An interview with Carl Lamarre for Billboard.
Reggae legend Damian Marley attained success on his own terms. Despite the weighty last name he carries courtesy of his father — music legend Bob Marley — Jr. Gong has etched an indelible lane for himself in music.
In 2005, he made his mark on the socially driven single “Welcome to Jamrock,” on which Marley unabashedly addresses the high crime rate that plagues his home country of Jamaica. The record, which peaked at No. 55 on the Billboard Hot 100, netted him a Grammy Award for best urban and alternative performance. Marley’s stock continued to skyrocket when he connected with Nas for their 2010 collaboration album Distant Relatives. The political tandem made Africa a priority, and they donated the proceeds from their album to the struggling continent.
After being away from the spotlight for several years, Marley is back to release his new album Stony Hill on July 21. Ahead of its release, he has gifted his fans several singles, most notably “Nail Pon Cross” and “Medication” alongside brother Stephen Marley.
Billboard recently spoke to Damian Marley about his growth since his 2005 album Welcome to Jamrock, his new album Stony Hill, the power of marijuana and if he and Nas will collaborate for another project.
You began your European tour over the weekend in the U.K., most notably Manchester. What were the vibes from the people in attendance, especially after the bombing at the Ariana Grande concert last month?
To tell you the truth, this was the first time I was playing the festival, so I wouldn’t be able to say if the turnout was affected by the events. But in terms of the reactions of the people, it was kind of like a show as usual. In other words, I didn’t see anything that affected the crowd. However, the police presence was very visible.
As an artist that’s always on the road, how do you remain focused and steady knowing that an incident like the one in Manchester is possible anytime you grace the stage?
To tell you the truth, when you’re traveling so much, you don’t always go back to think about it unless somebody brings it up, at least for me. I’m in Manchester, and I might not even realize that’s exactly where I’m at until I’m about to go onstage or something like that. You can’t get caught up in just the day-to-day hustle of traveling from town to town. You’re not really so aware of it until it’s discussed.
On your record “Marijuana,” you speak about the drug’s medicinal purposes. Why do you feel marijuana hasn’t been legalized worldwide yet despite its effectiveness medicinally?
I think that’s politics. I think if you kind of observe how weed came in in the first place, it was really based on politics more so than anything to do with its effect on humans or your body in that kind of case. We kind of need to just educate the people on the stigma around it. I think if more people get educated, then the more accepting they’ll become of it. Like I said, again, it’s really all about politics. A lot of it now, even in Jamaica, is being criminalized. For it to become legal, they’re gonna have to figure out how the money is gonna go. So that slows it down a lot too for it to become legal, taxed and then legitimate. They’re gonna have to figure out how, economically, it can really work.
Can you give us a personal experience of how marijuana has been effective as a medication, whether it was with you, a family member or friend?
We have a friend who’s an engineer. His brother was experiencing stage 4 cancer and he had been taking a lot of the radiation. The CBDs really helped bring him back to health because he lost his appetite and so forth. A lot of the times what happens when people take the radiation, the radiation weakens the body so much that your immune [system] is so low that the cancer relapses anyway because of your body not being able to strengthen up itself on its own. So the CBDs really helped a lot in that department.
Right now, if you look at any of my social media, you’ll see that we put out a lot of testimonial videos that are about a minute long each that documents different people’s experiences and stories. All of these people have serious [sicknesses] and aren’t trying to just get over the flu. You’ll see serious and complicated illnesses. You’ll see how they say that the marijuana is helping.
At the end of the video for “Nail Pon Cross,” you had yourself, an African-American boy, a Muslim woman, a cop and a gang member all hanging from crosses. Describe the message of that scene and why it was such a powerful moment.
It was basically trying to say that you’re judging someone based upon a stereotype. You’re judging them based on appearance, whether it’s their ethnicity or their culture, without really getting to know the person. That’s really what that scene signifies, you know? That’s really what the song was about. This kind of passing judgment without really knowing or without judging yourself or even having a right to judge. That’s really what that song highlighted.
How do you suggest people crush those fears and stereotypes moving forward?
I think each individual operates on their own merits. You can’t really judge a group of people based upon one person’s outlook. It’s all about communication. Music does that for us too. People start getting into music and they get to know other cultures and other people’s religion and all kinds of things like that. Again, it’s really about being open-minded and open to communicate. Communication is key.
You revealed in an interview with Hot 97 that you released several compilation albums with artists back home. How important has it been for you to groom talent back in Jamaica and make sure that the integrity of reggae and dancehall are still intact?
That’s really it. I can sit down and think of all of the reasons why it’s important, but for me, it’s something that I enjoy. It’s something that’s fun for me. Sitting down with people, helping them and trying to guide them in whatever way that I can contribute. I’ve kind of experienced producing — not just tracks for myself, because that’s how I started, in production, but tracks for other people. That’s also something I’ve enjoyed doing. And then if you look at what you’re saying, what’s important is that you’re really giving power to the source. You’re helping the younger generation just like how someone helped me when I was coming up, especially with us being on the frontier of our genre.
