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Interview: Stephen Marley at Summerjam 2012

Interview: Stephen Marley at Summerjam 2012

Interview: Stephen Marley at Summerjam 2012

By on - Photos by Bartek Muracki - Comment

"We have to defend ourselves and what our parents work for"


Forty year old Stephen Marley is the second son of the immortal Bob. He has won numerous Grammy awards, as an artist, producer and band member with the Marley family's Melody Makers. Prominent amongst the accolades is the production of his brother Damian's albums, including the 2005 (all too rare reggae) hit Welcome to Jamrock. His versatility is further evidenced by his capacity to combine reggae, hip-hop, rhythm and blues and 'whatever you're having yourself' music-wise.

Earlier this year the Summerjam reggae festival in Cologne was brought to a tumultuous climax by this popular, warm and engaging family-man - fresh from his Grammy award for the recently released best album 'Revelation Pt. 1: The Root of Life'. Notably this album also reflects the reciprocal relationship with his siblings - as brothers Damian, Ziggy, and Julian play supporting song writing and vocal roles thereon. Though born with the proverbial 'golden spoon in his mouth', this Marley is not immune to the deprivation endured by many, as his works with the Ghetto Youths Foundation confirms.

Sounding so much like his late father on and off stage – and that's even before he straps on the guitar – his father's Crazy Baldhead type rhythm shook the Summerjam festival site's foundations, as Break Us Apart (from Stephen's last album) started to roll. Marley then advised that we 'don't worry' via Three Little Birds, including some more tracks from his last issuance (e.g. No Cigarette Smokin (In My Room)) before again rolling back the years with Buffalo Soldier, Jammin, Could You Be Loved and One Love. And it was entirely appropriate that Redemption Song was the spark to ignite the Summerjam pyrotechnic display, as the grand fireworks finale brought proceedings to a close. Shortly thereafter Stephen Marley granted an interview to United Reggae.

Stephen Marley

On entering the tour bus – which serves as the interview venue - despite his overwhelming work and social agenda, Marley is courteous enough to warmly welcome his guests, show them to their seats and ask their names. This prompts the United Reggae photographer Bartek to ask Marley: "You don't mind?" as he hoists his camera indicating his intention to take some shots. Marley immediately responds "Mind what?". Bartek explains that he wants to take some photographs to illustrate the interview. Despite having pre-arranged the interview and explained the status of the online United Reggae magazine, Marley persists: "So these photos are for what? I need to know what's going on", he barks. Concerned that things could turn nasty I intervene, explaining that "the photos are to accompany this interview". But like a skilled attorney he swats the intervention aside and continues his interrogation of the photographer. Eventually relenting, he allows Bartek to proceed, but shortly thereafter - confirming his 'wide awake' status - warns him: "Cannot take too much picture now my Lord." Like some high profile artists at Summerjam 2012 Marley could have refused photo access; and also like some high profile artists at Summerjam 2012, he could have refused the interview.

Having survived the photography flashpoint, we opt to stay on steady ground and open proceedings by asking Marley what his greatest achievement in life is. "My greatest achievement in life is life. I have achieved life through my parents and through the powers of God. So that is my greatest achievement, life itself. When you exhale, that is great" (as he does via a mushroom cloud of ganga smoke). This seemed like an entirely appropriate response from one whose father died at 36 - before young Marley himself was 10 years old. Flipping the coin, talk then turns to his greatest disappointment in life? "Well, mankind. Yes, man. Don't you know what mankind is?" This prompts the query as to what part of 'mankind' disappoints Marley most. "Greed", he replies, effectively summing up all the vices in a single word.

My greatest achievement in life is life

Broadening the agenda, Marley is asked who is his greatest musical influence. The screwed-up facial response and subsequent laugh to the question leaves me scurrying through notes to see had I really prepared such a naive question of the son of the third world's first superstar. However instead of having the interview abruptly ended and being thrown off the tour bus, Marley also acknowledges the maternal influence: "My father... and my mother, I pray thee. Both parents actually."

Probing beyond the obvious, Marley then explains that he doesn't have a favourite non-reggae musician: "I love Stevie Wonder. I love Marvin Gaye. I love a lot of the old school. I love Ray Charles, Fats Domino. So I have a lot of favourites". Given the 'back to Africa' aspiration of Rastafarianism, Marley (born in Wilmington, Delaware) is asked whether he'll live all his life in Miami. This provokes another flashpoint, as he counters: "Miami? I don't live in Miami. I spend time in Miami. I live on the earth. So far I've spent most of my life in Jamaica. So I've not been in Miami that long to say I've spent most of my life in Miami. I spend most of my time in Jamaica. I love Africa, I love South America and Brazil. There are a lot of places I'd like to go and spend time, like Australia."

