A musical career the Ky-Mani Marley way
December 19, 2007
Being the offspring of Bob Marley has proved to be a most beneficial thing. A handful of the late reggae kings sons has gone on to prominence in their own right, including but not limited to eldest son David, better known as Ziggy and leader of the extremely successful Ziggy Marley & the Melody Makers, to youngest son Damian, whose 2006 album Welcome to Jamrock earned a pair of Grammy Awards, with its explosive title track causing a true sensation in Jamaica. Marley seems to have passed on not only his name, but his talent and charisma, and, especially in the case of Stephen Marley, his voice and style.There is, though, another side to growing up Marley. Bob grew up in poverty, mostly in the rough Trenchtown slum of Kingston, Jamaica. Short in height and the product of a mixed-race couple, Marley fought his way to fame. His children, for the most part, followed a different track their names instantly recognizable, considered royalty in their own country and beyond, and bestowed with the money Bobs music brought in. In making their own music, the second-generation Marleys could mimic their fathers stories of struggle an experience they didnt know in the same way as Bob or convey a different sort of message, and thus distance themselves from a strong legacy.Ky-Mani Marley hasnt had to face this dilemma. On his new CD Radio, released in September, the 30-year-old singers dominant tone is one of overcoming obstacles. On Ghetto Soldier, Marley sings of being born upon the block with the hustlers and … killers with no soul. With such lines as My papa was a legend, the song has the air of strict autobiography, and the details are true: Ky-Mani, who was 5 when his father died and moved to Miami two years later, was, as the song says, raised up poor.Despite being the son of reggaes king, of someone hailed as much as a prophet as a musician, this Marley is all too familiar with the struggle that his father fought.Im not singing about it just because Im Bob Marleys son, said Ky-Mani, over a shaky cell-phone connection while driving from a gig in Santa Cruz, Calif., to the next one in Anaheim, both of them as the opening act for Van Halen. Ive been in these situations. Ive been through it.Ky-Manis mother, Anita Belnavis, was a Jamaican tennis-table champion, who brought her son to live with relatives in Florida. The new environment wasnt painfully harsh; Marley notes that there was always food on the plate, a sheltered place to eat it, and affection. But neither was it a secure and comfortable life, and as Marley began to realize what lineage he belonged to, there was a mixture of pride and anger.In my childhood, I was bitter. Bitter within myself, said Marley, who performs on Christmas night, Tuesday, Dec. 25, at Belly Up. I wasnt there complaining, because there was an overwhelming amount of love. At the same time, I knew what the struggle was.Marley says his bitterness has ceased. He is approaching a peace with his upbringing, and has even become thankful for what he had to go through.At this point in my life, even though Im not OK with that, that I had to go through it, I appreciate it, he said. It gave my life meaning. I can relate to things. Its not just that Im singing about these things because my father did.
Brotherly bondsWhile his half brothers Ziggy and Stephen and half sisters Cedella and Sharon got an early start on their careers as part of the Melody Makers, Ky-Mani didnt see music as part of his path. He preferred sports.Music was the furthest thing from my mind, as a career, he said. Music just gradually came over to me. It started with practicing in my friends garage, to playing little parties, then doing a little recording. Then when some fans started relating my music back to me, I started seeing this was my destiny. This is what I had to do.The idea of recording the exact songs of his father, however, was something that other people thought Ky-Mani should do. His 1996 debut, Like Father Like Son, featuring covers of Bobs songs (and a cover photo of Ky-Mani with an acoustic guitar), he dismisses the idea of a producer looking to exploit his heritage. Other early albums, too, didnt have the feel of a singer with his own style and personality.For the first couple of albums, they thought the direction I took should be a different direction than the one Marley wanted to pursue, he said. So I went with that. Those early albums were steppingstones. I know the music has to evolve, it has to become more world music.With 2001s Many More Roads, Marley began edging toward an original statement. It earned a Grammy nomination for best reggae album. (Ky-Mani eventually was beat out for the award by Damian Marleys Halfway Tree. This years Grammy in that category went to Ziggy Marleys Love Is My Religion.)With Radio, Ky-Mani hammers away at the notion of him as an underdog. Hustler is about taking a workingmans approach to life: The fight is to survive / Baby, this is just my life. Im Back announces his return to music. (Radio is Marleys first album in six years; in that period, he appeared in several films, including the cult hit Shottas, in which he played a drug gangster who moves from Jamaica to Florida.)On Radio, Marley often embodies the persona of a soldier in battle. The captivating downward beat of The March is all military, as Marley chants: Your left, your left, right left. The aural atmosphere includes sounds like bombs, the yelling of a sergeant, and concludes with the line, Lets stop the war. But the song is personal rather than political, relating again to Marleys fight against his early background. Ghetto Soldier is similar in its narrative, and more specific, describing how his childhood surroundings have turned Marley into a keg of dynamite: Carry a chip on my shoulder bout the size of Texas / When youre f—ing with me, just know youre f—ing with a ghetto soldier. Hustler also speaks of the working-class attitude it takes to survive such a past: My fight is to survive / Baby this is just my life.But Marley says the point behind such tough talk is to trace where he has come from, not to strike a pose. Im not coming off as a gangsta rapper, he said. Theres nothing derogatory on there. Its speaking of me, what Ive been through, and where Im headed. Thats you getting into my mind, my life.Radio is not limited to talk of Marleys rough past. There are elements of r&b, as on I Got You, a duet with Mya. I Pray is a plea for mercy; Ky-Manis voice never sounds more like his fathers than on the uplifting song. The CDs title refers to the way music comes across on the radio.With a radio, you dont know what youre going to get, he said. With this, its hip-hop, theres reggae, then it gets a little soulful. So it switches up a lot.Marleys attitude has switched up, too. Any hard feelings about where he has come from have faded as Ky-Mani has grown to understand who his father was. As a kid, sometimes you overlook the true importance of a man, he said. But gradually I realized what he meant to the world, not just Jamaica, but the whole world. So coming from that lineage was special.The talk on Radio may be tough, but that is because of the road Marley has traveled, not where he is or where hes heading. He doesnt seem to be at war with his history. And even though he is not within the music-making circle of his brothers, who often produce one anothers records and tour together, he says he has tight connections to the other second-generation Marleys.Its a wonderful feeling to be from something so dynamic and full of meaning as this, he said. Ive gone all over, and Ive never been nowhere on this earth where I didnt see someone in a Bob Marley T-shirt or hat. That says a lot. Hes the man of the millennium. There arent many who match the importance of my father.Ky-Mani Marley performs Tuesday, Dec. 25, at 10 p.m. at Belly Up Aspen, 450 S. Galena St. Doors open at 8 p.m. Tickets are $38 in advance and $40 the day of the email@example.com