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Interview: Marla Brown

Interview: Marla Brown

Interview: Marla Brown

By on - Photos by Gianluca De Girolamo - 1 comment

"Dad loved with his whole heart. He was your brother, he was your friend"


Marla Brown is the youngest daughter of preeminent reggae singer Dennis Emmanuel Brown. Aged just 12 when her father died, she originally trained as a dancer and kept her singing voice to herself.

Her desire to pay tribute to her dad with a compilation album brought Marla into the business. An encounter with the Marley family on the road planted the suggestion that she sing.

These events set a career in motion that is rapidly gathering pace. Last month she released her first single Better Days with California's Royal Order Music - and she has plenty more songs to come. Angus Taylor spoke to Marla at a rehearsal space in Dalston about her father, his daughter and the music therein...

Marla Brown

Where were you born?

I was born and raised in Enfield, London. Obviously we went to Jamaica constantly because we have a home there as well. Holiday season – Jamaica. School season – back in London.

You are the youngest child of Dennis and Yvonne Brown.

Youngest daughter, youngest of five. I have an elder half-sister, dad’s first-born, but she used to live with us and she’s practically my sister, so I say six.  

Daniel’s the eldest son. He’s currently teaching music. He began music when he went on holiday to Jamaica at sixteen but didn’t come back (laughs). He kind of followed dad in doing shows and singing, along with Kevin Isaacs [Gregory’s son]. He then went to Miami to do more recording and he’s here in London, teaching. I think he’s aiming to go back to Jamaica this year.

My brother Jason, he’s also doing music but he’s going down that reggaeton sound. Dinah sings but she’s very shy. She was actually my dad’s favourite singer. She gets very nervous but once she’s in her zone she’s beautiful - she makes me cry. I’m trying to give her songs to sing so she gets more confident. Denise – she loves to sing but doesn’t want to do it as a profession. But she loves music as we all do.

How would you describe yourself personality-wise out of all of the children?

You know the film the Brady Bunch? I always say we’re the Brady Browns. That is literally us. Always happy, joyful, and we love hard. I’ve always been the spoiled brat of the bunch because I am the youngest (laughs). But not in a horrible way, in a blessed way, if that makes sense. A blessed Brown, that’s me.

How many artists did you grow up around when you were little?

Pretty much everyone my dad sang with, vibed with or connected with, we grew up with. Family dinners, parties, shows, studio sessions – our door was always open. There was Uncle Jooks obviously [Junior Delgado], Uncle Gregory [Isaacs] when he came down, Marcia Griffiths, Janet Kay. Uncle Freddie McGregor - we grew up with his kids because they were predominantly London-based. Then Bounty, Beenie Man, Uncle Beres and even Busta Rhymes weirdly enough – but we bonded more when dad passed and we had a show in Ochi. Everyone was our uncle or our aunt. I didn’t see them as a musician, just my respected elders.

Your mother is Yvonne, who reggae fans will know from the label, Yvonne’s Special.

My mum is a very wise lady, very spiritual, loving and protective. Dad was very laidback, so my mum would have to be the stern one and say “Dennis, do this!” or “Deb, do that!” If my dad wrote certain songs, he’d ask my mum’s opinion and mum would be like “Maybe you should write this…”. I called them the dynamic duo. They complemented each other. I still call mum Yvonne’s Special because she seems so special to me.

My mum is a very wise lady, very spiritual, loving and protective

From the way you describe your dad it sounds like he was very much how people see him in photos and on stage – smiling, full of love. Was there a side of him you saw that the public did not?

What you see is what you get. My dad was just happy. He would laugh at everything. He was very loving, you could always confide in him. Sometimes I’ve been asked how dad felt about being the Crown Prince of Reggae, but it was just a title – he was doing what he loved, because my dad loved with his whole heart. There was no change in dad at all. He was your brother, he was your friend. He treated everyone exactly the same.

When did you first know you could sing?

We were always singing. From our home videos, every week was a party at our house. Music, food, drink, sing-alongs. And when we would go studio with dad we’d be singing along, so I always could hold a note. But in the last year I’ve become more confident that I could actually sing and create music and want people to hear what I have to say.

How often was your dad touring?

About every three months he would go away for a show or a tour. A lot of the school period. I always remember getting excited for “Your dad’s coming home today” – that kind of talk!

How was the house different without your dad there?

A lot quieter! (laughs) Because we didn’t have as much visitors. His fun-filled energy was missing. But when dad was there it didn’t feel like he had left. We all are similar in his way, in his characteristics. So you’d still feel this aura around the house.

What is your most treasured memory of him?

His smile and his laugh. My dad loves to cook, so we’d always be in the kitchen. A lot of our home videos we’d be dancing, while he’s cooking or writing a new song, or my mum was calling out his name to do this or that. He loves blackcurrant Ribena so you’d always remember to get dad a drink with lots of ice. But I’d say his smile because dad was always happy. My friends say “You’re always happy!” to me as well. We love life.

