Jr. Gong Show

Can Damian Marley rescue reggae?

Some of the world's top reggae bands will play Long Beach's annual Bob Marley Day Festival this weekend, but is anyone listening? Even reggae aficionados will admit this is a time of tribulation.

"I think reggae is in deep doldrums now," says music journalist Roger Steffens, who curated one of the largest collections of the music's memorabilia, "Roger Steffens' Reggae Archives," which was exhibited on the Queen Marylast year.

"In many ways, it's a thing of the past. It's sad to say that, but all indications are going that way. Reggae has the energy, but it needs airplay and good, new artists to reinvigorate it."

But if there's a bright spot on the Caribbean music's gloomy horizon, it could be the reggae prophet's youngest son, 23-year-old Damian Marley, who plays on Sunday with his band, Ghetto Youth Crew.

His latest album, Halfway Tree, was recently nominated for a Grammy. It's also the first album released as part of a distribution deal between Motown Records and Ghetto Youths International, the Kingston-based label owned by Bob Marley's kids.

But does this mean Damian plays the kind of roots reggae his father helped revolutionize? Nah—Damian and the rest of the Marley kids are hip-hop heads. Don't even call Damian a singer.

"When I started my professional career, people always knew me as a DJ, as a chanter. So there's no pressure to be roots," says the easygoing Damian.

Halfway Tree is the music that kids are jamming to in Jamaica, a DJ-inspired, reggae-tinged sound that's riled up with a tough hip-hop energy. Damian laid down the rhymes and co-produced the effort with his half-brother Stephen, the CEO of Ghetto Youth International. Hip-hop luminaries like Eve and not-so-bright lights like Treach of Naughty By Nature; Bob Marley's musical compatriot Bunny Wailer; and such dancehall veterans as Capleton, Bounty Killer and rising star Yami Bolo guest on the album.

Most of Halfway Tree's songs are original, but when Damian and crew stoop to cover a song, they cover the best: Bob Marley. In "Catch a Fire," a reworking of Bob's 1973 classic "Slave Driver," they take the song's slow, menacing bass line and loop it over some urgent, staccato hip-hop beats, transforming the song into a searing, latter-day indictment of ghetto life. Bob sang about a brutal history; Damian rhymes about a tough present.

The rest of the music is pretty diverse—everything from spoken-word, soulful R&B flavors to the light, playful Latin-laced reggae of "She Needs My Love." However, a good chunk of the music on Halfway Tree is as harsh as a Snoop Dogg gangsta rap. Steffens says Halfway Tree is like a lot of other dancehall: sonic reporting on a bad situation.

"What they're doing, essentially, is portraying the current state of Kingston, which is more violent than ever before. Last year, 1,139 people were killed in the country, which has less than a million people. It's angrier music," says Steffens.

Still, Damian hopes the album's lighter side reflects how things have gotten better in his home as well. "I judge that the streets are harder now than they were 30 years ago," he says. "But 30 years ago, rastas were brutalized by police on sight. Now they are free to walk where they please."

Damian himself is the product of better relationships between blacks and whites, rich and poor. His mother, Cindy Breakspeare, is a white woman who grew up in a well-to-do section of Kingston. A phenomenal beauty, she was crowned Jamaica's Miss World in 1976.

Breakspeare became a fixture at Bob's famous house/studio, 56 Hope Road, where she developed a relationship with Bob (who was married to his wife Rita at the time). The result was Damian.

Damian's folks split up before Bob died of cancer in 1981. However, Damian was never distant from the Marley family. He was a frequent visitor to the family home and has been making music with them for as long as he can remember. He now lives with his half-brothers Stephen and Julian, and they divide their time between Miami and Kingston.

Halfway Tree reflects Damian's history: on the song "Where Is the Love," Damian rhymes about treating women with respect, but on "Stuck in Between," he's rhyming about two-timing women.

"If my dad wasn't involved with two ladies, I wouldn't be here," Damian protests. "And if you're in love with two ladies, that doesn't mean that you disrespect them."

But does that make Damian a cad or a lothario? He'd never describe himself that way. "Say there is someone," he says. "Am I with her or am I chasing her? Good question. Somewhere in between."

Bob Marley Day Festival 2002 at the Long Beach Arena, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach, (310) 515-3322. Sat.-Sun., 1 p.m. $35-$50. All ages.
 
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