Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley
When it comes to the music of the Marley progeny, I am what Jamaicans call a “wagonis,” or someone who only “gets on the wagon” when the rest of the world is already on; what Americans call a “fair weather fan.” Halfway Tree is the first Marley-child wagon I have chosen to jump on, (or the first set of good weather I’ve come outside for). For all my years as a devoted reggae fan, I’ve always had the idea that the Marley kids were somehow soft; that they were only riding on the accomplishments of their father, with little new to say and certainly without the austere upbringing that makes Bob Marley such a compelling artist and organic intellectual. I asked many Jamaicans about their opinions of the Marley children and their music, for this review, to see if they share my unfounded opinion. The answer seems to be a resounding no. The young Jamaicans I spoke to had a lot of respect for the Marley children and their music, remembering with fondness Ziggy’s early hits, and able to name numerable songs by Stephen, Ky-mani and others. All of those who I asked though, without hesitation, say that Jr. Gong’s Halfway Tree album is by far the best and most original thing to come from the second generation Marleys. As one friend said to me, “Jr. Gong a put down foot inna shop and mek bway know seh dem deya.” In other words, this album is a bold step into the larger world of dancehall and hip-hop music, and it will make Jamaica and the rest of the world feel the impact of the Marley children in ways they haven’t before.
Though my ideas about the Marley children may have been unfounded, it is true that Jr. Gong’s album is the first of the offspring’s albums to achieve this level of success not only in the roots reggae genre, but in the more widely popular dancehall genre as well. It seems that this new audience was intentional. The first voice you hear on Halfway Tree is that of Bounty Killer, a voice any contemporary Jamaican music fan will recognize. Bounty Killer is known as the “poor people’s governor” and is a powerful DJ from and for inner city Kingston. That his voice is the first on the album is a bold move by Jr. Gong and brother/producer Stephen that locates the Halfway Tree album in Bob Marley’s downtown (vs. his children’s uptown) roots. Excerpts from Mutabaruka’s poem “The Monkey Speaks His Mind” immediately follow, and Muta is another powerful voice for the oppressed, grounded firmly in Rastafari. By beginning the album with Bounty Killer and Mutabaruka, Jr. Gong situates himself and his work in an aggressively and unapologetically anti-establishment location. The incendiary lyrics of the first track “Educated Fools” further this trend: “Somebody nah live up somebody goin dead up / BLOW! Whole a di garment dem red up / Blow! Car and apartment get bled up / Didn’t you get ample warning / say poor people fed up.” This violence is of course no empty metaphor or threat. Over 200 people have died by the gun in Jamaica in far less than the first 200 days of 2002. Though Damian was talking about poor people killing the educated fools, that form of revolution is rare, and the poor on poor violence that is endemic to this island is a repeated theme on the rest of the album.
The trenchant tone in which the album begins continues through the first three tracks. “More Justice” is an appeal on behalf of the ghetto youths who actually die in the constant violence, and contains some of the most moving lyrics on the whole album: “She nah cry for my bway inna nuh crisp Nike boot … She shed those lonely tears / for di little ghetto youths weh ballin ‘Starry Starry X-News and Gleaner’ / Foot may be dirty but his heart is much cleaner,” a poignant reference to the poor and often barefoot Jamaicans who take the below minimum wage job of standing on corners selling newspapers (The Star, X-News, and the Gleaner). Just as Mutabaruka expresses solidarity with the underclass by refusing to wear shoes, Jr. Gong reminds the world that a dirty foot bottom says nothing about the cleanliness of the heart. These demands for justice and the aggressive criticism of the elite that define the beginning of the album climax with what is, in my opinion, Halfway Tree’s best song, “It Was Written.” On the first two tracks Damian’s message has been decidedly secular, a cry for political and economic justice. But the lion’s roar that begins track three, along with a pulsating heartbeat rhythm and Capleton’s voice sizzling “red hot” and “blazin'” can only mean one thing: the fiery judgment of Rastafari is about to descend on the iniquity of the world. Instead of the aggressive lyrics of the first two songs, “It Was Written” begins, “Did you know the pen is stronger than the knife?” The strength of this song then is not in violence or threats of it, but in the knowledge that “man shall endure forever more” thanks to powers that transcend the evils of the physical world. Bob Marley told us to “have no fear for atomic energy,” in “Redemption Song.” Jr. Gong tells us to “fear not of the antichrist” in “It Was Written.” This song has become a present day anthem of Rastafari faith and strength, and the other-worldly chorus sung by Stephen “Ragga Muffin” Marley, coupled with the strong contributions of Capleton and American rapper Drag-On, make it one of the most enduring hits of the past two years. Indeed, since it was released in January 2001, it has been a continuous presence both on Jamaican radio and in dancehall sessions.
