Damian Marley on the legalization of weed, slave reparations and entering Jamaican politics

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A report by Tony Wong for Toronto’s Star.

Damian Marley says he’s “brainstorming” about the possibility of entering Jamaican politics, which leads to the question: Could Bob Marley’s youngest son one day become prime minister of the island nation?

“It’s not the question of do I want to get into politics; it’s how do I help people, and I think increasingly, that in order to do certain things, you have to be involved somehow,” says Marley in an interview with the Star, as the musician takes a break from his Miami studio in the middle of mixing an album with reggae group Third World. “The issues of inequality are still there. They aren’t unique issues to Jamaica, but they haven’t been dealt with.”

While it would have seemed far-fetched for his dreadlocked father to run for prime minister during an era when his Rastafarian religion had been historically persecuted, that doesn’t seem a stretch today for the articulate 40-year-old.

Marley is, after all, not just descended from music royalty, but his mother, Toronto-born Cindy Breakspeare, was the reining Miss World of 1976, taking the crown in London in an era when beauty queens didn’t always come from the colonies.The first thing he would have done as prime minister? Well, the island is already on the road to a latent decriminalization of cannabis. But the issue of reparations is uppermost in his mind. While his father famously spoke of “mental slavery,” Marley wants Jamaica’s former colonial masters to pay for their part in native genocide and African enslavement

“Don’t tell me it can’t be done. North American Indians, Jewish people have all managed to get at least some of their due. But after so many decades we haven’t managed to get anywhere. I think it’s time.”

The musician returns to his mother’s hometown on Saturday at the University of the West Indies benefit gala to receive the Luminary Award, which recognizes people of Caribbean heritage who are “outstanding achievers.” Toronto-born singer and actress Deborah Cox will also be a recipient.

Marley Sr. had, by official accounts, 11 children by different mothers, including Ziggy Marley, the eldest and one of the first to break out musically. But Damian, also known as Jr. Gong in reference to his dad’s nickname of Tuff Gong, lately has been the most prominent of the Marley scions.

He is already the first reggae artist to score two Grammys in one night, for his breakthrough Welcome to Jamrock in 2005, and the first reggae artist to win a Grammy in a non-reggae category for Best Urban/Alternative Performance. He has also famously collaborated with everyone from Bruno Mars to Mick Jagger to Jay-Z.

When Marley toured Jay-Z around Trench Town, the Kingston ghetto where his father grew up, to record the video for their dancehall-inflected hit “Bam,” some people recognized Jay-Z as “Beyoncé’s husband,” chuckles Marley. “Ah, so it go.”

Marley, serendipitously, arrives in Toronto the week that the first legal cannabis retail stores open in the province.

“Maybe this means they won’t search me anymore when I’m on a tour bus coming up to Canada; that’s such a pain in the ass,” he jokes. Marley’s father, of course, was a weed-smoking demigod. And Jr. has his own line of weed: Damian Marley SpeakLife OG, described as “piney tasting, encouraging inspiration and good vibes.”

It’s not for sale in Canada yet. But Marley says it might be a matter of time. The discussion wanders after I make the mistake of asking him what exactly is good weed, as he displays a professorial knowledge of the herb.

“That’s a really, really personal question,” says Marley. “That’s like saying what is good food? But there are so many strains out there for every hour of the day.”

I tell him that I saw his father play blocks from my own childhood home at Jarrett Park in Montego Bay in the 1970s, a seminal event in the world of reggae.

“I don’t have the same memories,” he says. As the youngest Marley, Damian was only 2 when his father died. He says he has vague recollections of his father and sometimes he’s not even sure if they’re real.

“As a child growing up, to be honest, I wasn’t really aware of who he was,” says Marley. “You’re thinking childish things, you’re not thinking my dad is an icon or my mom is Miss World.”

Key to Marley’s success is that he isn’t afraid to move from traditional roots reggae to dancehall, to hip-hop and even pop. His voice resembles the scratchy, plaintive lyricism of his father, although with a deeper timbre, which he often uses to rap and which has made him a sought after musical collaborator.

“Damian Marley’s artistry on the world stage has brought prominence to not just the culture of Jamaica but that of the Caribbean,” said Donette Chin-Loy Chang, the co-patron of the University of the West Indies event. “To be the only reggae artist to win two Grammys the same night is deserving of recognition,”

Held annually at the Toronto Ritz-Carlton, the sold-out gala has raised more than $1.5 million for scholarships.

It’s a testament to the city’s diversity that the most prestigious Caribbean academic institution has its glitziest fundraiser in Toronto, under the patronage of the family of the late Raymond Chang, the former chancellor of Ryerson University who made his fortune creating one of Canada’s biggest mutual fund companies. Chang’s children, Brigette and Andrew, remain co-chairs.

“I never went to UWI, but I know that campus so well because I used to go there to get extra lessons in math during high school,” says Marley. “But I’m an advocate of education for young people especially if you come from challenged backgrounds. How many Jamaican students will make it into UWI if they come from Trench Town? It’s all about opportunity.”

Certainly, as the child of one of Jamaica’s most beloved figures, the Marley name has presented Jr. Gong with more than ample opportunity. But he argues that while the famous name may have opened doors, he had to fight for his time in the sun as much as anyone else.

“No one is going to listen or enjoy your music because of your name,” says Marley.

“You can’t force someone to buy your music or like what you’re doing. People always ask me what you want to be remembered for. And I always say if I am not here and people remember me for my music I am blessed. The fact that someone might even remember me when I am gone is something that I don’t take lightly.”

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