Looking at Stephen Marley you can see the resemblance to his father, Bob Marley. Hearing his music just confirms the power of genetics. Five time Grammy winning producer, singer and songwriter and the second son of the reggae master, is now stepping to the forefront for the first time in his 27 year career. His debut album, Mind Control combines the raw roots reggae of his childhood in Kingston with the rock, R&B and hip-hop influences of his formative years.
He may not have always been in the spotlight, but Stephen has been the driving creative force behind the music of his brothers. In addition to executive producing 1999’s highly-praised, celebrity-packed tribute to his father, Chant Down Babylon, his production skills can be heard on younger brother Damian's Halfway Tree in 2001 –which garnered both brothers a Grammy for Best Reggae Album. And again adding to the Grammy collection in 2005 as the co-producer on Damian’s acclaimed Gold disc, Welcome To Jamrock.
A son of music, Stephen was dancing and singing onstage from the time he could walk during The Wailers’ live shows. By the tender age of six, he and older brother Ziggy recorded “Children Playing in the Streets” with all profits going to the United Nations to aid efforts during the International Year of the Child. This single would not only mark the beginning of The Melody Makers, but would be the first of many philanthropic endeavors – eventually leading to Stephen’s Ghetto Youth Foundation, which provides aid to children struggling in impoverished and war-ravaged conditions around the globe. Ghetto Youths International will contribute one dollar from every ticket sold on the Mind Control North American tour to Marley’s charity.
Glide caught up with Stephen while he was in New York, one day before taking off on his two month tour through the states. Here’s the low down on Mind Control plus life as a Marley…
Initially Mind Control was called Got Music. Why did you change the title?
Well, I worked on this album on and off for years. Originally, I guess I was more general in terms of my approach to the album and the title. I had time to sit with the record and really think about what I wanted to put up front, forward – which was the message in that title song, “Mind Control”. I was feeling a more militant vibe and it was the most important message to me on the album. Y’know I mean? I think it’s more purposeful now.
And what is that message?
Mind control. The whole thing about mind control or how I found out about the topic was by reading some books. And the books were talkin’ about back in the concentration camp days where you ‘ad too much people and not enough security…not enough governing body. Them couldn’t control the people. They devised a way to get control over the people…they couldn’t shackle all these people so them started this research on how to contain the masses without chains or shackles, y’know what I mean? Without being over their backs, basically. And it was to get to their minds, to control their minds…if them can teach us how to think, how to act, y’see what em sayin’? So that is the whole t’ing. That’s where it’s comin’ from. It’s our system. Population control.
“Traffic Jam” makes light of a ganja bust but how do you cope with the stringent laws here regarding marijuana?
Yeah, right…I don’t understand it. I mean any given Sunday I can go into a bar and get as drunk as I wanna be. Ya know? And then this little plant that haf’ so many different uses though…other than smokin’ …medical purposes…all of these uses that it have …
On Def Poetry the other night, George Clinton said, “They make more money trying to stop people from smoking marijuana than they make selling it.” What do you think of that statement?
It’s very true. Marijuana is a plant that just brings people to-gether. That’s what it does. Y’know wha’ I mean? It brrrr-ings you together. It ‘av so many uses, like say ya’ know wha I mean? They will spend that money to fight it because if them free marijuana mon, I worry ‘bout people’s minds are going to be open . Y’ follow?
Yes, they think that’s a dangerous thing here in the states…
Exactly. In the world. They don’t want that in the world, really.
It’s sort of comical to see the gangsta meets the Rasta in the video of “Traffic Jam.” It seems very uncharacteristic to see you ‘hip-hopped out’ in a Benz…
(Laughs) Well, I mean, like my father said, we’re the original root boys, ya know? In Jamaica that’s where all of that …all that you see in America really come from there, y’understand?
…I think of your dad saying, “The message is in the music.” Do you think today’s hip-hop reggae lacks the message?
Yeah, a lot of it lacks the message. I mean, the music that we are getting “fed”, y’know wha’ I mean? The message is there in it, but it is not what is being said…so the music that is being pushed up front…yes, it lacks the message. For partyin’ (laughs) …
Tell me about Ghetto Youth International Foundation…
Well, alright. The Ghetto Youth is our label, our record company. Our father ‘ad Tuff Gong. We still fly that banner and represent, but our own effort was Ghetto Youths, y’know I mean? Right now we’re startin’ Ghetto Youths Foundation to organize things for children in the ghetto all over the world, but we ‘ave to start at home first.
Mind Control is being praised as the perfect balance between political fire and island-life vibe. Do you agree with that?
Yeah, mon. A basket of fruit. Somet’ing in there for everyone. For anyone who is politically motivated, there is some’ting in there to latch on to, you know wha’ I mean?
