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With signature dreads, gold chains around his neck, and a tattoo of his father on his right arm, Ky-mani Marley strikes a presence that is unmistakably, well, Marley. Despite a definite Miami swagger, he speaks softly and with a Jamaican accent. The resemblance to his dad is remarkable.
Ky-mani, age 31, is the son of icon Bob Marley, one of his 11 children from eight different mothers. Several have successfully followed their father's path into music — most notably the eldest son, Grammy Award-winning Ziggy, who was born in Jamaica. Ziggy's group, the Melody Makers, also features brother and five-time Grammy winner Stephen, who was born in Delaware. The youngest Marley son, three-time Grammy winner Damian (also born in Jamaica), has worked with Cypress Hill, Snoop Dogg, Nas, and Gwen Stefani, to name a few.
Making music for 11 years, Ky-mani still struggles to carve out his own niche, in the shadow of both his father and his brothers. It's the "double-edged sword of being a Marley," says Ky-mani, who from age seven was raised in Liberty City by his mother, former table-tennis champ Anita Belnavis.
But Ky-mani's status as something of a forgotten Marley is about to change. With his new album, Radio (Vox Music), released September 25, he has created a distinct stylistic identity. The 13 tracks of his fourth record blend hip-hop, R&B, and rock into a postmodern version of his father's reggae. On September 27 he embarked on a national tour as the opening act for classic rock gods Van Halen (there are no South Florida stops). On top of that he'll star in a new BET reality series, Living the Life of Marley, to air in October.
On a recent day at Ky-mani's rehearsal studio in North Miami, he and his band are hard at work. His seven-piece back-up outfit practices in the background — horns blowing, guitars squelching, drums and congas making everybody shake their heads to the beat. Kids with dreadlocks play videogames in a nearby room. It looks like a family affair, but still, the gig with Van Halen is obviously no joke.
"My reach doesn't stop at one place. We play soft rock, urban, reggae, hip-hop. I play music where everything blends and works as one," Ky-mani says. He pauses for a moment and looks over at his band. A tall Jamaican man shreds the guitar like Jimmy Page. "The new album is really a new vibe. It expresses me from the roots on up. I titled the album Radio because that's the only place where all forms of music meet."
As a teenager, Ky-mani had no real interest in the music world. He did some DJing for fun, but his true love was sports. He grew up in the projects, in a small two-bedroom home shared with eight other family members. "I grew up in what you would call Liberty City, NW 22nd Avenue. I saw a lot of crazy stuff," he recalls. "I remember once when I was in fourth grade, walking home from school, I saw a dead body on the side of the road. That was before the cops got there and she was under a tree. She had probably just died, because nobody else was around."
The bleakness of his environment might surprise some, but Ky-mani hopes to explore it even more in his upcoming BET series. A camera crew has been following him, creating a docudrama about his extraordinary life and music. "That is going to expose a little of my upbringing, where I'm coming from and where I'm heading," he says. "It took time getting used to the cameras being around me, and going about with my day-to-day life.... My reality is a harsh reality, and not all of it is made for TV. Even though I'm a Marley, I face plenty of struggles."
The major one being, of course, creating his own style of music in the face of the Marley name's stereotype. "The only thing I can do is carry on the legacy by making good music," he says. "A lot of people can't understand that. Once they hear 'Marley,' they think you gotta be playing the one-drop or the two-drop" — he hums a common reggae riff — "and the guitar gotta go chicka-chicka."
Instead he modernizes the music of his familial legacy through digital samples and electronic beats. "My case was different than Ziggy or Stephen," Ky-mani explains. "I grew up in Miami in the heart of the ghetto. On my block, in front of my door, I witnessed everything happening. So that's why I can express myself the way that I do ... with that aggression, depth, and feeling, so you know it's real. Some people are gonna love it.... People that hate it motivate me to write more music, so the balance is good."
Radio contains music that could be made only in Dade, with lyrics about "livin' and dyin' in the streets." On tracks like "Ghetto Soldier," topics include the usual street fare: drugs, guns, prostitutes, and snitches. Here he transforms the buffalo soldier his father sang about into a Miami-bred urban version. And just as Ky-mani appeared on Young Buck's classic hip-hop song "Puff Puff Pass," Buck returns the favor by appearing on "I'm Back," which blends Tupac-influenced, thug-style hip-hop with that smooth Marley flow. "I got the herb if you're ready to fly/Light up and let's hit the sky," Ky-mani sings.
"It's not a reggae album. It's not hip-hop," Ky-mani reiterates. "It's a fusion of all those together, which expresses me and brings me out as an individual. I've been trying for the last 10 years just to develop my own sound, my own vibe." He smiles. "I think I finally got it."