Considering the longstanding and sometimes near fatal relationship between the Marleys and politics – and Stephen's own commentaries on Jamaican politics - United Reggae then inquires if he has a favourite politician. There followed a long pause, before he explains: "I don't like politicians" prompting him to sing: "Don't care who they be... keep them far away from me. It might be superstition or what I've been taught. But I've been this way from the very start and I hope and I pray that people see this my way". The input was followed by his sharp laughter, befitting the contrasting dimensions of wisdom and naiveté reflected in the response.

Like his father, much of Marley's commentary and composition relates to Africa. Having performed in Namibia, Ghana, Ethiopia and Senegal, as he recently told United Reggae: "I am of Jamaica, but we're from Africa". This turns thoughts to his 1980 trip to Zimbabwe with his father (for the independence celebrations). "How do you react to Zimbabwe today?", "To Zimbabwe today? Well Zimbabwe is Africa and African liberation is a must. African freedom is a must. African independence is a must. African self-reliance is a must. So that is how I would react to Zimbabwe." Having nimbly sidestepped the question (in a manner resonant of his astute father), I persist with: "and Mugabe?" At this point I'm prodded by a burly security man to advise that my time is up! Stephen MarleyHowever Marley intervened to explain that: "I don't know the political status of Zimbabwe. I know that those are people that has been through the struggle, that has been colonised by the English and when I went there with my father that was the Independence of Zimbabwe. So I would speak for these people that has been colonised and been through what they have as a people. A politician cannot surmise my views on Zimbabwe." (I try to interrupt, but am promptly cut off.) "Hold on, wait don't rush me". I explain to Marley: "This man is pushing me" – as I look at Mr. 'Burly' Security. "Yes, but still. We are speaking. So my views on Zimbabwe and any other African country is about the people, right? I don't view it through the eyes of a politician. I view it through the eyes of a freedom fighter, through the eyes of one that is in love with humanity and one that wants to see the best for every and any human and any being that is created by the most high God." With an evasive answer like this one could surmise that Marley himself would have made a capable politician. The current state of Zimbabwe - which has remained under the rule of Robert Mugabe since Marley's self-funded visit – is a human tragedy. This tragedy poses real problems for many 'old school' Rastas, some of whom are reluctant to acknowledge that 'power corrupts' and 'absolute power corrupts absolutely', as African brethren go hungry.

Another 'hornets' nest' in reggae circles is same-sex relationships. And so the interview turns to Marley's view on homophobia – to which he replies: "What is that?" It is unlikely Marley is ignorant of the term or the topic. But his rapid response buys time for reflection, as 'homophobia' is explained. Eventually Marley replies: "Don't have a view on that. My views are about God and living an upful life. One's personal life, that's someone's, that's God's judgment, right?" Yet again, sidestepping with consummate ease – another answer that will make no enemies, even if it fails to capture the full frame for a modern day freedom fighter. And so as the burly security man shuffles uneasily beside me I change tack, to inquire: "do you have any regrets in life?" Showing that his sense of humour is fully intact Marley replies: "Maybe that (last) question" (he laughs). This Marley man is no fool.

African freedom is a must

Persisting with sensitive issues, it was time to move to Marley's view on the legal\court circus that has long surrounded his family. The touch paper for this topic was lit by Bob's reluctance to engage with 'Babylon' (i.e. the 'shitstem' or official system), as reflected in his refusal to make a will. A lengthy nightmare subsequently played out in the court rooms. Marley explains: "Well we have to defend ourselves and what our father – what our parents work for – right, my parents come from the ghetto. My father didn't come from Beverley's, nor did my mother. They came from the ghetto, right? And what my parents work for, we have to defend that, by any means, right? So if it's court, let's go."

Thereafter talk turns to drugs. In the context of Buju Banton's incarceration, Marley had recently explained to United Reggae that we should be: "careful of America because America will set you up. And after they set you up they will lock you away .. Buju Banton ... they find a man who has no record of being a drug dealer or dealing with any drugs and seek him out and entrap him and lock him up." And so I inquire "many years ago you were bust for ganja. Did this affect you in any way?" He laughs uproariously in response and proceeds to blow a bonfire sized hale of smoke into my recorder. "No. It no affect me. I am who I am, you know. I smoke herb, this plant, this tree that you plant. Too much of anything is not good, right? But herb is there for a reason, right? And you don't must smoke it. You can drink it, you can cook with it, you can make fabric from it, gasoline from it and that kind of thing. It's so useful to mankind that you wonder why they fight it as much as they do. Maybe it's too beneficial. It gets you too independent." Before the burly security man calls time (again), I inquire of Marley: "Are you a happy man?", "I am a child of God. What greater joy can there be but to be a child of God, a creation of the Most High, to be made in the image of the ultimate."

I smoke herb... It's so useful to mankind that you wonder why they fight it as much as they do. Maybe it's too beneficial. It gets you too independent

The good news is that Stephen Marley presents as a capable, competent, confident, charitable, clever, colourful and (relatively) conscious man (i.e. he's a sizeable 'chip of the old block'). If there's bad news, it's best if I take 'a leaf from his book' and let you work it out for yourself.

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