More than the critical acclaim and packed shows, a sure sign of a good Ziggy Marley album is the seal of approval from the artist himself.
And on that score, his new record, the feisty Rebellion Rises, is one of his best. As Marley explains in an exclusive interview with The National hours before a sold-out show in Amsterdam – he rarely gives a nod to his own work. "This latest one is the only album that I enjoy listening to," the 49-year-old Marley tells us.
"The others, not so much, as I pick up certain things here and there that may annoy me, but this new one is the one that I can just pick up and listen to all by myself." Interestingly, one of the reasons for Marley's positivity about Rebellion Rises is how irate it sounds.
Indeed, after nearly three decades of sunny reggae melodies married to introspective lyrics, this time Marley looks outward at the havoc wreaking the world today, and he is not happy with what he sees.
"This is me getting a lot of things off my chest for this record," he says. "In the past, I made up my mind that I don't want to sing about the world and instead focus on the personal and spiritual. But to be honest, I am frustrated with humanity at the moment. I am frustrated at how the powers have taken advantage of us and the lack of resistance to what I consider is the destruction of our humanity."
Injustice in the air
Indeed, the album starts off with the sprightly See Dem Fake Leaders. As well as being a statement of intent regarding the album's fiery spirit, it is also a poetic take down of demagogues attempting to split society through religious intolerance. "It is just so unnecessary for religion to be used for political means. It is unnecessary to pit humanity against each other," he says. "The songs talk about how the only reason for such division is to give those who are in power even more power."
Marley, who is in the midst of an exhaustive world tour, sensed such sentiments bubbling up while on the road. "Being a travelling musician, and with the ability to connect with various crowds, you get to observe these things coming up," he tells me. "I [have] been seeing these things – the injustices – for years now, and they have been brewing in the back of my consciousness, so it was time to let it out."
A plan of action
But anger is not enough; Rebellion Rises also implores the listener to take action, and that's about more than simply joining a picket line.
Marley states, over the evocative and bobbing bass lines of the album track I Am Human, that any kind of change must also examine that way we address each other: "I'm not a Christian, I'm not a Muslim/I'm not a Jew – it shouldn't matter to you/I'm not a capitalist and I'm not a communist/I'm not a socialist, I'm not the politics," he croons. "Tell me, are these the reasons, you can't live right?"
Marley explains that he intentionally broke those elements down in a simple way to illustrate the absurdity of the
identity politics used by demagogues across the world. "And it shouldn't be that way," he says. "What I am trying to get across is that as a humanity, we want to live in peace and love no matter what religion you are. But we have to go and make the world and leaders know that. Only the willing will achieve their dreams."
A family affair
In a way, the latter statement is a fine way to encapsulate Marley’s career. The son of the late reggae pioneer Bob Marley, Ziggy recalls getting the music bug early, as he witnessed many of his father’s performances on the road and in the studio. He made his stage debut as an 11-year-old with a joint performance with his brother – fellow solo reggae artist Stephen Marley – in 1979 in the Jamaican capital Kingston. The brothers then pooled their talent with sisters Sharon and Cedella to form their own band.
Credited as Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers, the band eventually managed to forge their own career with their 1988 breakthrough album Conscious Party spawning the hit singles Tomorrow People and Tumblin' Down.
With the band parting ways in 2002 to pursue solo careers, Marley recalls that period fondly, but also with a tinge of regret.
“I wish I was more aware during that time because it all went by in such a blur. I was living in Jamaica at the time, and I wasn’t aware of what was happening career- wise in America and the effect we were having. I would have taken more advantage of it, you know what I’m saying? But everything is for a purpose and we’re in the place where we should be.”
That said, Marley laments the lack of industry respect afforded to reggae music despite its international appeal. Though firmly part of the fabric of popular culture, Marley says record labels still don't know how to sell reggae due to its inherent message of protesting against injustice. "It's the industry being scared and playing it safe because what works for them is their bottom line, they don't want to take a risk on that. And reggae's a risk for them," Marley explains.
"It's not mainstream. It can be when it's mixed with some other styles like reggaeton. But the hardcore message is really risky for the labels, because everything is formatted and they don't want to lose listeners who are used to listening to music in a certain way. They keep their fans in this box without trying to expand their mind."