Talk about your growth as an artist and as a man from when you droppedWelcome to Jam Rock in 2005 to now with your forthcoming album Stony Hill.
The most important aspect of my growth since then is the fact that I’ve become a father. I have a son who is now 7 years old, and of course that expands your mind in life. You grow a lot and mature through that. That itself makes a person grow and in their music also. It’s been like 10 to 12 years since that album so, of course, everything that comes with life, you know? Being now in my late 30s as opposed to my late 20s, I’ve matured a lot as a person.
Do you have a song on your album that focuses on fatherhood?
Well, there’s a song called “So a Child May Follow” that’s dedicated to young people. I wouldn’t say it’s directly dedicated to me as a father or to my child. I remember when I wrote that song, I was running with my nephews a lot because they’re young men now. They’re in their late-teens and early 20s. I think the album itself has a lot of lessons that I believe people will learn form.
What lessons are you hoping that your son can one day pick up from your new album?
Having patience. Being diligent in terms of staying committed to whatever it is that you’re trying to accomplish. Seeing things through and handling things like a professional. There’s some songs like “Nail Pon Cross,” I would hope he absorbs the messages in that song once he gets a bit older so that can be a way for him to live his life.
What’s your take on artists jumping on the reggae and dancehall wave? Do you feel their intents are pure and genuine, or do you believe they’re simply trying to capitalize off of the culture?
Anyone who does reggae music, in my point of view, is always going to be a compliment to us as a genre. For whatever reason, whether it’s because it’s a popular thing, we want our music to be popular. So that’s cool. What I would like to see, especially when it comes to acts that are not from Jamaica, is that they kind of reach out to the community, you know? Come to Jamaica. Use some of our studios. Work with some of our producers. Work with some of our artists, you know? Pay that homage to the roots, but again, the best compliment and best form of flattery is imitation.
Over the weekend, you were spotted with Jay Z in Jamaica. What did his visit entail? Were you giving him a tour? Did you guys work on music?
We did some work in the studio recently and he wanted to come to Jamaica to get a tour of the place. He’s been to Jamaica before, but never Kingston. So he wanted to come down to Kingston and asked us if we could have been there to show him around and give him a tour musically, in terms of our history in Kingston. So that’s really the basis of what that was about.
What did you show him in terms of monuments or historic places in Kingston?
We took him around Trenchtown, which is a community that my father grew up in as a young man, and various other great reggae musicians. We kind of walked him around that community a bit. We also went to a beach in Jamaica that’s very popular there called Hellshire Beach. It’s a very popular beach in Kingston.
As far as the music side of things, was the collaboration for Stony Hill or was that for a project that he’s working on?
Well, I did some work with him for some stuff that he’s working on. I’m not really sure of the details of his project in that sense, but we worked on some music together. I’ve been a fan of his music since he came out. We’ve never done any musical work together. So that was a joy to finally work together musically.
You and Nas toyed around with the idea of one day performing in Africa when you guys released Distant Relatives in 2010. Is that still a goal of yours?
Yeah, I mean, we’d love that. I’m just coming from Africa before I started this European tour. We went to South Africa, Kenya and Ethiopia, but I would love to see one day if we could do a performance there. That would be good.
Do you think another project with you and Nas will come to light, especially with today’s social climate?
Every time him and I get together, we always discuss the fact that we would love to do a part two. It’s not in the books just yet. So we don’t have any scheduled plans, but I think both of us have the intention that we would like to do it.
Very few people can say that they’ve worked with Jay Z and Nas. If you could collaborate with one rapper, who would that artist be and why?
You know, after doing some work with Jay, I would say that the artists that I would have wanted to work with are no longer with us, like the Tupacs [of the world]. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of a lot of rappers, but if you’re saying pick one, that’s kind of [hard]. [Laughs]
If you could pick three songs from Stony Hill that are dear to your heart, which three would you choose and why?
Perhaps “So a Child May Follow.” There’s a sentiment to the song and at the time I was writing it, a close friend of mine had passed away also. Every time I hear the song, I kind of remember the feelings. It’s kind of personal. I would have to say “Livin’ It Up” because that song is kind of an homage to my upbringing, my mom and that side of my family. That’s one of my mother’s favorite cuts on the album. Maybe a song called “The Struggle Discontinues.” That’s the closest I’ve gone to doing something that sounds a lot like my dad’s music in that sense.
With Father’s Day coming up on Sunday, if you can have one message that you would want to tell your late father, what would that message be and why?
I wanna tell you, bro, with Father’s Day coming up, I will have a conversation with my father that’s not my dad, but I have a stepfather who groomed me since I was 2 years old. He and I are very close. He’s a big influence on me in terms of the person I’ve become also, for sure. On Father’s Day, I’m gonna give him a call and wish him all the best.