LET'S JUST SAY the Jamaica Tourist Board and Ministry of Industry and Tourism probably aren't too happy with Damian Marley's "Welcome to Jamrock," one of this summer's hot singles, probably nowhere hotter than under those folks' collars.
The board's motto, "Jamaica: One Love," references father Bob Marley's classic brotherhood anthem, promising "sweet fragrances, shimmering sunsets, spicy flavors." And tourism is Jamaica's most important industry, accounting for about half the island's foreign exchange earnings and employing more than 40,000 people.
But "Welcome to Jamrock" -- Jamrock is slang for Jamaica -- paints a very different picture, one of harsh ghetto living, violence and political corruption. It suggests well-to-do islanders " 'dem only come around like tourist on the beach with a few club sodas / Bedtime stories an' pose like 'dem name Chuck Norris," while poor Jamaican youths are killing one another a few miles away in Trenchtown. Between the haunting vocal chorus "out on the street, they call it murder" (from Ini Kamoze's 1984 hit, "World A Music"), Bob Marley's youngest son warns, "The thugs dem do what dem got to / And won't think twice to shoot you / Don't make them spot you / Unless you carry guns a lot, too."
The politically charged dancehall track certainly conflicts with the sanitized "island paradise" image marketed abroad, so it probably didn't help when it bowed at No. 7 in Billboard, the highest debut for a reggae single since SoundScan started collating data in 1991. Or that its popular video has Damian Marley touring Trenchtown, the Kingston ghetto that bred Bob Marley. Wearing an iconic Bob Marley T-shirt and sporting long, flowing dreadlocks, Damian Marley moves through mean streets piled with trash and jammed with people, some living in cardboard boxes, eating out of garbage bins.
The song and the video's unflinching portrayal of poverty and violence proved "too real" for some Jamaicans, Marley says. He says he has had no official comment from the government, "though they might have certain feelings towards it. Mostly it's people writing to newspapers in Jamaica; they protest against the topic of the song."
"Truth can't be denied right now," Marley said recently when he came to Washington to open a pair of U2 concerts at MCI Center. (He's back in town Thursday at the 9:30 club.) Some critics, he says, "wrote saying that my father's theme for the island was 'One Love' and mine is 'Jamrock,' and they're speaking about how the two songs contrast. But really, 'One Love' is not the whole story. What about 'Crazy Violence'? What about 'Burning and Looting'? What about 'Ambush in the Night'? Those are titles of my father's songs that is not 'One Love.' My father had all sorts of different topics, and more songs of revolution than of one love."
Released in September, the "Welcome to Jamrock" album debuted at No. 6; surprisingly, that's better than his father's highest debut (No. 8 for 1976's "Rastaman Vibration"). It has more politically charged tracks besides the title cut: "Confrontation," the ominous opener, finds Marley in raging prophet mode (with help from Bob's longtime partner, Bunny Wailer) as he sings, "Any day, revolution might erupt / And the skies over Kingston lighten up." When the album was launched at Kingston's Bob Marley Museum, Damian told the Jamaica Observer, "We're taking the baton from the elders who made rebel music -- we're new leaders of the old school."
But the album also includes the new jack swing-flavored "All Night" with a beat suggestive of a nonrelated Marley (producer Marley Marl) and "Beautiful," in which Damian and guest Bobby Brown name-check both Bob Marley and dancehall lover man Super Cat. Damian's slightly abrasive voice doesn't have much in common with his father's honeyed coo, something further emphasized on "Pimpa's Paradise," a portrait of a young girl who descends to prostitution through drug addiction; it features the Roots' Black Thought and brother Stephen Marley, whose own raspy elegance is far more reminiscent of their father.
Damian does conjure Bob a bit on "We're Gonna Make It," but he's more apt to reference Bob's music, as he does on "Move!" That song samples the classic "Exodus," with Bob's voice giving way to Damian's dizzying double-speed dancehall lyrics. Stephen Marley has produced Damian's music since the late '90s, combining roots reggae and dancehall with the beats of hip-hop. That mix makes sense because Damian was always more influenced by dancehall's stripped-down rhythms and delivery than by traditional roots reggae.
