Rise Up

The urban music community responds to Katrina and the aftermath

As Iraq burns, New Orleans drowns, and our president complacently plucks his guitar strings, the voice of Damian Marley blasts out of seemingly every other car stereo and club sound system in Miami: "To see the sufferation, sicken me/Them suit no fit me/To win election they trick we/And they don't do nuttin at all." It's the sort of sentiment usually ghettoized on underground hip-hop tapes and at Moveon.org rallies, but there it was at Miami indie mecca I/O the night of Sunday, September 18. Local DJ Contra cued the record's opening strands -- a sample from Ini Kamoze's 1984 hit "World, a Reggae Music" -- and the crowd of jaded hipsters exploded.

The song isn't only the object of indie intrigue. You can find "Jamrock" in rotation on BET, MTV, and 103.5 The Beat. You can hear Damian's strained but strong vocals -- somewhere between a plea and a threat -- blaring from twelve-inch speakers on Collins Avenue. And you can feel its bass line billowing out of South Beach's superclub Mansion.

"It's not just the biggest reggae song in years, it's one of the biggest three records in Miami right now," says 103.5 The Beat and resident Mansion DJ Mr. Mauricio. "The reaction I get to that song is unbelievable. It's one of those songs that I can sense people are waiting for ... they're expecting it. And when I drop "Jamrock," the crowd reaction is so strong that sometimes I have to bring it back three or four times."

Damian Marley steps out of the shadows and into the  
eye of the storm
Jonathan Postal
Damian Marley steps out of the shadows and into the eye of the storm
Bimbo and bimbos give away free gas
Bimbo and bimbos give away free gas

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But ultimately this is about more than the success of one song or an individual artist. "Jamrock" is the latest example of a political uprising within the music community that began during last year's election cycle -- with urban youth rallying around the hip-hop get-out-the-vote campaigns -- and is reaching a tipping point in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. And if Diddy's Vote or Die campaign was more the province of a responsible citizen outreach, then "Jamrock" and the recent impassioned outbursts by Kanye West seemed born of a mounting desperation and rage. America has changed over the past few weeks -- spiritually, politically, and geographically -- and our culture is scrambling to catch up.

Damian Marley, speaking via phone last week from a promo tour in the Midwest, seems either nonplussed by his sudden stardom or unaware of the popularity of "Jamrock." When he is asked if the song's mammoth success surprised him, Marley matter-of-factly replies, "No, it wasn't a surprise. When you make music, you make music with the hope that it will happen. I am more satisfied and thankful for the success than I am surprised. With [Welcome to Jamrock], I'm hoping that it'll be more successful than my previous album. With each effort, you get better and you get more success."

While his 2001 album didn't puncture the pop charts as this one is doing, it wasn't exactly a dud either. Halfway Tree -- which is a reference to the Kingston neighborhood that marks the junction between the rich and poor parts of town -- was met with widespread acclaim from the reggae community and even garnered a Grammy for Reggae Album of the Year.

Although much has been made of "Jamrock" as a return to roots reggae, a lot more is at play in Marley's music. In addition to the undeniable roots influence, there is an undercurrent of ragga, modern dancehall, R&B, and, most prominently, NYC hip-hop.

Marley recognizes the similarities between hip-hop and the reggae music his father helped put on the international map. They are linked by point of origin -- after all, hip-hop formed when Kool Herc fled Jamaica's mid-Seventies political unrest and headed for the Bronx -- and in terms of their impact. "I love hip-hop music," Marley comments. "It's rebel music is how I like to speak about it. Hip-hop and reggae come from the same community as far as class -- they both come from the bottom of society."

Marley believes that the album's strong political undercurrents have always been appealing to mainstream audiences but that it took the tragedy of Katrina and the subsequent outpouring of grief and rage to force radio programmers to acknowledge these sentiments. "It's a matter of what's being exposed," he says. "America has always been hungry for stuff like this. And America has always loved music with substance and a message. I don't think that they weren't ready for it before; I just don't think they could hear it."

Though Marley might be the first performer to bring concious lyrics back to the charts, he's hardly alone. Since the devastation of New Orleans and our government's lackluster response, a handful of topical protest songs have cropped up. Some of them are from the usual suspects. Of the songs released thus far, Public Enemy's "Hell No, We Ain't All Right" is by far the most direct. Over a typically dense and dissonant PE soundscape, frontman Chuck D issues a stinging rebuke of the Bush administration: "No answers from disaster, them masses hurtin'/So who the fuck we call? Halliburton."

Elsewhere, Mos Def released "Katrina Clap," and Houston MC The Legendary K.O. quickly leaked "George Bush Doesn't Like Black People." The latter is a parody of Kanye West's hit "Gold Digger," with the lyrics altered to take aim at Bush: "I ain't saying that he a gold digger/But he ain't fucking with no broke niggas."

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