DAMIAN ‘JR. GONG’ MARLEY / “Welcome To Jamrock”
Well when we say Half-Way-Tree, we a talk bout downtown, ghetto, ya understand? Yeah so the influence is really to know both sides. We exposed to uptown and we exposed to the ghetto. We have whole heap a brethren that come from the ghetto, so those things reflect in my music, it's not that I sing about my experience or my sufferation, I sing about the experiences and sufferation of my brethren. —Damien Marley from http://www.rastafaritoday.com/souljah/jrgong.htmlDamian Marley’s “Welcome To Jamrock” is massive. If you listen to mainstream R&B or hip-hop radio, you’ve heard it. If you watch BET or MTV, you’ve seen it. Like seemingly everyone else, I can’t get enough of “Jamrock.” The hardcore roots groove, the ridiculous Ini Kamoze sample, the hyper-descriptive lyrics—all of it is addictive. But while Damian says he wrote the song to show a side of Jamaica and the Jamaican people that most outsiders never see, the song and the video leave me with more questions than answers. On the surface, “Jamrock” is an auditory tour of the slums of Kingston, Jamaica. The lyrics are meticulously crafted and intimately detailed, yet the overall effect is about as subtle as a hand grenade. Damian’s delivery is as expressive and as vivid as his lyrics. Adding to the effect—to non-Jamaican ears, at least—Damian’s patois is sometimes so indecipherable that by the time you’ve figured out what he just said, he’s hurled two or three more bombs at you. I had to hear “Jamrock” several times just to get a good idea of what the song was about. The video, which was shot in black-and-white, is every bit the equal of the song, image after image matching the lyrics in both impact and expressiveness. When “Jamrock” is over (either song or video, they’re equally intense) you feel yourself involuntarily exhaling, not having realized you’d been holding your breath. Even for those of us who were born and raised amid the claustrophobic intensity of inner-city life, “Jamrock” is one hell of a ride. But check it, there’s more to this story. From the beginning, even as I was awed by the gritty, soulful feel of Damian’s new music, I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was at least an undertone of incongruity at work. In other words, something wasn’t quite right. After doing a little research on Damian’s musical and personal history, and after reading several interviews and articles by those whose opinions are more informed than my own, I realize that there is a lot more to “Jamrock” and Damian Marley than what is presented in the song and video. Let’s start with the most obvious. 1. Damian is a child of privilege. Damian is the son of the most famous Jamaican in the history of Jamaica, Bob Marley. When Damian’s mother, Cindy Breakespeare, met Bob, she was a student from a well-to-do family and a nationally-known beauty queen. (Cindy would go on to be crowned Miss World, her entry into the international contest reportedly financed by Bob himself.) Both Damian and Cindy were well provided for in Bob’s will. Damian attended private school and when, after Bob’s death, Cindy married, Damian became the stepson of a prominent politician. 2. Damian didn’t grow up in Trenchtown or any other ghetto. “Jamrock,” both the video and the song, is ostensibly an ‘insider’s view’ of hardcore Jamaica. The images of the video are presented with an almost cinéma vérité-like intensity. The viewer feels as if they are literally riding through the streets of the Jamaican slum, seeing the images, hearing the sounds, smelling the smells and feeling every twist and turn of the road as they speed by. Despite growing up in an upper-class environment, did Damian spend so much time in the ghetto that he feels as if he knows the streets he shows us? Or is he himself one of the poseurs he dismisses? “Some boy na know ‘dis,” he chants at one point, “’Dis” meaning, one presumes, the ghetto. “’Dem only come around like tourist / On the beach with a few club sodas / Bedtime stories / An’ pose like ‘dem name Chuck Norris.” 3. Damian isn’t ‘black.’ If you were to hear “Jamrock” on the radio without knowing the identity of the artist, you would assume, understandably, that you were listening to Bounty Killer, Sizzla, Beenie Man or one of the other black stars of Jamaican dancehall. True, there are popular dancehall artists like Sean Paul or Shaggy who happen to be light-skinned. Also true, Damian named his 2001 Grammy Award-winning album Halfway Tree, a double-entendre playing on both his mixed parentage and his mixed social status (he claims, dubiously, that his father is from the ghetto while admitting that his mother is upper-class). Note that Halfway Tree is a Kingston street which divides downtown from uptown, the affluent from the unfortunate. The problem is this: while Bob Marley himself may have been able to convincingly claim ‘one foot in and one foot out’ ghetto status both racially and certainly economically, Damian’s claim is a little less believable. As ‘illegitimate’ children, both Bob and Damian grew up with their mothers. But while Bob was raised by his mother, who is black, in the impoverished area of Trenchtown, Damian was raised by his mother, who is white, nowhere near the ghetto. Picture this: if we could line up Damian’s four grandparents side-by-side, we would see two white men, one white woman and one black woman. Yet Damian’s voice, style, look and his overall vibe are all very, very black. 