Your dad passed you were twelve. How did you cope with his passing?

My Scriptures and my mum. My faith in the Lord. I’d talk to my dad a lot. The first ten years I couldn’t cope. I’m very emotional – I love hard and I miss my dad. Because I was the youngest I was quite close to my dad and my mum. I’d always be by their sides, so I felt an absence but couldn’t really grasp what it was. Now I am reading more Scriptures and following Rastafari my faith has grown and I believe I will see my dad again, or just communicate with him through song or being at his grave. That’s when I feel he’s still there with me. That’s how I cope. But I still cry, you know? People think once someone has crossed over you should deal with it but when you love someone so much you can never let them go. I still talk about my dad like he’s still here.

When you love someone so much you can never let them go

Do you still have conversations with your dad?

Every day. We have his picture in my living room and I think his face changes sometimes so when I do talk, depending on his expression, I know if he acknowledged it or I’ll be shown a sign. But my mum and dad, they’re one – so my mum is the main reason why I cope. She gives me so much strength because of her words of wisdom and her mind-set. And my siblings are very close, very open with one another, so that unit itself helps.

You said in previous interviews it wasn’t until you went to his funeral that it really dawned on you what a superstar he was...

Growing up we weren’t a “title” kind of family – your dad is your dad and your mum is your mum. Because we are based in London we didn’t get that much reggae unless it was played at home - that’s probably why we had so many parties. But in the National Stadium it was so packed, and when we were burying him at Heroes Park, the crowds that came, I was in shock because we couldn’t get out of the limo! The tears, joy and love we witnessed from people in Jamaica, that’s when I realised “Dad is really like a superstar to them”.

He received the Order of Distinction posthumously. The timing of these honours can seem quite arbitrary. Do you think he could have received it sooner, in his life, considering his achievements?

Marla BrownMy mum got that for my dad. I do think so, but I also believe everything happens in God’s time. Sometimes, when you rush and get things, the important people don’t have time to appreciate and acknowledge it. So when many years later he got this award, people looked into “Who was this man? How come he received it? What does it stand for?” Because he’s not here to continue putting music out, an event like that made dad’s name come again.

What is your favourite of his songs?

Inseparable because my mum wrote it and my dad sang it. I’m very big on love, I live in love and that song represents what mum and dad stood for, and us as a family. Even though dad isn’t here, they’re still inseparable. On birthdays, my mum still puts “Love always, Mum and Dad”, so my mum and dad are always still connected.

Are there any of his songs you find difficult to listen to?

(laughs) Yes! I definitely can’t listen to For You. I had a radio interview in Jamaica and one of the callers wanted me to sing it. I got teary-eyes. I said “I’m so sorry, I really can’t”, because they played that song at dad’s funeral and I feel like he’s singing to my mum. I’m not ready for that song yet. One day I hope because it was ten years before I could watch dad’s live videos and listen to his songs without having to cry. I’m still healing, and I’m still young.

It was ten years before I could watch dad’s videos and listen to his songs without having to cry

So is your own musical journey part of a healing process and an acceptance?

Definitely. Because dad isn’t here to walk it with me, I use his music to uplift me and learn more about him. When you’re young you take things for granted. So each day I’m learning and growing a closer to my dad. Dad sang and wrote so many songs so I’m learning about him and my likeness to him.

You didn’t always want to sing professionally. What were your ambitions when you were younger?

I definitely wanted to be in entertainment and that’s probably why I went into dancing. I started off doing sports, that was my thing. I was a district runner for my borough, and did netball, basketball, cricket, tennis. But because we always used to put on mini-shows at my house and it was fun, I stayed in entertainment. It was only a year and a half ago, when I said “Where is my life going? What do I want to be when I’m older?” I didn’t want to dance beneath someone, I wanted to create my own platform.

It was only when I went on the road with the Marleys that their fans said “Where’s Dennis Brown’s children? Why are they not singing?” Mum and dad never pushed us into that, it was very much “Find your own”. I didn’t even know I could write. I remember I wrote a song for dad when I was nine or ten called Candy Girl (laughs), I can’t remember how it went but he sang it in the studio. I did music in school, so we learnt writing music. I’m learning the guitar now, I play the keyboard and piano. Because I went into sports and dance I stopped playing, but I’m picking it back up.

On the road with the Marleys their fans said “Where’s Dennis Brown’s children? Why are they not singing?”

Did you train anywhere as a dancer?

I didn’t go to dance or performance school. I just joined a dance company called Unity UK, in east London. We did theatre tours and shows around Europe, some championships, and the Olympics . That was amazing. I was representing one of the sponsors Coca Cola. I went to be a dancer and after the audition they asked if I could be one of their ambassadors, their head for interviews and media. We were dancing every single day in the stadium at Stratford Park. It was great meeting the athletes. We waved at Usain Bolt but we didn’t actually meet.

