Sunday, April 15, 2007

In his father's footsteps

In his father's footsteps

Sunday, April 15, 2007

When your last name is Marley, your birthplace is Kingston, and your chosen career is reggae musician, you could be in danger of never meeting the public's high expectations.

But to Bob Marley's second son, Stephen Marley, the inevitable comparisons his cheekbones and dulcet tones draw to his late superstar father are no burden.

"No, man!" he says, on the phone from New York two days after the March release of his solo album, "Mind Control." "It is an honor being compared to such a great man. Even better that he's my dad."

Although the record uses his father's trademark one-drop as just one of a wide palette of grooves, Stephen doesn't worry about what his father's fans might say.

"I think after time they will get it, they will be convinced, in that sense," he says. "But at the same time, my father would say, 'We can't run away from ourselves.' This is who we are. We are the children of Bob."

Stephen, who will be 35 on Friday, is releasing his premiere CD at an age when most pop stars are in their golden years. (His father died at age 36 in 1981 from complications of cancer, with more than a dozen albums completed.) But he realized what his destiny would be early on. Born in 1972, as his father was perched on the edge of international success, Stephen spent his early years dancing and singing onstage with his dad's band the Wailers. At age 7, he joined brother Ziggy and sisters Cedella and Sharon in the Melody Makers, and had a global hit with "Children Playing in the Streets." He spent his teenage years touring the world with them, trying to live up to their billing as the rightful heirs to their father's throne.

Perhaps such expectations explain why Stephen Marley has taken a relaxed approach to his 27-year career. Since the Melody Makers ended, he has played primarily a background role, bringing musical muscle to releases that usually feature his brothers in the Ghetto Youth Crew. He executive-produced the 1999 hit compilation album "Chant Down Babylon," an update of his father's music for the hip-hop generation. He has overseen the breakout career of his half brother Damian "Jr. Gong" Marley, whose 2005 album, "Welcome to Jamrock," slowly grew into a critical and popular smash. He has quietly amassed five Grammys. "Mind Control" is, characteristically, off to a low-key but promising start. It sold 20,000 in its first week and premiered at No. 1 on the Billboard reggae chart and No. 35 on the album chart.

"You know in soccer? I'm like the link man. I put that ball through so that we can score the goals," he says, also calling himself "the leader of the (Marley) army."

Perhaps Stephen is the midfield general of the new Marley generation. "Mind Control" is polished, assured and casually virtuosic in a way that most premieres are raw, edgy and ferociously single-minded. In the same way that hip-hop producers like Timbaland and Just Blaze have renewed rap by emphasizing the music's omnivorous rhythmic appetites, Stephen Marley updates Jamaican music for an era of globalized pop by tracing the connections between local styles. Reggaeton influences show up on "Let Her Dance," bossa nova stylings on "Fed Up." He updates nyabinghi drumming on "Juna Di Red" and pairs classic hip-hop beatboxing with a tried-and-true dance-hall riddim, "The Answer/Never Let Go," on "The Traffic Jam."

"My influences are very vast and wide, from Africa to Mexico," he says. "This music is so close to each other. It's close to Brazilian music. It's close to Nigerian music. So it's universal."

Marley sees his music as "conscious music," and he hopes to turn North American audiences not just toward his own family's messages but to the rebel music of youths from Brazil, Africa and the Caribbean. Yet he disavows any political agenda, in part because of his experiences during the tumultuous years in the 1970s, when his parents were attacked in the midst of warring Jamaican political parties.

"My mother got shot in her head through our voice and our opinion. My father got shot also. In my family, we have had our hands-on experience with politics, and me can tell you that it's a dirty game," he says. "At the same time, not to be naïve, of course we need to have governing bodies for oversee the people's interest. But until we see those people that have the people's interest, I have to be an advocate against politics, because I have seen nothing good out of it in Jamaica. It has been the same from my father's time till now. It even get worse. A lot of youths don't live past 16. It's like a plague."

Stephen brings his family -- now living in Miami as well as in Kingston -- with him on the road as much as he can. "Mind Control's" most moving number is "Hey Baby," a song that began as a lullaby he would sing via phone to his children from the road.

"Every day I pray to Jah that one day you will see and overstand the fact I must fulfill my destiny," Marley sings, before adding in a gentle falsetto, "I'll be coming home to you again."

The album ends with his children singing an old Rastafari chant, and Marley laughing at the sound.

"I tell you the truth, I am always surrounded by my family," he says, noting that Damian and another half brother, Julian, are usually touring with him if his children are not. "Not having my old man around as much as we would have wanted him -- some of that has been missing, of course, so with me and my kids, I make sure that I see them as much and do as much with them to fill that little void. I make sure that I double that for them."

STEPHEN MARLEY performs with Damian "Jr. Gong" Marley at 8 p.m. April 22 at the Fillmore, 1805 Geary Blvd., San Francisco. $23. (415) 346-6000,

Jeff Chang is a freelance writer.

This article appeared on page PK - 46 of the San Francisco Chronicle

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