Damian Marley is carrying his father's torch admirably. The title track on his latest album, "Welcome to Jamrock," became the rarest of things, a politically astute urban hit that set the charts ablaze in late 2005. He recently scooped up two Grammys for his efforts, for Best Reggae Album and Best Urban/Alternative Performance. Rather than enjoy a night on the town with the Hollywood jet set, Marley chose to celebrate his victory with his intimate circle. "Me and the family went out and had dinner; then we stopped by Universal's party. That's about it," he says in a brief telephone conversation. The youngest son of Robert Nesta is mowing through a litany of congratulatory interviews while being whisked to a performance on Jimmy Kimmel Live. After that, he will be leaving Los Angeles to attend to family business. February is always a busy month for the Marley clan. Every year, to commemorate their late father's birthday, the descendants of Bob perform tribute concerts all over the world, from Ghana to Ireland. Next Damian will be here in Miami, to rock the crowd at the thirteenth annual Bob Marley Festival. For several years the fundraising event has come under criticism by local journalists and formerly loyal followers, who claim the concert has deviated from its intended purpose and diminished in quality.
When the festival began in 1994, admission was free with a donation of canned food. The lineup featured acts that clearly followed Bob Marley's doctrine, including Maxi Priest, Wyclef Jean, and the Mighty Diamonds. By 2001, admission had risen to $20 with a donation of four cans of food, and the roster mixed reggae legends like Burning Spear and didactic rappers Dead Prez with preppy Nineties soft-rockers Hootie and the Blowfish. Fans paid $28 to enter 2004's festival, and in letters of complaint sent to Miami New Times, a disgruntled former fan referred to the Marley family as "greedy snakes," among other hurtful epithets. According to popular local DJ Lance-O, the downhill spiral began in 1999, when Richard Booker, Bob Marley's half-brother, took charge of the festival.
"I MCed the event for free for the first five years. The sixth year, Richard Booker took over, and not only was I not asked to MC, I wasn't even invited. Clint O'Neil was the first to call and tell me. He was not only invited back as the head MC, he was also offered pay," storms the typically laid-back DJ. Lance-O's current complaint against the festival has more to do with the musical lineup than with his personal experiences. "It used to be more, for lack of a better word, free-spirited and hippie-oriented. Then it became kind of corporate, hip-hop, bling-bling. It seemed like it lost the audacity of what it originally sought out to be. This music is supposed to be about peace and love, and there's just too much disrespect," he charges.
The list of performers this year features almost all of Bob Marley's male descendants, as well as reggae legends Maxi Priest and Toots and the Maytals. Socially conscious rapper Mos Def is scheduled to make an appearance, as is Nineties one-hit-wonder Diana King. The rest of the acts are still to be announced. When asked about the mysterious "more TBA" mentioned in the festival's press release, Damian Marley admits he has no idea who else is on the roster with him.
"That's not really something I'm thinking about, to tell you the truth. I mean, I'm an artist. The festival is something I do every year, as a Marley celebration for my grandmother. If my family want to work on the festival, I'm happy to work alongside, you know what I mean?" he drawls. When asked who he would choose if the festival lineup was up to him, the question seems to annoy the self-described "youngest veteran." "I mean, there's a lot of reggae artists who have shows in Miami on a regular basis. So maybe they trying to think of somebody a little bit different. I don't really know why they picking who they pick; all I know is I'm happy to be a part of it," he answers. When Lance-O is asked the same question, he responds with fervor.
"Bob's music is so pertinent today, and it's 30 years old. Obviously to really represent what he is, you have to think of people who are more revolutionary. It really doesn't seem that there are people of that caliber anymore," he declares.
What Lance-O says is true; there hasn't been a popular roots reggae artist who has stayed consistent and lyrically true to the Rastafarian faith since, well, Bob Marley. And outside of pirate radio stations and a few late-night radio programs, classic reggae music doesn't get much, if any, local radio airplay. Fans are more likely to hear Eric Clapton's cover of "I Shot the Sheriff" on the classic rock station than to hear Marley himself. Last year the family released "Slogans," the first previously unreleased Bob Marley track to be heard in more than a decade. The accompanying video was incendiary and poignant, splicing dynamic concert footage of Bob in his prime with images of suffering Hurricane Katrina victims. Although his message remains strong as ever, this important video hasn't made it into rotation on any popular music video channel. When Damian Marley is asked about "Slogans" and the lack of airplay for authentic reggae, he bristles at the suggestion his music isn't of his father's caliber.
"You don't think that my music is real reggae music?" he retorts gruffly. When he is reassured that this, of course, is not the case, his voice softens. "Look, of course you have people like Burning Spear, Bunny Wailer, those of my father's generation.... But look, 50 Cent sampled Bob Marley's music and got a lot of airplay. The remix with Biggie is getting a lot of love in the urban community. There's different ways of helping the music to grow and branch out," he explains. Young Marley is continuing the trend of making roots reggae more radio-friendly. His next single will be a duet with Bobby Brown, titled "Beautiful."
This weekend Damian will pay homage to his father before an eager audience. The festival's admission price has even decreased a little, down to $23 plus four cans of food. Marley is planning on giving a stellar performance. "I'll bring the energy as usual. You can look forward to all of the brothers to come through and give you the same standard that you know the family always bring. It's a show we do for years now, so the people know what they come to see."
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