4. Damian is a flosser. In both the song and video, Damian positions himself as a champion of the poor, castigating the rich politicians for the lack of opportunity faced by the ghetto youth. He also talks about the way the ghetto youth turn to violence in ill-fated attempts to achieve economic status. A noble sentiment, certainly. Yet, in the video, Damian and his posse motorcade through the Kingston slums with Damian at the wheel of a 7-series BMW while his posse circles about on Japanese racing bikes. Damian’s visit (it seems safe to assume that he is only visiting) has a regal, almost Presidential vibe to it, as if Damian has come down from the hills to mingle with the common-folk. Will the sight of Damian and his German car and all of Damian’s boys riding their shiny bikes lead the ghetto youth of Kingston to renounce their violent ways? Will their glimpse of his obvious wealth sate their desire for a little of their own? One thinks not. 5. Damian is non-violent. Selectively. In an interview with journalist Clover Hope, Damian says that he is anti-war. “There’s no justification for people fighting on behalf of leaders,” Damian says. “If leaders have a discrepancy—you guys went to the highest colleges and schools and all a this thing—you tellin’ me that they can’t find an educated way to work out their problems…?” True enough. Then Hope quotes part of “Jamrock” and asks Damian to respond.
Damian answers: “A lot of times, police who have a problem in Jamaica can turn to violence. And then, there’s no room for nonsense, is what the rest of [the phrase] is saying. Your lickle gimmicks and ya lickle ego, there’s no room for that.” So far, Damian sounds like a true-blue pacifist. But, for whatever reason, Hope doesn’t ask Damian to expound on the last line of the quoted lyric, a line which originally (and allegedly) was: “Batty boy a get drop like a bad habit,” an obvious reference to one of Black Jamaica’s most-treasured obsessions: gay-bashing. For our tender American ears, the phrase ‘batty boy’—which translates roughly to ‘faggot’—was first changed to the apparently less offensive ‘funnyman’ and then was edited out altogether. In sum, I’m left with mixed feelings. Does all of this make me like “Jamrock” any less? No, I still get hype every time I hear it. But I guess the feeling I have now is similar to the way I felt back when Michael Jackson dropped “They Don’t Care About Us.” Great record, great message. But all I could think was ‘us’? Us?! Who the hell is ‘us’? Rich, skinny white ladies who’ve had way too much plastic surgery? Similarly, it’s a little hard to stomach Damian shouting down Babylon once you realize that he’s the privately-schooled son of a rich, womanizing mulatto superstar and a white beauty queen. Perhaps my man over at sohh.com put it best. His mix of unvarnished gushing coupled with equally unvarnished sarcasm pretty much sums it up:“Police come inna jeep and ‘dem can’t stop it / Some say ‘dem a playboy, a playboy rabbit / Funnyman a get drop like a bad habit.”
For the rest of this piece go to: http://blogs.sohh.com/videos/throwbacks/2005/06/damian_marley_a.html Want to see the video? Try: http://www.melodymakers.de/video.html For an interview with the man himself, see “Damian Marley: Rising Son” at http://www.allhiphop.com/Alternatives/?ID=199 And go to http://www.hermosarecords.com/marley/cindy.html for an extraordinarily detailed interview with Damian’s Mom, Cindy Breakespeare. Bob Marley fans should definitely read this one. —Mtume ya Salaam Bonus track: Damien Marley - "Ghetto Youths" The harder they come My response to this Damien Marley tale is: Jimmy Cliff. Before I had heard of Bob, back when I was digging on the Jamaican Otis Redding, which is how I thought of Toots and his group the Maytals, back then, long time ago, I saw Jimmy Cliff in The Harder They Come. it was a revelation, you know. Yeah, man, it was violent, like all rough, down-pressed life is. Great slabs of rawness slacking your eyeballs, assaulting any sense of civility one might harbor. Under such a pressure drop, people may have had dreams, but there was no sentimentality. Jimmy Cliff didn’t so much 'play' Ivan, one did not get the sense he was acting, rather it appeared that he was being. Which is what I always remember about the movie: so much of it seemed to be happening in the moment, unrehearsed, one take, either you got it or you didn’t. Mtume, those questions you raise about Damien never occurred to me about Jimmy. I never for one moment thought he was slumming or identifying with something that he wasn’t, something he had never known. But, you know, that is a hard question: how does one genuinely identify with the 'other'? When you are born a have, can you ever truly identify as a have not? World religions have asked that question over and over and over again—from a Buddha born in a palace to a Jesus born in a stable—must one be born one to be identified as one? Bob said, "Who feels it, knows it." Can those who don’t know poverty (in the Biblical sense of 'know,' i.e. having experienced being fucked by the