“Speak the truth and shame the Devil!” “You can’t handle the truth!” “The truth is out there.”
There are a number of clichéd reasons to be honest. That whole ‘shame the Devil’ thing seems like it could come in handy. But for some, honesty is more than an old commandment; it’s a way of life.
For truthsayer, Stephen Marley (in case you’re wondering, Stephen’s the one with the ‘locks), honesty presents itself in many forms. Truth is letting your adorable son run around humming tunes while dad works in the studio, because it’s his birthright. Truth is smoking herb for at least an hour straight and yet defending its benefits as a tea…with a straight face. Most importantly, truth is the way he re-invents the tee shirt (note to hip-hop: they are meant to fit casually snug, not like your grandma’s sundress). Okay, maybe not most importantly, but a noteworthy observation, nonetheless.
Whether contributing vocals and instrumentation to the Melody Makers’ hit albums early in his career or helming brother Damian’s Grammy-winning 2005 effort, Welcome to Jamrock, Marley never has to stray far from home to find success. As he preps his own solo debut, Mind Control, for its March 2007 release, the spiritual talk, justice raps and familiar scratchy flow could make it easy to confuse Stephen with his famous father. But this Marley makes it clear that he is a new generation of reggae, with his ear to the future and his heart in the past.
Old and new clearly hold a lot in common on “Hey Baby,” the touching first single. Composed as a sort of lullaby for Marley’s kids while on tour, the track features Mos Def dropping whimsical island flavor over a thumping, R&B bassline.
Marley brings a vintage sound on the album’s title track, a jazzy, laidback reggae tune decrying modern-day slavery of the mind. Marley pays more attention to what feeds his soul than what feeds his pocket, drawing on the artistic examples of ‘70s soul legends, particularly Stevie Wonder.
“Then, people never really are singing for money, like you know, for rich. They sing for survive. Now is really a business, so you no get the truth out of it as yet.”
There’s that ‘truth’ thing again, but who could blame him. There are so many conflicting stories floating around about his family, from the race of his paternal grandfather to the number of siblings carrying the Marley name, that it is hard to identify any one version as definitive. At least in one space, his music, Marley can take control and ensure there is no mistake in the message expressed.
Viewed as the George Harrison of the Marley clan, Stephen has a refreshing everyman attitude toward his music.
“I’ve nothing new to say. Just my style and my way, my feel.”
Interviewing a man with nothing to say is inherently problematic. But then again, ‘nothing new’ from the man that spawned Chant Down Babylon, could be code for ‘the revolution starts now.’
In “Traffic Jam,” an infectious track featuring brother Damian, Marley recounts the 2002 “Tallahassee syndrome,” his arrest with younger brother Julian for marijuana possession. Jamaican phraseology is an interesting bird. Why ‘syndrome’ when ‘situation’ or ‘incident’ just as accurately define what went on between Marley and the police? Well, a syndrome is a group of signs indicating an overall pattern of disease, not just an isolated cough. I don’t know too many young black men who have driven through the American South without having a story similar to Marley’s, only without the famous name to get them out of it. Intentional wordplay or not, ‘syndrome’ seems to be a perfect fit.
“It never weigh up, it never feel right. Where we’re from in Jamaica, herb is a part of our culture still,” he said.
With visual aid in-hand, Marley confessed he felt no resentment toward his treatment. Always the uniter, Marley attributed this particular symptom to a miscommunication between cultures.
“It wasn’t a harsh experience, but ‘twas an inconvenience and a situation where I am behind bars. I am with, let’s say some murderers. Some innocent, but some guilty, and here I am in the middle of this for some herb, for a plant.”
The stark visuals of that night are presented in Marley’s video for “Traffic Jam,” where he and Damian are pulled over, and flirted with, by an arresting officer. The Marley magic did pay off in one key way. Since it was Friday night, any arrested would normally find themselves waiting until Monday for a hearing, but they were able to reach the judge at home and get out the same night.
