Spreading Righteousness Across the World: an Interview With Julian Marley

Julian Marley and the author. Photo: Stephen Cooper.

High up in the Hollywood hills overlooking Babylon, on the cusp of Bob Marley’s 75th earthstrong, I interviewed his son, Julian Marley, the day before the Grammy Awards ceremony, where Julian’s fourth album “As I Am” was nominated for Best Reggae Album. What follows is a transcript of the interview, modified only slightly for clarity and space considerations.

Q: Greetings Julian, it’s an honor to meet you. Thank you for speaking with me on the eve of the Grammy Awards show here in Los Angeles where your fourth album “As I Am” has been nominated for Best Reggae Album. Congratulations on this nomination.

Julian Marley: Thank you very much.

Q: How does receiving this Grammy nomination compare to a little over ten years ago when you received your first Grammy nod for your third album, “Awake,” in 2009? What’s the same about the experience and what’s different about it?

Julian Marley: The thing that is the same about the experience is that we love music. And we keep on playing it, that never changes, you know? Differently, obviously it’s like, for me, it’s growth, you know? Every stage is a stage. You know so the album before this, we learn more on this album now just by the life experience.

Q: Growth in your personal life informs the growth in your music?

Julian Marley: Yes, true. Just growth as we would say, you know?

Q: Now it’s maybe a bit unorthodox, but I’m sure I can’t be the first or only person to feel compelled upon meeting you to tell you how much your father’s music has meant to me in my life – and the influence it has had on me. Even going back to when I was in college over twenty years ago, and got this tattoo of your dad’s image on my arm, it has been important for me to outwardly express the solidarity I feel with your dad’s views—as expressed in his music. [Also] whenever I interview veteran reggae musicians—and I’ve interviewed quite a few at this point—[but] especially when I’ve interviewed legends who actually played and recorded with your dad—like Sly DunbarTony Chin, and most recently, Santa Davis, I have really probed them for their most enduring memories and images of your father—before they are forever lost for all of time. Now to sit here with you, one of Bob’s sons, and even though I know you were only five years old when your dad passed away, and even though I read in Billboard [magazine] that you have just one memory of your dad—seeing him in his dressing room after a 1980 concert at London’s Crystal Palace Bowl, [when] Bob was on his last tour, his Uprising Tour, I feel I would be derelict if I didn’t ask you a bit more [about this]. Especially as the world prepares to celebrate your dad’s 75th earthstrong next month [on February 6] –

Julian Marley: Truly.

Q: [- to try and press you a bit further] about anything you can remember about your dad. Or even about that one time you told Billboard [about], when you remember seeing him. The Billboard interview said you remember seeing your dad backstage wearing a Rasta-colored jacket –

Julian Marley: (Laughing) Yeah, yeah.

Q:  [and] shaking hands with fans and colleagues. Is that accurate, is that one memory the only personal memory that you have of your dad?

Julian Marley: Well it’s accurate, yes. Because I know that’s what I’ve said. But maybe it’s not – they say they were meeting fans, but when I went in there [into] the dressing room – which was a tent, an outside tent, you know? So when I went in there, obviously, I was a little kid, you know. Surrounded by adults. And all of a sudden, there’s that familiar face that we know. And there he was standing up in a red, green, and gold jacket, minutes before a show. So you know, I just remember going up [and] I shook his hand. I don’t remember the words [we exchanged].

Q: Wow that must have been a very electric, energizing experience.

Julian Marley: Yeah.

Q: Before that night in London, when you saw him backstage, had you met [your dad] before?

Julian Marley: Yeah I’d met him it’s just I can’t remember.

Q: How old were you when you first realized just how much of a legend your dad was [and is] around the world?

Julian Marley: Maybe when [I] started to reach ten or eleven. Or even twelve. We start really checking, you know?

Q: When you think about or remember your father, is it that image of him—[from] that one night in London in 1980 (backstage) that immediately comes to mind, that sticks with you most, or are there other images that come to mind when you think of your father?

Julian Marley: No, I would have to say that I don’t really have any images. I just have like a blanket of righteousness right across.

Q: Respect.

Julian Marley: So I don’t have a direct image, we have a vibration.

