Forty years after his death, the bounty of Bob Marley’s “tree” — his children and grandchildren — continues to bear musical fruit that would make their father proud.
Stephen Marley, the second son of Bob and Rita Marley, is carving out a legacy that has seen him expand the reggae genre with his richly textured productions, versatility as an multi-instrumentalist, his skill, vision and originality as a producer and through collaborations with artists such as Rakim, Black Thought, Shaggy, Dead Prez, Wyclef Jean, Pitbull, and brother Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley.
On Thursday, March 12, Marley and his daughter Mystic, will be performing at Howard Theatre in D.C. in an evening dubbed “Stephen Marley Acoustic Soul 2020 Tour — UNPLUGGED.”
Marley, an eight-time Grammy winner, said during a telephone interview he enjoys the acoustic sound, the intimacy it creates and its effect on his fans. This is the second year he and Mystic have taken acoustic soul on the road, he said.
“Yes, it definitely has caused a different reaction from the fans,” said Marley, who in 1993 founded Ghetto Youths International with his brother Ziggy as a means of controlling their own music and helping upcoming artists. “It touches people in a soulful, intimate way. It’s been going on so well that we’re on a next acoustic tour. If the response was lukewarm, we probably wouldn’t be doing it. But the fans really like it.”
Marley said the stripped-down, unplugged nature of the music is reflected in the musicians who will accompany him, including a flutist, a guitarist and “a likkle yute playing keyboard.”
Marley’s pride in his daughter emanated through the telephone.
“As a father, it’s a very proud moment to see her maturity,” he said. “One time, she liked ballet but she has a natural voice. She didn’t have to try hard. The music is in her blood. She has a soulful and naturally beautiful voice, has a very strong personality and is very commanding.”
Marley, 47, said he draws on an array of musical influences, people and music.
“I have a lot of respect for music and for our elders,” he said. “I still say the ’70s and ’80s was the best era because of the production and value of music. That’s why ’70s music is so popular and so many musicians and performers today are still trying to emulate that.”
His father has a special place in the hearts of many Jamaicans. While Bob Marley is remembered for being the first Jamaican reggae artist, who along with the Wailers attained superstardom, he was and is viewed in his homeland as mythic, viewed in mystical proportions and his roles of prophet, poet and musical shaman gave him a power that is the envy of many a politician.
Bob Marley and the Wailers propelled reggae to global prominence, but while he could attract a crowd of 100,000 in Milan, he was unable to make a dent in the American market during his lifetime.
In several interviews and in Timothy White’s acclaimed book, “Catch a Fire,” Marley expressed his consternation at playing to all-white audiences in the US. He could never understand why white Americans would pay to hear his music and Black Americans would not, especially given an African-centered message that should have resonated with a Black audience.
Since Marley’s death in 1981, however, reggae music has been embraced by African Americans with a vengeance. The blends of hip hop, soul, R&B, dancehall and conscious reggae can be heard crashing out of car speakers, in commercials, on radio stations and television. The proverbial orphan has become the staple of a mélange of popular music and commercial genres.
Stephen Marley has been instrumental in that effort. He said now is a different time from when his father sat atop the reggae firmament, but he works with a singular purpose to spread the music and find new ways and vehicles to move the music forward.
“It’s different now but at the same time we still have to work on it as far as attracting and including Americans and Black Americans,” he said. “We can’t step past doing the work.”
As he views the reggae landscape, Marley said, musicians, others in the reggae music business and Jamaicans generally, need to cherish and grasp its impact and influence and appreciate all it has to offer.
“There’s great, good things happening and lots of good young singers. But there are certain things I see that I don’t like, like some of the things I see what’s going on with dancehall,” he said. “Our culture is a Rootical culture. We can’t lose that cultural aspect. Could we lose it? Anything is possible if we neglect and not cherish what we have. If I and I have anything to say, we naah guh mek dat happen!”
According to his biography, Marley began his career as a precocious 6-year-old singing, dancing and playing percussion with his siblings in the group The Melody Makers whose first single “Children Playing in The Streets” was produced by their father in 1979 and released on Tuff Gong, the label founded by Bob in the late ’60s. While still a teenager, he assisted in the production of The Melody Makers’ albums including their three Grammy winners “Conscious Party” (Virgin Records, 1989) “One Bright Day” (Virgin Records, 1990) and “Fallen Is Babylon” (Elektra Entertainment, 1998).
He won the Grammy Award three times as a solo artist, twice as a producer of younger brother Damian Marley’s “Halfway Tree” and “Welcome to Jamrock” albums, and three more times as a member of Ziggy Marley & The Melody Makers.
Despite a mantle full of Grammys, international recognition and critical acclaim, Marley said his drive to excel hasn’t diminished.
“Where I live, there’s a studio in my house,” he said. “Every morning I get up, walk into my studio and play the music from the day before then I start my day. Creativity is a beautiful thing. Music is an exciting thing to me. The music is still strong. I man have a legacy, come from a family of great purpose through music. I kinda free people with music.”
There is little doubt that Bob Marley — who would be 75 this year — is still the yardstick by which all reggae artists are measured. On the strength of Bob’s charisma, lyrics and energy, reggae hop-scotched from Kingston’s steamy, noisome ghettos to London, Nairobi, Havana, the Philippines and the world. One illustration of this Third World superstar’s enduring appeal is the more than 300,000 people who gathered in countries and cities around the world, including Kingston, Addis Ababa and Israel to celebrate his 60th birthday in 2005.
The MARLEY75 celebrations will be reflected in music, fashion, art, photography, technology, sport and film. Fans will get “unprecedented access” to archives from the legendary artist’s estate in what a press release describes as “new, thoughtful and innovative ways.” And new content is set to be released over the course of the year.
Bob remains the embodiment of roots, rock and reggae. He sang with a haunting conviction what he lived — the hunger, pain and anguish of the ghetto dweller. He became the voice of the dispossessed while vocalizing reggae’s redemptive qualities with a spiritual and emotional pull that was at once hypnotic, ecstatic and joyful.
In bustling cities as well as in remote communities globally, Marley’s infectious, ebullient music seems to be everywhere. Meanwhile, the Marley brand, in the form of T-shirts, tote bags, flags, banners and other paraphernalia reflects continued widespread interest in all things Marley.
It could easily be a problem for others with a famous parent, but Stephen Marley said it is “not a burden at all” to carry the Marley name.
“It’s a responsibility and a good way to keep I and I in check,” he explained. “It’s a moral and integrity check and what my father and mother were about. You can’t be bigger than the purpose.”
As the interview wrapped up, Marley joked that when he’s on the road, his favorite city is the next city, adding that he anticipates touring will be a part of his life and work for the foreseeable future.
‘I jus ah roll until the wheels dem drop off,” he chuckled. “I love what I do, really enjoy it. And we have the next generation, the young generation coming to ease the burden …”