The video reflects Marley’s nickname, Ragga Muffin, as he looks equally at ease in the studio and wandering into the dank jail with its seamy characters. It is a dichotomy over which Marley takes full mastery, that of rudeboy and rock star. Despite the Grammys and the success, Marley’s ear is never too far from the concerns of his people. Though not beating a consciousness drum (‘hear ye, hear ye, dreadlocks cure what ails ya’), Marley knows it is impossible to duck politics in his music.
“It is hard not to when you’re speaking the truth. So not consciously, like ‘Okay, let me write a political song.’ But, me can’t help it either because the things that I speak about, the things that I see in Jamaica…most that is politically motivated.”
In 1976, the elder Marley received a bitter taste of the political arena. He and wife Rita along with manager Don Taylor were shot inside the Marley home, allegedly for their participation in “Smile Jamaica,” a concert organized to encourage peace among Kingston youth. With an election scheduled soon after the concert, some People’s National Party opposers believed the event was really a front to endorse then-Prime Minister Michael Manley. Perhaps learning a hard lesson from the past, Stephen steers clear of political ties.
“It’s better you don’t mix. It doesn’t matter what type of cause them claim it to be. Them other motive is for they votes. You have to kinda be pure and do what you can for the people.”
But don’t mistake Mind Control for a somber lecture on the world’s woes. The call-and-response tune, “Dance, Dance” (don’t you dare picture that Fall Out Boy video while reading this) pictures a guy and girl locking eyes across the dancehall and features Brooklyn’s own up-and-coming rhythm and bluestress, Maya Azucena. Like a fairytale discovery, Marley heard her soulful sound thinking it was a sample. Marley was later sure he’d found the sultry voice to sing back to him in the lovers’ tale. Azucena’s aged flavor captured the essence of what Marley believes will eventually redeem music from its current superfluous focus.
“You still have old souls that reincarnate with new flesh. Is ‘good over evil’ all the time, is ‘positive over negative’ no matter what…and when the trumpet blow then, you know, all those little joke things are going to wither away.”
Looking again to Stevie Wonder, as well as his father, Marley has staying power in his sights.
“[Wonder's] music from the ‘70s, you play it now, it jam same way! Some of [today's] music, two weeks, three weeks, four weeks, that’s it.”
Sort of reminds me of my formerly beloved Montell Jordan album. Alas, this is not how we do it anymore.
As a hip-hop fan, Marley is attracted to “the rawness, the truth” of the genre and incorporates these influences into the album. Yet, he does not exclude the ever-popular dancehall craze from playing its part. Marley is watchful, though, not to let the party overcrowd the principle. Dancehall peers like Buju Banton and Capleton manage to move the crowd and exercise brain cells by marrying social commentary and dance.
“Even Damian bridge that gap with Jamrock. [Dancehall] affects [traditional reggae], yes, because it doesn’t put the consciousness at the forefront. You kinda hear about the club and get jiggy with it. We no fight it still because it’s a circle.”
To ensure younger artists are prepared when the circle comes back around, Stephen and his brothers keep the positive energy flowing with their record label and foundation, Ghetto Youths International. The business nurtures hungry artists, while giving back to the underprivileged who make the music possible. Ky-mani and Julian Marley’s albums are the next releases from Ghetto Youths after Mind Control drops.
Seems like a lot for one person to handle, but Marley operates with his father’s passion spurring him forward.
“In those days…you would rehearse like crazy. Just rehearse, rehearse,” he says, admiringly. “But that is how you become great really at what you do. That is the things where is missing now. The whole ethics, the whole purpose is kinda just watered down.”
As “Mind Control” comes to a close, a haunting chorus sings, “The truth is there for us to see.” Marley takes his unwavering belief in man’s potential to upbuild and plants it throughout Mind Control. Much like his father’s critical yet encouraging ballads, instead of bitterness, listeners are urged to look inward to find hope for the future. It is impossible to separate his family’s past from his individual future, but with the freeing minds and enriching souls in view, Mind Control will make sure you never wonder ‘which Marley’ again.
- Candace L.