Ziggy Marley: R is for reggae

Ziggy Marley is going back to his beginnings in reggae and in Jamaica, where he’s helping to teach life lessons. He talked to Nazma Muller

  • Jamaica’s Chepstowe Elementary School was supplied with new playground equipment by URGE, Ziggy Marley’s charity. Photograph courtesy Tuff Gong Worldwide
  • Ziggy Marley. Photograph courtesy Wonder Knack

There’s a small kindergarten in a rural parish of Jamaica called Chepstowe Elementary School. It looks like any other kindergarten, with its pastel-coloured slides and swings. Other than the majestic Blue Mountains in the background, there’s nothing to distinguish this school, really – except that this is where Ziggy Marley is hoping to change the future of his country.

“I don’t think we can do anything for an adult in Jamaica right now,” he said bluntly. “But if we put all our resources into the future, which is the children…that is where we must focus to make things happen.”

And so he is investing in Chepstowe, trying to make it into a model early-childhood centre for the rest of Jamaica. “We want the children coming out of that school to show what can happen when you invest in them.” Having adopted the school, Marley has set about trying to give the pre-schoolers everything they might need to succeed: nutritious meals, equipment, books, and well-paid teachers who have been properly trained and who use alternative teaching methods based on successful early-childhood centres in the US. Proceeds from his album Family Time, which won the Grammy this year for Best Children’s Album, go towards improving the infrastructure at Chepstowe. A few weeks after winning the Grammy, Marley posted pictures on his blog of a new classroom being built. “For us to invest in the children in the future, we haffi pay more close attention to education for the children,” he said. “That is where the change is going to happen.”

Looking at the Melody Makers singing “Small People” on Sesame Street on Youtube, it seems Bob Marley’s eldest son has come full circle. Way back in 1991, he and his sisters Cedella and Sharon and brother Stephen first brought reggae to the famous children’s television show. Now, almost 20 years later, at 42, with two small children of his own (he has three older children from a previous relationship, who are in their teens), Marley has become the poster child of reggae for kids. Ever since he did the voice of Ernie, the Rasta jellyfish in Shark Tale, the world of children’s entertainment has not only embraced him, but held on to his ankles, much like a determined toddler. His CV now includes “Three Little Birds” with Dora in Dora the Explorer’s World Adventure Album; the theme song for a popular PBS children’s series called Arthur; and most recently, he’s been the voice of the Cheshire Cat on the TV show The Wonder Pets. And he had no problem convincing the likes of Paul Simon, Willie Nelson and Toots Hibbert to sing on Family Time, while Hollywood actress Jamie Lee Curtis does two spoken-word pieces.

At the same time, reggae seems to have become a prized ingredient in children’s entertainment. Almost every animation seems to be getting its groove back Jamaican-style. On June 8 this year, Walt Disney Records released its own reggae album, The Disney Reggae Club. Of course Marley is on it, as well as his sister Cedella, lining up with the likes of Hasidic rapper Matisyahu. Marley sings the Louis Armstrong classic “What a Wonderful World” and Matisyahu sings “Circle of Life” from The Lion King. Other artistes like Toots of Toots and the Maytals, Burning Spear, British band UB40, Morgan Heritage, Gregory Isaacs and Yellowman perform songs from Disney animations such as The Little Mermaid, Jungle Book and Toy Story.

But more than one cap fits this Marley head. After leading The Melody Makers from the age of 11 and winning three Grammy awards (for Conscious Party, which featured “Tomorrow People” in 1988, One Bright Day the following year, and Fallen is Babylon in 1997), Ziggy made his solo debut in 2002 on a tour that also featured Sheryl Crow. Although his debut solo album, Dragonfly, didn’t do well (his concerns about the planet and religious fundamentalism weren’t so welcome back in 2003), the catchier Love is My Religion caught on in 2006, and he won his fourth Grammy.

This year – just to show he’s still got street cred with grown-ups – Marley took on the role of executive producer of a series of tribute albums to the pioneers of dub music. He selected the Hot This Year riddim to kick off the series on Dancehall Originators Vol 1, which was released in February. Made famous by Dirtsman (“Unu get me hot this year, whe dem a go do fi hold me?/Unu get me wicked this year, not even water can cool me…”), who was killed the following year, Hot This Year is an undisputed classic, a ground-breaking, hip-shaking, waist-grinding piece of bass that ripped up dancehalls across the world.

The impetus to put out Dancehall Originators was, again, the youth. “We decided we want to remind the young generation of their history, their past,” explained Marley. “A lot of times in our culture a new generation comes along and knows nothing of what come before them, who paved the way for who come today.”

Around the same time, his publicists issued a release in which Marley called for reggae to be introduced into the school curriculum. “I want it to be more valuable…it should taught in school,” he said. “It should be general knowledge. Every Jamaican in school should know about the history of this music…it’s our heritage. See, we know something about Christopher Columbus and these things. We should be teaching a lot of things about reggae music, because it’s one of the most valuable resources we have.”

But what about dancehall’s sometimes violent lyrics, and often sexist and derogatory references to women? “Everything exists at the same time in the universe,” he replied, “good and bad, negative and positive. We never expect everything to be perfect in this world; we don’t expect every human being to express the same thing. So it’s not dancehall fault, or hip hop fault. Certain individuals wish to express certain things in their music.

“Back in the day it was reggae. In my father time it was reggae. They used to say that it was reggae turning these young people into Rastas and no-good ’uns. So it’s what the individuals put into the music, yuh know whe me a say. What you say on top of the music is your responsibility.”

On how he manages to juggle nappies, marriage (to Orly, a former vice president of the booking agency William Morris Endeavour Entertainment), homes in Beverly Hills, Miami, Jamaica, the Bahamas, and Ghana, and being a much-loved and respected member of the vast (and always growing) Marley clan: “It’s a state of mind how you deal with things. A lot of things could be happening around me and not affect me because of my state of mind. I accept the way of the universe. I don’t fight it. I don’t fuss about it. If something bad happen, I just keep moving. I am accepting of the good things and the bad things that happen to me…

“That doesn’t mean I sit around waiting for things to happen. I still try to do things and make things happen, but whatever happens, I accept. And that keep me really level.”

Ziggy Marley Presents Dancehall Originators Vol.1: Let’s Go Back, Way Back

(Tuff Gong Worldwide)

“Hot This Year” Dirtsman
“Big Bad & Bold” Chaka Demus
“Take It Easy” Peter Metro featuring Tanto Metro
“So Sweet” Pinchers
“Look Work” Josey Wales
“Rougher Than Dem” Charlie Chaplin
“King fe Dancehall” Yellow Man
“Stop It” Coco Tea
“Dancehall Vibes” General Trees
“Mr Bad Mind” Buju Banton
“The Originator” U-Roy & George Nooks
“Taking You Back Mega Mix” mixed by DJ Roy of Road International

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