Relationship-motivated…there’s something in there about truthful things. Everyt’ing we talk about…the only song not truth from me is the Ray Charles cover. “Lonely Avenue”…that was Ray’s truth. Every other song is true. “Dance, dance” is true. “You’re gonna leave” is true. My love songs all true situations, y’know what I mean? I’m not singing ‘bout someone else’s life. They are all my truth. .
“Chase Dem” is a powerful reminder of “Jammin”. Have you heard that comment before?
Not yet. That wasn’t my intention, but at deh same time, that’s where I learn the music from, ya know? That’s my master. His music. I was playing with The Melody Makers when I was seven years old.
What are your earliest memories of that time as the ‘ragamuffin’ brother in The Melody Makers?
I remember a lot. I mean before we made any records, when we used to just play around the neighborhood and invite the people. We would make tickets… our own tickets, ya know? You could pay 25 cents or 50 cents and come over and get some lemonade (laughs). I’m tellin’ you from before we recorded…when we were really little.
What drew you away from singing and into producing?
I wanted to make music and there were no musicians around. I didn’t know how to organize that session, so I ended up doing it myself, ya know? The first person I produced was my grandmother. It’s natural to me. But, I’m always singing still. On Damian’s three albums, I sing on all of them. I dream about just singing to the people…the fans.
How did you choose Mos Def for “Hey Baby”?
I’ve always been a fan of his music. The reason being that he’s a conscious person. He can bring enlightenment to a topic, yeah…and we’re friends at the same time.
You were once quoted as saying, “I was lucky to be born firm and conscious.” Can you expand on that?
Firm and conscious mean my father was very militant. My mother also come from the ghetto. So we grow up very militant – we didn’t grow up slackin’, y’see what I mean? We ‘ad to know how to wash, cook, clean. We haf to know how to do everyt’ing. Conscious again…from the day I can remember I have been taught very vital lessons, y’know I mean? From my father’s music, from my mother’s words. From our fit. That’s why I say I wasn’t born searching. I was born conscious…knowing who God is. I didn’t have to go out in the earth searching. My greatest mentor taught me hands on. In his words, “hands on”.
Was the inspiration for the Africa Unite Event to carry on your father’s legacy?
Definitely. I mean that is definitely a big part of it. It don’t take a spark enough to start a fire, y’know wha’ em sayin’? We have to keep chipping away until something gashes off in a positive sense. Ethiopia is my father’s favorite place on earth. Him say that, y’know? He has to be where his father is – which is his majesty. We went d’er on his birthday to celebrate it. It was very meaningful in more ways than one because spiritually again, that is the Holy Land. So it was a full purging, yeah.
Do you feel it’s more dangerous today than it was back in the ‘70’s when your father performed in the Zimbabwe concert?
Well, I mean there’s more awareness today. But at the same time, the people ‘dem wicked-er. There’s also more greed today.
You were a part of that whole riot with the tear gas and the threat to your father’s life. That must have been very traumatic…
Yeah, I was very young at the time, but it made me stronger. I didn’t come shyin’ out like, ya know. I came out stronger.
You consider yourself “a son of music” – do you see your children following suit?
Yeah, some of them. They are showing the traits, but I’m not encouraging it right now. Not right now because if I encourage it then… (pause)
…they won’t go to school?
Yeah (laughs) you’re right wit’ me…you get me.
Do you think the world has come a long way since your father’s time in terms of liberation through music?
Yeah, yeah. And mostly because of his music. If you check the earth, you know wha’ em sayin’? A lot of that is because of the Gong – people like him. People who stand fi something can relate to him. It all come back to substance.
And what exactly does “Gong” mean?
Tuff Gong. Them used to call my father “Tuff Gong”. Like the “skipper”, ya know? The Gong, the “captain.”
And your brother, Damian, “Junior Gong”…you scored your fifth Grammy on your production work for his most recent album. Are you closest to him?
Well, he’s the youngest, so y’know I mean? Him get the most, naturally… in that sense. Ziggy is the eldest brother. Tell you the truth, I’m close to all of them.
What do you feel is the most important message to reveal to the world today?
I mean, there’s no one message still. Each one have a different message, you know? The youth need guidance. The leaders need love. There’s so much messages. Right now love is the greatest thing going, y’know wha’ em sayin’? Because if we don’t have love, there’s no hope. If we don’t have love, if we don’t lead from love, live by love, then we have no hope. When my father say, “One love”, this is it. He never choose that to be the most important message, but it is the most recognized message – One love. It’s like a one word prayer. Two words, but it’s like a prayer right d’er. One love. What more can you give? One love my brother, one love my sister, you know? One love it is for today.
Joanne Schenker lives in New York and is a contributing writer for Glide and music columnist for Canvas Magazine. She can be reached at email@example.com. or at her blog: www.jocoschenker.typepad.com.