After a remake of Bob’s “Catch a Fire,” made interesting by it’s rhythmic transposition from a reggae beat to a more jazz influenced hip-hop rhythm track, Halfway Tree launches into a series of girl tunes which, to me, feel anticlimactic after track three. (But what wouldn’t?) “Still Searchin'” was also a massive hit on the Jamaican charts, remaining at number one for several weeks, and is one of the stronger love songs, lyrically and musically. “She Needs My Love” feels somewhat contrived over a trendy Ricky-Martinesque salsa beat, but “Mi Blenda” gets back to an assertively Jamaican dancehall feel, with the majority of the verses deejayed over a traditional one drop rhythm. It also includes the recipe for a classic Jamaican “front-end lifter”: Guinness and peanuts in the blender.
After a guest appearance by Eve of the Ruff Riders on a song with good messages about safe sex, the responsibilities of men to their baby mothers, and the violent consequences of rape, the reality tunes come back, appropriately introduced by an excerpt from the original Jamaican bad-man movie, “The Harder They Come.” The song that follows is “Born To Be Wild” in which Damian deejays over a hard hip-hop beat with an overlaid melancholy Spanish guitar riff, bemoaning the sad and very real phenomenon of female drug mules. These young girls and women, who are paid in coveted U.S. dollars to transport cocaine and marijuana to the States and England, risk their health and their freedom for the potentially large monetary reward. Jr. Gong practically yells as he deejays this tune, demanding to know how the girls “get so caught up inna fashion / love vanity, dem say dem love it with a passion /start use them body for some dirty profession / seems like they need spiritual supervision /ital craft and a ital vision / righteous path and a righteous decision.” Damian Marley’s indignance is articulate and powerful in this song, and though he is quick to invoke violence and gun talk elsewhere on the album, here he seems to condemn the lives of crime glorified or at least narrated indifferently in much other popular music.
“Give Dem Some Way” is perhaps musically the most compelling track on the album. A voice at the beginning of the track says that they’re bringing back “that African shit,” and indeed the wind instrument melody with the driving bass drum beat and the djembe decoration over it is evocatively reminiscent of West Africa, and the drumming and musical traditions from that space that have been preserved and elaborated in Jamaica. The album draws to an end with a few more forgettable love songs, “Paradise Child” featuring Jimmy Cozier being particularly forgettable, the upbeat title track with the prestigious Swizz Beats contributing to production, “Stand a Chance,” and finally, a remade renamed “And You Be Loved.” The end of the album feels weak compared to the musically and lyrically heavy beginning, but perhaps this is the curse of having some truly breakthrough material on your album. Despite the fading strength of the last songs, however, there are some lyrics worth mentioning. In a line of the title track for example, Jr. Gong captures the very essence of what many see as the central contradiction and hypocrisy of financially successful Rastafarians: “Now mi come fi bun down / All material object / Wid a raas clatt gold chain / Round mi neck.” In other words, his mission is to condemn the vanity he sees all around him eroding his society, but he does so with a (insert expletive of choice here) gold chain around his neck. Though I could try to explain this apparent contradiction, I will leave that task to Capleton who explains on the beginning of his More Fire album:
So mi seh mi bun car an some man a talk bout “how you fi bun car an you drive car?” But you nah understand or you nah overstand wha mi mean. When mi seh mi bun car dat mean seh you mustn’t put car in front a humanity.
In other words- consumption of goods in itself is not the ill. It is consumption of goods at the expense of humanity that Rasta burns fire for.
With his album Halfway Tree, Damian Marley firmly situates himself within both the larger dancehall family, and within the critical Rastafari tradition of his father and others. Though I may not be particularly fond of many of the love songs, it would be wrong to say that these tunes are ‘slack,’ or a departure from the example set by his father. “Kinky Reggae” and “Stir It Up” are just two examples of Bob’s tunes that could be considered ‘slack.’ Though he stands firmly in his father’s footsteps, Jr. Gong has also struck out on his own, successfully collaborating with international artists and incorporating Diasporic musical elements, without sacrificing the yard vibes and references. Overall, this is a strong album with moments of brilliance, but certainly the creativity of the music and the strength of the message carries it to the Grammy’s, Garveyites, and beyond.