Stephen Marley Highlights Cannabis Culture at Kaya Fest

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I have a confession: I’ve never done drugs. I’ve never snorted blow or dropped acid or even lit up a joint. I'm not straight-edge or anything, and I’ll happily have a drink at the right time and place. But anything beyond that has never really appealed to me, not even the so-called gateway drug of marijuana.

So one of my first questions to Stephen Marley, who is organizing a daylong festival celebrating cannabis, was this: Why should I use it?

He answered my query with one of his own:

“You could say, if you’ve never used before, why?” he said. “You must know the benefits of the plant and then decide if it benefits you.”

Marley is no stranger to the benefits of the substance he calls "herb." The reggae musician has been using it since the age of 13 and has been playing in bands with his family since he was 7. His father, Bob Marley, requires no introduction.

At 44 years old, Stephen is now older than his father lived to be, and he’s settled comfortably into the family legacy. Since starting out with the family band the Melody Makers, he’s had a decades-long career working both as a solo artist and behind the scenes as a producer and featured player. Most recently, he was on a track with fellow Miamian Pitbull called “Options.”

His latest project is Kaya Fest, a reggae festival in Bayfront Park featuring performances by island favorites such as Sean Paul, Lauryn Hill, and Inner Circle. Along with the entertainment, however, will be an exhibition about cannabis culture. A free symposium on marijuana education is scheduled for Friday, April 21, the day before the festival and the day after Marley’s birthday (which just so happens to take place on 4/20). It’s this aspect of the event that he’s most excited about, and he hopes it will help change the misconceptions some people have about the plant.

Most attendees, however, will likely be there for the main event: All five of the musical Marley brothers – Stephen, Ziggy, Julian, Damian, and Ky-Mani – will take the stage together for the first time in two decades. According to Stephen, the second-eldest brother, it wasn’t due to any familial strife that the five failed to perform together for so long. It was more about scheduling.

“That has a lot to do with it, though, the timing,” Stephen said. “This one is one where everyone said, like, ‘Yo, let’s get together on this one and let our voices be heard together.’”

There’s perhaps another reason it was the right time to come together and hold a festival dedicated to cannabis culture in the Sunshine State. Last year’s passage of Florida Amendment 2 meant that this past January 3, marijuana became legal to use for medicinal purposes in the state. Though state officials and legislators are still hammering out regulations and procedures regarding the five-page law, the rules are due to be finalized in June, and medical marijuana ID cards will begin to be issued in September.

This means that soon, patients with ailments as diverse as cancer, HIV/AIDS, posttraumatic stress disorder, and glaucoma can expect a legal alternative to traditional prescription drugs. Whether they can smoke their medicine, however, will be up to the government, which has yet to determine the form in which medicinal cannabis can be distributed. Existing Florida law allows for only oils, tinctures, and pills.

Nevertheless, the drug’s newfound legality means a large swath of the population can benefit from an event such as Kaya Fest, which is designed to promote marijuana as not only a mind-altering substance but also a utility with a variety of applications. And coming from Jamaica, Stephen Marley knows very well what happens when the plant is embraced by society.

“Herb is such a big part of our culture. It’s our everyday life,” he said of the island. “You see elders using the herb. All types of different people smoke herb. Police smoke herb; lawyers smoke herb; judges smoke herb.”

He offered an example of how herb can be used for something other than getting high and how it runs deeper in his family than one might expect.

“One of the things that I remember growing up there was that my great-grandma would use the herb,” he recalled. "She’d put it in the butter with pimento and other different spices and make kind of an ointment for when she had arthritis, and then she would rub it on her joints. So we’ve come up with a kind of diverse outlook on this plant.”

This is what he and his brothers advocate: that there’s more to weed than the sensation brought by smoking it. It’s right there in the festival’s motto: “Education before recreation.”

“A lot of people get introduced to it in one way, to smoke and get high,” he said. “That’s not what it’s all about. That’s a part of it. You get stimulated from the plant if you use it a certain way, but there are so many different other benefits from it.”

Yet even though he comes from a culture that takes a relaxed attitude toward cannabis, his perspective on the plant might be even more distinct than that of his countrymen. Like his father, he’s a Rastafarian, a tradition that considers marijuana consumption part of a sacred act. He recalled the first time he smoked herb, supervised by his uncle.

“I remember, I was very happy, I was laughing a lot, you know?” he said. “And my uncle — he was maybe one year or two years older than me — would be like ‘Yo, we can’t smoke herb and just be like clowns, you know? We have to be diligent about this thing.’”

Maybe it’s difficult to imagine taking marijuana seriously. But as its usage moves further into mainstream American society, new perspectives might be needed, and Stephen Marley is ready to supply them — along with some entertainment, of course.

Late in our conversation, I mentioned offhand that he might try to snag Pitbull for Kaya Fest. His response was as playful as it was cagey:

“Well, you don’t know who’s gonna show.”

“So,” I asked, “we’re gonna get some surprise guests?”

Imagine the smirk on his face as he replied: “Wouldn’t you think?”

Kaya Fest
Saturday, April 22, at Bayfront Park Amphitheatre, 301 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; 305-358-7550; kayafestivals.com. Tickets cost $80 to $200 via livenation.com.

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