Nas, Damian Marley discuss hip-hop/reggae connection at National Geographic

TALKING HEADS: Hip-hop artist Nas, left, and reggae's Damian Marley will lead a panel on the two genres and their African roots.
TALKING HEADS: Hip-hop artist Nas, left, and reggae's Damian Marley will lead a panel on the two genres and their African roots. (Nabil Elderkin)
By Sarah Godfrey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 11, 2009

The culture and music of reggae and hip-hop have much in common -- weed, sure, but also roots: the similarities between the genres and their shared connection to Africa are explored by hip-hop icon Nas and Jamaican reggae star Damian "Jr. Gong" Marley on the forthcoming album "Distant Relatives." And in case a history lesson on the music of the African diaspora can't be fully absorbed when it's blaring out of a car stereo, "Distant Relatives" is also the subject of a documentary and a discussion panel, which take place Saturday at the National Geographic Society, on the connection between hip-hop and reggae.

"Sixty minutes of audio is not enough to express everything we want to express," Marley says. Nas gives another reason for doing the documentary and the discussion: "A lot of people won't understand why the hell Nas is doing an album with Damian Marley, or why the hell Damian Marley is doing an album with Nas, so they'll get to look at us, hear us explain it," he says.

After the legendary rapper and the renowned reggae artist (the son of reggae great Bob Marley) collaborated on "Road to Zion," a track on Marley's 2005 Grammy-winning album "Welcome to Jamrock," they decided to team up on an EP, which grew into an album. Marley, who produces all but one of the tracks on the new album, worked with the sounds of sub-Saharan Africa -- the music draws influence from everything from soukous to Afrobeat. From there, the album's larger focus emerged.

"We have a common interest in Africa, but it wasn't like we came into it with that in mind," Nas says. "But once we started working on the music, it kinda took on that form."

In "Distant Relatives," the artists top Marley's music with everything from political commentary on Africa ("Africa Must Wake Up") to fiery verbal sparring ("As We Enter"). That the fusion works is not only a testament to the men's skill, but evidence of reggae and hip-hop's sonic and social commonalities.

"Reggae and hip-hop, those are the two soundtracks for young people around the world," says Rob Kenner, reggae writer for VIBE and organizer of Saturday's panel discussion (the event is sold out, but will be streamed live beginning at 7 p.m. at "Although people segregate them, they're very closely connected -- and they're both distant relatives of Africa." Kenner adds that although reggae and hip-hop artists frequently work together -- a remix here, a guest verse there -- "Distant Relatives" is the first significant, album-length collaboration.

Hip-hop journalist Jeff Chang outlines the intertwined histories of hip-hop and reggae in his book "Can't Stop Won't Stop," which covers everything from the influence of American radio on Jamaican music in the '40s and '50s to the emergence of hip-hop that began with Jamaican-born DJ Kool Herc in the early 1970s. Chang believes that for hip-hop and reggae artists to explore their ties to Africa is a natural progression. "Here are two artists interested in pushing the edge to really take it out there," Chang says of "Distant Relatives." "With artists like K'Naan and M.I.A., there's a global context now -- in order for all art forms to move forward, you have to have someone like Nas or Damian Marley to step up and push the edge."

Saturday's discussion will attempt to cover just as much ground as the "Distant Relatives" album itself -- not only the hip-hop/reggae connection, but the link to Africa. The panel includes Daddy U-Roy and King Jammy, who are often credited as early architects of sounds that would come to define hip-hop, along with Senegalese rapper Waterflow. "We bring the whole circle back," Kenner says of the panel. "The inspiration flows from Africa, from the use of drums to communicate and tell stories as griots would, then it comes to Jamaica and becomes sound systems, then moves to America and becomes hip-hop, and then it moves back to Africa."

Marley says that although he and Nas are the voices of "Distant Relatives," the goal was always to use the project as a way to spark discussion. "When it comes down to the hip-hop/reggae thing, we want to hear from other artists and pioneers," he says. "And when it comes to the Africa part we want to hear from African artists from the ground -- ground zero."

Godfrey is a freelance writer.

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