"Mind Control" from the album Mind Control
"The Traffic Jam" from the album Mind Control
Even if you can't name a Stephen Marley song, you've likely heard his music. When he released his first solo album last year, Mind Control, the second oldest son of Bob Marley already had five Grammys on his shelf — more than his father, or for that matter, any other reggae artist in history.
Stephen Marley, the producer, made his name in the studio with his work on Chant Down Babylon, a 1999 remix collection of his father's music that featured modern artists like Lauryn Hill, the Roots, and Aerosmith. More recently, he produced brother Damian Marley's 2005 hit, Welcome to Jamrock, the Grammy winner for best reggae album the following year.
Stephen the singer began his career as a grade schooler, touring with big brother Ziggy as a member of the Melody Makers. He often took lead vocals and was called by the nickname 'Raga' for ragamuffin, because, as he says, "I'm a little rough around the edges." But it wasn't until age 34 that little Raga released his debut.
"I don't look at it as if I was waiting," says Marley. "It was more organically, how this thing happened and when it was supposed to happen. That was always my outlook."
Since Mind Control's release, which features guest appearances from Ben Harper, Mos Def, and brothers Julian and Damian, Stephen is increasingly a star in his own right. He'll play Bonnaroo this summer, as well as a major show in Mexico City amid a three-month tour that takes him across the U.S.
"America is a stepping stone where I'm passing through," says Marley, who keeps a home in Miami. "Jamaica is home. I keep my children close to me, so they are here, but at the same time, them go home. Jamaica is what we call home."
Although his family is known for their socially conscious lyrics, Marley says that even on an American tour in an election year, he's not taking sides.
"Our whole system is what we really attack — I'm against a system that wears down the people. They blight us," he says. "Right now, we need awareness, education. As my father says, 'What we say is what they teach us.' We are limited to that, you know? The people, them don't know the earth and the world and the fullness thereof, as the Bible says. The Bible says the earth is alive. It's odd for me to put it in words. We need knowledge because from that comes understanding, enlightenment."
One aspect of the system Marley takes particular issue with is the voracity with which the government restricts marijuana use.
"I wonder why them fight this little plant so much, when alcohol and other stimulants are out there — your pharmacy, you know, and people are drinking syrup," says Marley. "So you know, in our culture, we smoke herb as a part of sacrament, for meditation and that type of purpose. At the same time, smoking is not the only use of the herb. It is medicinal; it has great fibers and different uses. So we are advocates of the use of the plant."
On his summer tour, which began in Florida last week and includes two stops on the S.C. coast, Marley's band is a mix of old school players and "new youths." He's mainly playing guitar for the live show, as well as an African drum called the akete, used in chanting rituals.
"Every single night I play, I look forward to," says Marley. "It's like going to see my extended family. I'm always excited to board [the bus], for the music's sake, and the cause. It's a great thing."
Although Stephen plans to release more solo efforts in the future, he's still producing as well. When he finishes his current project, brother Julian Marley's new album, he'll get to work on Damian's next one.
"These things are just natural," he says. "There is no reason to take an effort making music. Producing or playing, them's just making music."