Stop, Listen and Think

An interview with Damian “Jr Gong” Marley.

In today’s world of short-form, quick-consumption media, an artist with a message is a rare find.

Add to that message chart-topping musical ability and, well, that’s just about as rare as they come. Arguably, most songs that top the charts today are built on repetitive formulas that are less about depth and poetry and more about delivering a product that a worldwide, multicultural audience will find easy to consume. This pop formula makes for good business, but questionable music. When Damian “Jr Gong” Marley makes music the formula is creative, experimental and meaningful. This is what makes him such an iconic artist.

His substantive 2010 album, Distant Relatives topped US and UK charts in Reggae, Rap, R&B and Hip Hop, while simultaneously introducing three separate singles that each climbed onto top 40 charts around the globe. While this success has made him immensely popular, he remains outside the realm of mass-produced pop. The fact that he has continued to top charts worldwide while still touching on heavy issues, such as solidarity in the face of oppression, makes the 34-year-old, three-time Grammy Award winning artists one of the most significant musical forces of our generation.

When “Gong-Zilla” hits the Republik Music Festival this weekend, we can expect his polished, yet self-rejuvenating model of excellent music that will also make you stop, listen and think. When a man has a message, he deserves to be heard.

Your music obviously resonates with Hawaii culture and its people. Do you feel a similar kind of resonance when you play here?

When I released my first album in ’96 I had a couple of hit songs that had caught on in Hawaii, namely “Me Name is Jr Gong” and “One More Cup of Coffee.” That was really the first time that I charted like that anywhere in the world. So Hawaii is part of my dream as a musician, so to speak. Ya know?

Distant Relatives was a very special album–in my opinion one of the most significant albums of the past 10 years. Where do you go from there? What’s next?

Well, from my label we have projects coming out from various artists, along with my brother Steve who is also releasing his album soon. And then aside from that I’m just in the first stages of working on my next solo album. So hopefully between now and next year you’ll get a solo project from me also.

How do you feel about popular electronic music taking strong cues from Jamaican sound? You’ve worked with a number of extremely popular producers from various electronic genres yourself, but how do you view this exportation of Jamaican sound and culture?

Well I think that the fact that you saying what you saying–that Jamaican music is now heavily influencing popular music–that represents an opportunity for Reggae music.

We need to take the chance now to educate people that this is where that vibe is coming from, so people can actually pay homage to the root, in terms of the fans. A lot of musicians and artists–they know and pay homage themselves, but a lot of the fans don’t personally know. For example, I’ll give you an interesting thing: When you go to certain places in South America they think Reggaeton influenced Reggae music when it’s really the other way around, with Reggaeton being a spin-off of classic beats we made back in the 80s.

So how do you feel about the current state of music in general? Not necessarily the industry, but the actual sound? Are there any artists you find inspiring?

Well, yes. There are definitely artists I find inspiring. For myself, I tend to listen to a lot of older music. Especially when I’m looking for inspiration, nah mean?

But yes, definitely the younger generations of musicians right now–it’s an interesting time for music. You don’t necessarily have to go with a big studio to make a record. So you find, there, a lot of creativity happening and experimentation. Especially in Jamaica, we’re seeing the early stages of what is like “new creativity,” where they might not have it 100 percent as of yet, but they are getting there.

A lot of your music has a strong message. Is there anything about your music or you message you’d want to share with us today?

Well, really listen to the music; listen to the lyrics. There are so many different things that we speak about that I don’t want to choose just one, but if you listen to the music that’s really where the realness is. Listen to the lyrics.

One final question: Do you have anything special planned for June 15th at the Republik Music Festival?

(Laughter) Special more than the performance itself? Really, I’m come to do the show as usual and give all as usual. It’s always special being in Hawaii for the reasons I mentioned earlier. Being that Hawaii is a home away from home for me, a place that has embraced me from a very young age. Being there is always special.

Republik Music Festival, Jamrock Edition, Kakaako Waterfront Amphitheater, 102 Ohe St., Sat., 6/15, doors open at 5pm, show starts at 6pm, $42.50–$90, all ages, bampproject.com/2013/05/01/republik-music-festival-oahu-jamrock-edition, 941-7469

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