x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Damian Marley: the rise of Bob's little wailer

He grew up in the shadow of the man who brought reggae to the world and, like many of his siblings, followed in the trail blazed by his father. But a distinctive style and voice has established him as a talent in his own right

Kagan McLeod for The National
Kagan McLeod for The National

He grew up in the shadow of the man who brought reggae to the world and, like many of his siblings, followed in the trail blazed by his father. But a distinctive style and voice has established him as a talent in his own right. John Eden profiles one of the big names at Womad Abu Dhabi For many people, one name will be forever synonymous with the world of reggae: Bob Marley. After all, this is the artist who brought Jamaican music to unprecedented global recognition and who, upon his death in 1981, left behind a legacy of songs so timeless they continue to provide the soundtrack for the lives of millions to this day.

In addition to his work, though, Marley also gave the world a considerable bequest in the form of his extended family. A prolific womaniser, he fathered at least 11 children of his own from seven different mothers and, to all intents and purposes, adopted a number of others from his partners' previous relationships. Bob's youngest son, Damian Robert Nesta Marley was born in 1978, the only offspring from the singer's relationship with Cindy Breakspeare, the 1976 Miss World. Although Damian had little time to know his father, it wasn't long before he was playfully dubbed "Junior Gong", an echo of Bob's own nickname "Tuff Gong".

Damian began performing early. First, he was the vocalist for The Shepherds, a group made up of the children of other stars such as Freddie McGregor, Judy Mowatt and the reggae band Third World's guitarist Stephen "Cat" Coore. The Shepherds performed at several shows in Jamaica, including the Reggae Sunsplash festival in 1992, but split up before they had made a single record. Many of Bob Marley's children entered the music business: Stephen, Ziggy, Ky-Mani, Rohan and Julian, to name but a few. So, it was no great shock that Damian should also follow in his father's footsteps. This is where the similarities with his siblings end, though. Firstly, rather than traditional roots reggae songs, he opted for the rough and rugged vocal style known as "deejaying" or "toasting" (the Jamaican version of rapping). Secondly, he deviated from the light, fluid instrumental backing deployed by his brothers, diving headlong into the raw and uncompromising sounds of dancehall (a tougher, predominantly electronically produced strand of reggae born in 1985 with the release of King Jammy's Sleng Teng rhythm).

Damian's early career had at least a couple of notable moments. His debut single Deejay Degree (1993) was released before his voice had properly broken, but youth proved no bar to either enthusiasm or self-belief: "Fresh new deejay with a deejay degree/Dem a chat about Junior Gong/The youngest Marley". Rapid-fire lyrics complemented the brutalist "ragga"-style percussion, but this first recording is most worthy of mention in hindsight; it barely even hints at the success that would eventually come to its author. Schooltime Controversy (1994) was similarly basic but redeemed by some playful lyrics.

However, Damian's debut album Mr Marley (1996) featured far less abrasive instrumentation, plus a number of references to his father's life and work. It may have seemed like a logical move at the time, but it also displayed a singular lack of confidence and maturity. There is no doubting the power of the Marley brand. Just like his music, Bob Marley's image can be found in virtually every country in the world, from unsanctioned T-shirts to official posthumous endorsements such as organic Marley Coffee ("Stir it up!" goes the slogan) and even The Marley Resort and Spa in Nassau, Bahamas.

For all the security that such illustrious family connections bring, they must also be something of an albatross for an aspiring musician. Luckily, Damian began to truly establish himself with the 2001 follow-up album Halfway Tree. It received a Grammy for Best Reggae Album and offers glimpses of the high points his career would eventually reach. Fast-forward to 2005. "Out in the streets - they call it murder..." This simple introduction to the single Welcome to Jamrock caused jaws to drop across the reggae community. Not only was Jamrock easily the best record produced by a Marley family member since Bob's death, it was the best piece of Jamaican music many people had heard in years, period. The New York Times declared it the best reggae song of the decade. Combining Damian's usual lyrical concerns of social justice with a breathtaking reworking of the 1980s classic World a Music by Ini Kamoze, it certainly had few rivals. The gritty vocals and hard-hitting bass line made it a global club smash and a rash of remixes and re-versions followed. Always the best measure of any reggae tune's popularity, though, was its inescapability at London's Notting Hill Carnival two years in a row.

The main contribution to world culture of Damian's father is the effortless way in which he made reggae accessible to the widest possible audience, while still retaining the music's integrity. Until this point, his children had failed do anything even close, offering instead derivative and referential music that, while frequently reasonably well-received, was never passionately embraced by anyone. It took Bob Marley's youngest son to break the mould and make the kind of tune capable of reintroducing reggae to a new generation.

A third album followed, also titled Welcome to Jamrock. This recording represented a quantum leap in Damian's career, one which prompted almost universal praise, winning further Grammy Awards for Best Reggae Album and Best Urban/Alternative Performance. (Damian Marley is the only Jamaican artist to ever win two Grammy Awards on the same night.) Highlights included Khaki Suit (featuring the dancehall superstar Bounty Killer, and owing a huge yet respectfully paid debt to Eek A Mouse's dub killer Anarexol), and Road to Zion with the rapper Nas, a rhythmically downbeat number a world away from Bob's work, but also inextricably linked to it, thanks to inspirational lyrics aimed at sufferers and strivers everywhere.

The international festival circuit soon beckoned, where Damian's performances were extremely well received. In preparation for the Womad Abu Dhabi 2010 show, the curious should check out the extensive archive of past appearances on YouTube. In fact, pretty soon everyone wanted a piece of the Marley family's second act. Accordingly, offers of high-profile collaborations came thick and fast. Since then, Damian's distinctive, gravelly vocals have appeared on tracks by an impressive array of hip-hop acts, from Cypress Hill to Ludacris. This must have been a dream come true for the artist. He had previously confessed that despite growing up surrounded by music, he had only been moved to start buying records seriously by the low-slung 1990s G-funk of West Coast rappers such as Snoop Dogg.

More unusual collaborators included Mariah Carey on Cruise Control, Gwen Stefani's Now That You Got It and even the late Nat King Cole on an ill-conceived project to revive the EMI/Capitol back catalogue. But perhaps the true sign of fame is that Damian has also been immortalised as a video-game character in Sims 2: The Bon Voyage, in which he dances and performs some of his lyrics in the game's own language, "Simlish".

With a hectic touring schedule, new Damian Marley material has been scarce of late. One Loaf of Bread, a plaintive, Rastafari-themed ballad, crept out in 2007, and The Mission, a head-nodding duet with his brother Stephen was released on VP Records' Reggae Gold 2008 compilation. Both of these were convincing but failed to make much of an impression outside of diehard reggae circles. Strangely, Holiday, a great piece of new-roots reggae, and his best recent outing, has yet to be officially released.

But Damian is ready for a return to the spotlight. His fourth album, Distant Relatives, due out next month, is another collaboration with Nas. With contributions from artists including Lil Wayne, Joss Stone, the late Dennis Brown and the Somali-born rapper K'Naan, the album has been hotly anticipated for months. If only on the strength of the recently leaked track As We Enter, which features samples of Mulatu Astatke, the Ethiopian jazz maestro, these high expectations appear to be warranted.

Like many sons of famous fathers, Bob Marley's legend will always remain inescapable for Damian. However, this young artist has, over time, emerged as a truly credible talent in his own right. My advice? Leave your preconceptions at home, get down to Abu Dhabi Corniche on April 24 and enjoy some of the best reggae the 21st century has to offer. * The National