and Damian, as well as a dancehall-inspired cover of People Get Ready. At their best – and it’s easier to see such things with hindsight – the Melody Makers made uplifting reggae music fit for a young, international audience and which continued to reflect their Jamaican roots, even if it did suffer from over-production at times. They were a band of their time, and the level of success they experienced throughout the late eighties and well into the nineties really shouldn’t be overlooked.

By the end of that decade, their run was virtually over. Ziggy was now a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations and the whole family involved with charitable schemes, either in Jamaica (where they initiated various food programmes) or places like Africa. Ziggy’s 1999 album The Spirit Of Music found him returning to basics and recording in a style – both lyrically and musically – that was remarkably free of artifice or compromise. It was at this point that the Marley brothers began to reinvent themselves and through the auspices of their own Ghetto Youths Unite label, draw closer to the local grassroots’ scene than ever before. Although not without first flinging the doors of the family treasure chest wide open to an impressive line-up of American rap, r & b and rock artists.

Chant Down Babylon had its critics, mainly from purists who objected to the Marleys taking their father’s master tapes, stripping off the vocals and placing them on reggae/hip hop grooves, where the likes of Erykah Badu, Guru from Gang Starr, Rakim, Busta Rhymes, Chuck D, the Roots and Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler and Joe Perry awaited them. Not every track worked, but when they did – as on No More Trouble, Rastaman Chant, Guiltiness and the Marley Brothers’ own Kinky Reggae – the results blew most other such collaborations out the water. Here was an album that broke new ground; was funky as hell, repackaged their father’s music for a younger audience and spawned a sizable hit in the shape of Turn Your Lights Down Low co-starring Lauryn Hill, who just happened to be Rohan’s new girlfriend (and has subsequently had five children with him.) Released hot on the heels of a dancehall explosion that found Beenie Man and Mr. Vegas racing up the UK charts, Chant Down Babylon was both artistic triumph and a fabulous public relations exercise for the Marley clan, who wasted no time hosting a show in Jamaica featuring themselves and a majority of the album’s co-stars, plus Tracy Chapman and Queen Latifah.

One family member noticeable by his absence was Ky-mani, whose open letter to his father, Dear Dad, is still the most moving tribute to Bob Marley ever recorded. His next two albums, The Journey and Many More Roads, will establish him as a worthy addition to the clan, despite the kind of differences outlined in his recent book, Dear Dad. Alone among his brothers and sisters, Ky-mani had a ghetto upbringing – a handicap that’s lent his music undeniable strength at times. Many More Roads earned him popularity in reggae dances but it was Damian’s Grammy winning Halfway Tree that ripped up the formbook and revealed the real gem nestled in the family’s midst. Unlike his other brothers, Damian didn’t try to sound like his father, or use the same vocal inflections (something that Stephen, in particular, does repeatedly.) He’s best described as a sing-jay, since his delivery is a melodic blend of rapping and singing that’s found favour with people from far outside of reggae or hip hop’s usual boundaries. It Was Written, co-starring Capleton, Still Searchin’ (with Yami Bolo), Educated Fools (with Treach, Bounty Killer and Bunny Wailer) were among the highlights but Halfway Tree remains a seminal album, and is best heard in its entirety in any case. With its mix of different styles – from roots and reality to love songs and ghetto poetry – it will serve as the blueprint for his biggest-selling solo album to date, 2005’s all-conquering Welcome To Jamrock.

By the time that was released, Ky-mani had starred in three films – Shottas, One Love (with Cherine Anderson) and Haven – as well as gracing albums by Young Buck and Ms Dynamite. His 2007 album Radio will draw heavily upon hip hop influences, even as he toured with Van Halen and starred in a BET series called Living The Life Of Marley. Julian too, stepped up and made his mark with A Time & Place, which he’d heralded with a serious roots tune called System. His follow-up album, Awake, has its moments, yet he lacks Damian and Ky-mani’s charisma, and also the kind of stature granted to those belonging to the family’s inner sanctum, as enjoyed by Rita’s offspring. Ziggy is now at something of a crossroads. Whilst his younger brothers courted hip hop celebrities or remained mindful of what urban radio might play, he pursued another direction entirely by recording material that’s closer to folk and rock than reggae on the albums Dragonfly and Love Is My Religion. Since then he’s ran the risk of appearing desperate by lending his name to old school reggae compilations and releasing the somewhat embarrassing children’s album, Family Time. Now based in Los Angeles, Ziggy is reportedly estranged from certain family members after expressing his disapproval of how the Estate is administered. His albums aren’t selling in great quantities and yet he remains a mesmerising performer on a good night. Importantly, his commitment to various charities – especially those aiding children – is unquestionable, but he’s left us wondering whether he still has the hunger and determination to make great records.

As we enter the twenty-teens, it is Stephen and Damian who lead the Marley pack. We discuss Damian’s contributions at length in another article, but Stephen, like Ziggy, remains an enigma. He’s certainly popular among Stateside artists, after having lent Bob-like vocals to tracks by the Fugees (No Woman No Cry), Michael Franti, Krayzie Bone, Erykah Badu, Dead Prez, Eve and Mr. Cheeks, to name but a few. He’s clearly a gifted producer too, since it was he who oversaw the Chant Down Babylon project and also Damian’s albums, as well a various artists’ compilation called Educated Fools. But whilst his vocal and production skills remain in demand, Stephen’s own solo efforts have fallen by the wayside. Got Music was quickly withdrawn by Universal, whilst 2007’s Mind Control received a mixed response from reviewers and record buyers alike, despite featuring the likes of Mos Def, Mr. Cheeks, Ben Harper and brothers Julian and Damian. The latter is outstanding on former single The Traffic Jam, and Mind Control did finally win a Grammy after appearing in acoustic guise and yet it still can’t be described as an unqualified success, or an especially convincing one.

At least he’s not trying to capitalise on the family name by selling coffee (Rohan), clothes (Cedella and Rohan) or burgers (Rita, at a theme park in Orlando), but make the best music he can and take reggae in another direction – to widen its appeal, and enable it to reach as many new fans as possible. This, essentially, lies at the heart of the Marley brothers’ contributions because whilst honouring the roots of their music, they’ve never ceased trying to move it forward, just as their father did when experimenting with primitive drum machines back in 1974, or fusing reggae with soul and disco on tracks like Could You Be Loved. And no matter how we assess their individual worth (because even Damian will struggle to attain such iconic status), it’s a miracle that one man should produce so many talented children – and especially bearing in mind he died long before such qualities had time to develop.

John Masouri

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About johnmasouri
John Masouri is a long-time author and music journalist specialising in reggae and its many off-shoots including dub, ska, roots and dancehall. The author of Wailing Blues: The Story of Bob Marley's Wailers, published by Omnibus Press in 2008, he is currently working on a biography of reggae singer Peter Tosh, due to appear next year. In addition to book projects, he continues to write articles and reviews for Reggae Vibes (France), Riddim (Germany) and Echoes - formerly Black Echoes - which is renowned as Britain's No. 1 black music monthly. His work has also appeared in Mojo, Music Week, the Guardian, the Observer and the NME, as well as magazines in the US, Caribbean and Japan.

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