As a dancer you also got to the semi-finals of the TV show Britain’s Got Talent.

We auditioned maybe two years prior in Birmingham and they actually called us and asked us to do the show. The audition was scary and overwhelming because no-one likes negative feedback, but Simon was like “Get ready for the finals”. I was like “Oh my God! Simon Cowell doesn’t like anyone!” (laughs).

Did you speak to Simon Cowell? Did he know about your dad? I just wondered because Pete Waterman was involved in reggae in the 70s, signed Susan Cadogan and so on.

Yes, all of them. They were great. But no. I’m not someone that tells people who my dad is. I do sometimes but when people find out who I am some people treat me a different way. They use you to see how they can benefit from your name. I just introduce myself as Marla, and then someone will say “A D Brown daughter deh!” and you’re like “Errr… Hi”, you know? The majority of people embraced me genuinely and I love that. But I don’t normally tell people. My dad was the same. Unless you know who he is we’re just humble with it. Because it’s my dad’s work, not mine, so I’m not a boastful person in anything I do.

When people find out who I am some people treat me a different way. They use you to see how they can benefit from your name

A few years ago you wanted to create a tribute album to your dad.

Yes, myself and Salaam Remi were putting that together. I said to Salaam “My generation don’t know enough about reggae music” because I used to go out and they’d only play maybe Revolution, and I was like “Dad’s catalogue is so huge, why are we just hearing this one song?” I wanted to educate my generation a bit more, and educate myself. Because there’s a lot that I’m still learning every day. (sings) “What about the half that’s never been told?” (laughs).

I tweeted him and we exchanged numbers and emails. Then we had a meeting when he was over here, at EMI. He said he went to the Carnival and didn’t see any merchandise of dad and it’s a shame because everyone that loves reggae loves dad, but there’s no representation of him. We’ve got loads of reels still at home, so we wanted to burn those off, see what’s on them and create more music of dad. It’s still going to happen, we’re just working on other projects at the moment.

What was the point at which you actually started to take singing seriously?

When I was on the road with the Marleys. I grew up with them. I went on holiday to LA and my aunt said they were there on tour. So I literally said “Oh, I’m coming!” got picked up and taken on the road. I asked Damian if I could do Promised Land with him, but we never got to do it because we never had a rehearsal. His and Stephen’s fans, said “Where’s Dennis Brown’s children?” and I thought “I need to represent my family now”.

Damian and Stephen had a show at Hollywood Bowl and I was in the audience thinking “I wish I could do this”. Then dad’s Sitting And Watching came on and I said “All right dad, I can hear you”. So I knew this journey would happen. I’d got to a point where I’d done everything with dance because we did Britain’s Got Talent and won the World Championship so I steered left and went into music.

Most of Bob Marley’s most famous music is available from one source, whereas your dad’s music was recorded for different producers at different times. Also, in the Marley film Ziggy says his dad was quite competitive. Was your dad less driven?

Dad was, in my eyes, about the love of music, and the brotherhood of life. So dad was “Hey man, I do a favour fi yuh” never “Where’s the paperwork, let me sign here, what’s in it for me”. But in a way it hindered his work, because it is so scattered, which puts my mum under pressure ‘til this day (laughs). Bob had a great team around him. My dad didn’t if I’m honest. That’s probably why his affairs are the way they are, in terms of who has his music.  

Getting back to yourself, once you had your epiphany, how did you embark on your career?

I heard this rhythm on YouTube, called I Love and literally just wrote a song Caught Up within the hour, while I was in LA. When I got home I recorded it and wrote other songs, then I said “I haven’t written a song for dad”. I heard the Here Comes the King rhythm and heard dad singing. I said “This is a song for dad” and wrote my tribute for him.  

I found the rhythms on YouTube but because I was new to music I didn’t know what the process was, so I just used my initiative to find the producers. Thank the Lord for Facebook and Twitter. I was even translating messages into French. I told them who I was, what I wanted to do, and they were honoured for me to use their work. It was Thilo "Teka" Jacks, from Rootdown Records in Germany, and Asha D, from France. I haven’t met them physically, but we talk regularly.

You went to Jamaica in 2014 and started getting some media attention.

To represent dad for his Reggae Month tribute show at the waterfront. But as soon as I got to Jamaica word got around so people wanted me to do interviews, more shows and to come to studio so it all kicked off from there. I did work with Rory from Stone Love, Baby G, and Giark, Digital B’s son. I did my own recordings at Sugar Minott’s studio. I’m going to listen back and see what we want to put out. Me and Passion [Minott] got really close. Chris [Ellis] introduced us at Bob Marley’s Digicel tribute show. She took me to interviews, me, her and Chris did an one about being the children of legends, and our musical journeys.