According to Marley, "The reason I started doing my style, really, was growing up listening to dancehall and just a love of that, going to concerts as a little kid and watching people like Shabba Ranks, Ninjaman and Super Cat, guys who in Jamaica were my favorites. That is really what got me into this style of music."
Of course, when your name is Marley, there is an unavoidable sense of legacy, particularly when your full name is Damian Robert Nesta Marley and your father dubs you "Junior Gong." At 27, Damian is the youngest of seven Marley sons (among Bob's nine "official" children). His mother is Cindy Breakspeare, Miss World in 1977. Damian -- their only child together -- was born the following year and was 2 when Bob Marley died of cancer in 1981.
Damian and his mother were well provided for in Bob's will (Breakspeare later married a prominent Jamaican politician), and Damian attended elite schools, usually spending holidays with the extended Marley family. In his early teens, he teamed up with Shiah Coore, son of Third World guitarist Cat Coore and Yashema Beth McGregor, daughter of singers Judy Mowatt and Freddie McGregor, as the Shepherds. "We did no recordings," Marley says, describing the group's repertoire as "covers like Phil Collins's 'Another Day in Paradise,' one or two dancehall songs, a Bob Marley song, Third World."
By then, Bob and Rita Marley's children Ziggy, Stephen, Sharon and Cedella had the Melody Makers together for a decade; Damian joined the younger brothers Rohan, Julian and Stephen under the umbrella of Ghetto Youths International and began work on his first solo album in 1996 while in high school. The cover of "Mr. Marley" was a picture of Bob Marley holding his infant, and the album's title track anticipated every Marley son's inevitably being asked about living in the shadow of their famous father: "It's all about Mr. Marley, them know your name / Ragga muffin in the Hall of Fame."
In fact, Bob's spirit and music are ever-present, Marley says, in covers of their father's songs and a posthumous duet with Bob on "Kinky Reggae" for 1999's "Chant Down Babylon" remix album.
"We have no fear with using our father's music," Damian says. "We're big fans of our father, obviously and naturally. We're very much his children and part of his legacy."
But, he adds, "a lot of my musical influence is not just my family. Since birth, I've been in the environment and have had the opportunity to get involved in it, and that's had a lot to do with it, being part of the legacy still, but really it's just a natural love of music."
"Mr. Marley" marked the beginning of Damian's working relationship with Stephen, and both he and brother Ky-mani have been touring with Damian. The brothers are as close-knit at home as on the road, Damian says.
"We very much live together and move together on a day-to-day basis, so when doing music, it's just another activity you do together," Damian explains. "We have studios in our homes, so it's not like we have to say, 'Okay, let's organize and go to the studio.' It's us moving from one room of the house to another. We've always done that and except for my first project, Steve's always been my producer, and he's really been one of my musical mentors."
In 2002, the Stephen Marley-produced "Halfway Tree," won a Grammy for best reggae album, beating Ky-mani's "Many More Roads." "Halfway Tree" took its name from the busy street that, depending on your viewpoint, either divides or bridges Kingston's downtown and uptown, its privileged and its poor. It was also a good reference point for Marley -- whose black father had ghetto roots while his white mother came from a well-to-do family. Even before "Welcome to Jamrock," some Jamaicans criticized Damian Marley as an example of "uptown browning," suggesting he was in no position to preach street authenticity.
"Yeah, yeah, yeah," Marley responds exasperatedly. "It's something more for people to write about, but it doesn't really bother me. People come from all different classes. I have friends and family who come from uptown and some who come from the ghetto, and we don't deny that. The way I see it right now, I was raised uptown but my eyes can be open to all these things that I'm speaking about, and so should other uptowners. Uptowners are the ones who are really in a position to help. If someone could help themselves, they would, so it's obvious a lot of people can't help themselves."
DAMIAN MARLEY -- Appearing Thursday at the 9:30 club.