motherfuckers who inflict exploitation on the poor), can the socially and materially unfucked, actually 'know' what it feels like to be fucked-over, actually identify with that? I know we can know at an intellectual level, we can understand, but at the gut level…? Mtume, you come to no bottom line conclusion, but from your tone and the facts you selected to highlight, it is clear that while you don’t doubt that Damien believes what he says he believes, you are suspect about his lifestyle. And, I suppose, that is the ultimate difference between the poor and those who simply identify with the poor: one has options, the other has a hard reality to deal with. Or, as brother Bob sang: some have ways and means, others have hopes and dreams. The way I put it is: if you have a choice about how you live, you ain’t poor. All of which brings us back to Jimmy Cliff and that beautiful movie, unblinking in its observance, its projection really, of the poor in Jamaica. I smiled, Mtume, when you mentioned the patois of "Jamrock," I smiled and though of The Harder They Come, even though the movie is in English, the patois was so thick they had to put subtitles on it. The first time I flew to Jamaica, in the mid-Seventies. Manley in power. I “visited” Trenchtown—I know that sounds elitist (and it was), but what else could a brief jaunt through the concrete jungle be but a visit? We were on safari for less than two hours. We motored there and motored away. I wasn’t living there; looked my curious look out the car window at people trudging back streets. As we walked the tentament yard, regardless of my skin, it was obvious from my shoes to my shirt, I was an outsider. Anyway, on that first visit to Jamaica, whenever I asked about Jimmy Cliff, most of the less affluent folk would immediately say: Bob. So I started looking out for Bob Marley. Big tree. Small axe. That incendiary album: Burnin’, that’s what I found. But I still liked Jimmy Cliff. Even when I became a Marley camp follower, still liked Jimmy Cliff. What a conundrum it must be to be Damien Marley. People keep wondering what would Marley be like if he were still alive. But, you know, nothing lasts forever. Everything that is born, dies. So instead of wanting Marley forever, why can’t we just keep pushing forward and keep producing more people like Marley? I know these are scattered thoughts and they don’t seem to be cool running in no straight line, but, I guess, my final thought on "Jamrock" is I want to hear "The Harder They Come." I want to hear not simply a description—I can look out a window and see that—I want more anthems and love songs (love as in 360-relationships, not as in momentary sex-capades), more stuff like Kaya and Survival, which is what we need right now, revolution and love. Revolution. & Love. Love & Revolution. That’s it. That’s all. —Kalamu ya Salaam some people got... Great response, Baba. It's funny that you quoted that line from "Survival." That's one of my favorite songs. It is a fairly common technique in both music and writing to use the specific to make a point about the general. In other words, artists sometimes use a very personal song or novel to communicate larger points about the human condition. In this verse of "Survival," Bob reverses this technique, using a larger point about the human condition to communicate something very specific and personal.Being one of Bob Marley’s children must be tough. On one hand you’re treated as royalty…on the other hand you may feel forced to try to live up to your father’s legacy. You at least have appear to be a champion of the people like your father was. It’s probably difficult to do that behind the 5% tints on your chromed-out BMW. ... Damian Marley certainly looks as if he is suffering from this internal struggle. While Ziggy has long since detached himself from the plight of Jamrock’s population…Jr. Gong tethers the fine-line between the two worlds….The gritty depictions of life in the city are often contrasted by the pomp and circumstance of Jr. Gong himself, who usually appears as a prince among paupers as he caringly strolls through alleyways, side streets and even housing complexes (flanked by security, of course). I'm not knocking the man though…I wouldn’t go to those parts of Jamaica alone my damn self.
Bob recorded Survival less than a year after surviving an attempted assassination. Bob credited his survival to divine intervention. By all rights, he should have been dead. In fact, one bullet grazed his chest and lodged in his arm. Others were more seriously hurt: Bob's wife, Rita; his manager, Don Taylor; and a friend, Lewis Griffith all spent time in intensive care. Still, no one was killed. A brazen gunslinger broke into Bob's Hope Road compound in the middle of the night and opened fire. But Bob, and all of his loved ones, survived. Which his why Bob's lines about 'plots and schemes' and 'no aim' have dual meanings. One applies to all of us. The other is a defiant and specific message to an would-be assassin who may have had plots and schemes, but luckily for all of us, had 'no aim.' —Mtume ya SalaamSome people got facts and claims Some people got pride and shame Some people got the plots and schemes Some people got no aim it seems
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