Damian "Junior Gong" Marley: The Youngest Veteran

What is it about Marley music that continues to attract our attention? Makes us feel so good that we can’t seem to get enough? Is it because Marley music is international currency – a brand name – if you will? So much has been written about the Marley name that it is difficult to find adjectives to describe it without being stale or repetitive. Marley music inspires. It provokes the moral conscience and most fundamentally, it sells. Marley music has certainly created many millionaires. For Bob, the sufferers were at the emotional center of his art – he was what he sang, preached and predicted. The same can’t be said for all performers. Marley music with dj/dancehall lyrics? Does it fit or is it a stretch? Authentic

Marley music is consciousness raising – Rastafari roots and culture music. It awakens the moral conscience, uplifts, inspires and transforms. Dancehall DJ music is almshouse, sex and violence, crass materialism coupled with hype and bling; it is also the liberating voice of the voiceless from Jamaica’s impoverished in the ghettos. Damian “Junior Gong” Marley resides within this continuum from the beginning to end. Damian introduced himself to the world by declaring “My daddy was a “bedroom bully” – in the Jamaican vernacular, “cocks man.”There was Bob “The Tuff Gong” Marley; first son Ziggy, the designated heir

apparent, who never had a chance to grow into the role; Steven, who grew up in Ziggy’s shadow as the ragamuffin (a term of endearment rather than a metaphor for his music) but became the producer who sings; Kymani, now known more for his acting than his singing; and Julian “juju royal”, the closest facsimile of his father’s incarnation on stage, all-be-it a taller version. Now comes Damian “Junior Gong” Marley, the 27-year-old self-described “youngest veteran.” The 2001 Reggae Grammy winner for his “Halfway Tree” CD [Motown] – a metaphor for his identity, Halfway Tree is the dividing line between uptown and the ghetto. Junior Gong is a dancehall DJ, not a singer. He doesn’t sing as much as he sing-jays, but mostly he chats DJ lyrics [p]on de mic or as he told me “jus’ juggle two tunes.” “Welcome to Jam rock,” his latest CD on Universal/Def-Jam is his most complete and best work to-date. It continues in the Halfway Tree vibe, but is more mature.

Damian writes more and shares co-production credit with his brother Steven unlike his previous two CDs. The formula remains the same: combinations with the hottest acts from hip-hop and dancehall/reggae. Halfway Tree had Eve, Jimmy Cozier, Treach (Naughty by Nature), Bounty Killer, Yami Bolo and Capleton, while Jam Roc features Bobby Brown, Nas and Black Thought (The Roots) with old schoolers like Bunny Wailer and Eek-a-Mouse. The album with elements of Jazz, R&B, Blues and classical orchestration is a hybrid combination of hip-hop, dancehall, and reggae. Yet, it retains a one-drop drum and bass feel hip-hop vibe and dancehall flow and energy. Like an energy source it is thermo dynamic for all its elements.

While the formula remained the same “Jam Roc” has paid huge dividend; it been certified Gold (500,000 copies sold in the USA). Damian won two Grammys for Best Reggae Album and Best Urban/Alternative Performance, the Vibe magazine’s 2005 “Boom Shot” award for Caribbean music, the XM Nation Music for Best Reggae Artiste, New York Magazine named Welcome to Jam-rock Best Single of 2005, in England he copped a MOBO Award for Reggae album of the year and the album is the second biggest opening for a Reggae artist in history. Entertainment Weekly, which gave the album an A, summed Jr. Gong’s and “Welcome to Jam Roc” impact this way “Bob’s youngest updates the family legacy impeccable reggae arrangements, political vision with limber rhymes and urgent dancehall beats.”

Whereas Halfway Tree introduced him, Welcome to Jam rock is Gong’s attempt to further expand his base outside the reggae community. Damian is laying the groundwork for a new generation of Marley fans introducing a younger generation born after his father’s death. Damian recently completed some tour dates in the US opening for U2. Welcome to Jam Rock sold 86,000 units when it was released. The single is an undated version of Sly & Robbie/Ini Kamoze’s 80’s joint “Worl-A-Reggae.” The song narrates the realities of one Jamaica, much to the chagrin of that other Jamaica. (Can you cheery pick which Jamaican you want to be? Or is one solely Jamaican with all that it entails?).

Damian Marley’s “Welcome to Jam rock” revives Rastafari’s social consciousness and compassionate activism, the socio-political reality lyrics. Jam rock provokes and disturbs the elite’s immoral complacency, their insensitivity to the exploitation of the poor and their stubborn refusal to accept responsibility for the situation and address it. Jam rock is a call to, and for, action. Jam rock disturbs the ruling class’ tranquility by bringing them to present discomfort in much the same way dancehall DJ Tanya Stephens did with tracks “Sound of My Tears,” “The Other Cheek, “What a Day,” and “Little White Lies” on her seminal album “Gangsta Blues” in 2003. The only difference is that Tanya could be ignored – she is from the poor, black and oppressed. Damian is uptown, and he can not be. He is the offspring of a white uptown Jamaican and former Ms. World (1977) Cindy Breakespeare, a product of her walk on the wild side with the world’s most influential ghetto poet, Bob Marley.