You did a combination with Beenie Man - Infatuation.

That was through Baby G. He called me and said “Marla, I’ve got a song I want you to sing” so I went down and recorded it. Also, have you heard of Blue King Brown? I met them in Jamaica and bonded straight away. I did some work with Natalie who’s launching her solo career as Nattali Rize. I met a producer through them called Tuff Tumas, who’s based in Australia. I’ve found myself and what I want to sing about through attending 12 Tribes. Because there’s only so much you can write about love. Working with other producers and living in Jamaica, has influenced my writing about real life.

I’ve found myself and what I want to sing about through attending 12 Tribes

So at this point when you’ve recorded with these different producers, usually someone will say “Let’s just shove all those together into an album”.

No, everything has to tell a story. At this point I’m focussed on being received for the first songs I put out. Depending on what songs gain the most interest I then will know what story to tell with the rest of my songs. Because I’ve noticed with this music that anything you plan, never goes accordingly (laughs). It’s weird because people keep asking for an album. It shocked me. “I haven’t even put out a song yet, how do you guys want an album so soon?” But it’s an honour for someone just entering this, to know people want such richness from me, so you have to deliver. It’s something I definitely want to do for next year.  

Tell me about your new single Better Days produced by California’s Royal Order Music.

I connected with King Ivier from Royal Order through Junior Rodigan discussing a dub for Here Comes The King. Ivier sent me some rhythms and I was instantly drawn to the Smart rhythm. He didn't know I had even voiced anything for him until I sent him the session to listen to. He was blown away with the content and vibe.

Better Days is my upful message to everyone that no matter what you go through in life, you don't have to go through it alone. Unity is the foundation of survival (as dad also says in "Stop Your Fussing and Fighting”).

What else are you working on?

I am working with Damian and Stephen on some new material. We have an idea for a new project but are literally just going with the vibes and, Jah willing, all will sound sweet upon completion. I am also working with Clive Hunt - he is doing a cover album of Dad with  various artists on it. I am blessed to be working amongst such greats

My second single, produced by Tony Kelly, we are planning to release in June. I’m excited to get back in studio with him to finish where we left off. Better Days has created great days for me thus far. So many doors are opening so I’m going to follow the vibration and see what God has in store. We have a few bookings in place so we’re going to continue promo for Better Days so people can get familiar with my sound and enjoy. I will be releasing singles until summer and drop the EP around October 2015

You’ve mentioned Christopher Ellis. Both him and Stephen have talked about their shared circumstance as the next generation. The positives and the pressures.

We have a shared passion to keep our fathers work and legacy alive but to represent ourselves also. Because you don’t want to be a clone, you want to showcase that you also were blessed with a talent. That’s something we both share.

How did you feel about you dad having a blue plaque erected in London?

Honestly? I was proud he was acknowledged but it wasn’t genuine because it was on my uncle’s house and it wasn’t to do with the immediate family, so I feel people were a little misled. My dad lived with us! Obviously after a late night session in the studio he would stay there until the morning, that kind of thing. My uncle did actually say on the mic “This is my house and Dennis would stay here”. But he lived at home with his family in Enfield. But that acknowledgement  is always a blessing and an honour. I don’t know anyone that doesn’t appreciate dad the way that we do.

Marla Brown

Outside of music you help the homeless. Tell me about the work you do.

I work for Agape Kitchen at a church in Hackney. We cook food at Easter and Boxing Day. It’s not just homeless people, it’s families or people that can’t afford a regular warm meal.

But it’s so welcoming. We had loads of new faces on Boxing Day. We tell them to keep coming back – I have my regulars. I’ve been involved for about five years now because I love unity. Unity is strength and my family is a great representation of that. I always say I live and love. I have a tattoo that says “Live and Love”, even though I shouldn’t have tattoos (laughs). But I feel what we should do as one family on this earth, is support  and help each other up and listen to their stories. You’d be surprised at how people become homeless or how they have to scrimp and scrape or go without a meal so someone else can eat. You need to embrace everyone’s circumstances and help them overcome, and a smile goes a long way, you’d be surprised.

Is there anything else you would like to say?

I want everyone to know I’m thankful. I don’t want people to think I abuse the blessing or I’m just doing it because dad’s Dennis Brown. I’m doing it for my family and for the fans because they want to still hear dad’s music. Dad has so much music that’s unheard and I don’t want people to forget him. I’m excited for everyone to hear what I’m going to bring because writing songs is new for me. Each time I’m in session I’m like “This is a really good song!” and can’t wait for people to hear it. 

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Read comments (1)

Posted by carolina on 05.06.2015
Wonderful heartfelt honest words from Marla Brown, what a beautiful grounded strong lady to be admired. The legend continues we are blessed xx

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