Damian is conscious of his dual loyalty and the class related expectations. He is comfortable and at ease with who he is, a Rasta Marley with ghetto sensibilities and a Breakspeare uptowner. When I asked him about this, his reply was “People try to put pressure (on me) but, me nuh tek it up.” As cultural critic Ian Boyle writes: Damian Marley plays the classic role of the prophet who disturbs, afflicts, and tortures the comforted with pictures and images not in concert with the vision of the ruling class… jolting the complacent who would soon forget the other Jamaica.” The pictures and images he presents are not prophetic predictions, but narrations of reality that has made Jamaica the #1 murder capital of the world. For a while there was little place for Rastafari relevance as a social conscience and a moral force. Lady Saw with her lyrics of female sexual liberation or Ninja Man, Super Cat or Bounty Killer with “gun talk lyrics” seemed more relevant and reflective of ghetto livity than cultural roots chanters like Tony Rebel. Rastafari with its fundamentalist streak was becoming, like the tired preachers, self-righteous condemnation that reeked with hypocrisy, banal complacency and irrelevancy. When $5 million can be wasted an uptown social event of no national significance in a country with such massive poverty, unemployment and violence then the problems of the poor ceases being poor people’s problem.

Damian, the DJ from the bush bungalow is the hard-core cultural Rasta Marley, dj/chanter a la Capleton and Sizzla, bunning a fire on Babylon’s twisted values- its preoccupation with crass materialism and oppression of the poor and marginalized. On the other hand, he is the bedroom bully, like Shabba Ranks and badbwoy dancehall “Don Dada” Super Cat. Damian is comfortable in the dancehall with sex and violence. “Two gun mi have, mi bust it ina stereo.” He is as much at home with the fresh crop of DJs of intelligent design and cultural consciousness like Chuck Fenda, Bascom X, Richie Spice, Gyptian, Turbulence, I-Wayne, Fantan Mojah, Morgan Heritage, Junior Kelly as he is with the “Don Gorgon” Ninja Man. DJ isn’t the flavor in his music, it is his music. It allows him liberties but while he remains respectful of the Marley tradition, he curses Jamaican ‘badwud’ in his songs when he is of a mind. Haven’t we seen this script somewhere before? Yes, Tosh, ‘Oh Bumbo Claat.’ Dancehall sexuality is raw and vulgar; the violence is graphic and gratuitous. For the elder Marley, the sexual was subtle and implied, it was “I push the wood, blaze the fire, then I satisfy your heart’s desire” for Junior Gong, it is ‘She want me (to) ride her like a Ferrari.” What does Cindy think of all this? Jr. Gong with a mischievous grin say, “about the music, she have her opinions that is about it.”

Of the fourteen tracks on the album the most impact is “For the Babies” a poignantly incisive narrative without being condemnatory or preachy describing the realities of ghetto single parenthood and the man-made pathologies afflicting poor mothers and fathers. Jr. Gong compassionately gets it, from drug addiction, lack of economic opportunity, incarceration while positing hope for the babies. While Welcome to Jam rock illustrates the socio-political ugly realities, “For the Babies” speaks to the future generation being lost. When I first interviewed Damian Marley in the late 90’s in New York he referred to himself as an old soul, his mature grasp of issues such as poverty and disenfranchisement reflects a mature soul. Rastafari couldn’t be more relevant. It has grown up.

Dem giving a woman abortion to kill another baby, miscarriage and misfortune andpremature crack babies … future for the babies, hopes for the babies, tomorrow for the babies, no sorrow for the babies, babies having babies, raising our babies….How long can she take it, dreams are full of maybes, will she ever make it, hustles on a daily, in a club a shake it, strip down till she naked… need it and she’ll take it, she’ll do for the babies, a mother’s love is sacred so don’t you ever fail me, a woman needs caring sharing love all the time. A child needs caring sharing love every day of her life. Is there no other option than adoption for your babies, you raffling and jacketing and auctioning your babies… fathers do the brave thing and that’s participating… a new life is awakening from his ejaculating….. right there through the carving, and early morning waking, school and educating, sports and recreating….fathers keep relating, still communicating, and they’ll ways embrace it, cause they could not replace it.

Always do your very best to keep a promise to your babies, and if you can’t be good, at least be honest to your babies. ….. History of the babies…some are gang related, drug affiliated, some intoxicated, headed for the snake pit, papas locked in cages, mamas lacking wages. This is what they’re faced with on a daily basis.

–For The Babies- Damian “Junior Gong” Marley

Orginally published on Jahworks.org/v2