Q: Like a cloak that protects you probably?

Julian Marley: (Laughing) Yeah. Well by the almighty. It’s not really an image but it’s more of a – we can feel him. I want to feel his natural spiritual energy in today’s time, you know?

Q: When your father passed away in 1981, did you attend his funeral in Jamaica?

Julian Marley: Yeah.

Q: How did you learn that he had passed away?

Julian Marley: Well I think that even that I was a little bit older before we really understand what’s happening, you know? You know, but you don’t really know.

Q: Too young to really know what’s happening?

Julian Marley: Yeah. So probably when we reach 7, 8, 9, [I] kinda started learning more.  

Q: Did the family – when you learned more about it, did you learn that he had passed away of cancer?

Julian Marley: Yeah.

Q: Did you watch, or even perhaps did you participate at all with creating, the acclaimed Kevin McDonald documentary “Marley” [that was released] in 2012—and that was in all the movie theaters in the U.S. and I think overseas [too, with its] extensive interviews of Bunny Wailer, Rita Marley, Cedella [Marley], and many more Marleys I think participated in the project. And I wondered whether you had seen that documentary –

Julian Marley: (Laughing) Boy I’ve seen so many documentaries!

Q: About your father?

Julian Marley: Yeah so, sometime I have to really try to remember which documentary –

Q: There are quite a few.

Julian Marley: All of them is saying what we have been saying all the time.

Q: Do the documentaries affect the way you learn about your father?

Julian Marley: I mean, yeah, you get to hear some stories. It’s almost like sitting down with one of his friends and you’re hearing a story. So yeah, we don’t take it as a full-million gospel [though].

Q: Who in your family tells you the most about your dad over the years?

Julian Marley: Well, Steve. Steve, Ziggy, Rohan.

Q: Last question about your dad. Growing up having your father be Bob Marley, was it frustrating ever to have to share your dad with so many people? What I mean is, did you ever have times where you wished your father wasn’t as famous, wasn’t such an icon and public figure—where [his] fame has been a bit tough to deal with?

Julian Marley: Well for me it is humbling. Because you know it’s a God-divined mission. So when you’re doing God’s mission, you can’t have hype. You can’t be full of yourself. You have to let go of yourself.

Q: [And be] humble?

Julian Marley: Yeah you have to be empty. Because you’re giving. You can’t give and [be] taking at the same time. So for me, it’s like watching our father, and being humble and saying, yes, this is the way we are: We’re gonna spread righteousness across the world. Yo, the mission is on, you know? So it’s more of an enhancement, more of a drive when we see that, yes, the mission is very real right now and needed as ever before.

Q: Respect. Now I read that legendary guitarist Earl “Chinna” Smith –

Julian Marley: Yes.

Q:  has been a mentor to you ever since you moved from London to Jamaica in ’92 or ’93, at the age of 21, true?

Julian Marley: He’s one of the great musicians – yes. He used to play with my brothers, the Melody Makers, for like two decades; even before Santa [Davis], you know?

Q: And [Chinna] has played on some of your songs too, true?

Julian Marley: Yeah, definitely.

Q: This was of great interest to me for a lot of reasons, this connection to Chinna, because just the last few months I’ve been interviewing Tony Chin who I mentioned and Santa Davis—Ziggy’s drummer—both of whom together with bassist Fully Fullwood, and Chinna formed the nucleus of the Soul Syndicate, the top session band in the 70s in Jamaica, who backed your dad on some of his biggest hit songs – including “High Tide or Low Tide.” They also played with your dad on [the original version of] “Sun Is Shining.” Additionally they played on what was supposed to be the rhythm for “Duppy Conqueror” but [that was used] for “Mr. Brown” [instead] – all of these guys from Soul Syndicate. And then Santa also, individually, he played on “Africa Unite,” “Coming in from the Cold,” and he played on “Chant Down Babylon.” And so I’ve been blown away by meeting these legendary musicians. And I’ve talked to them about their work with your father, and also for [Peter Tosh, Burning Spear, Dennis Brown, and well, too many big name stars to mention]—who the Soul Syndicate backed. Can you talk for a moment about how you were introduced to Chinna, and what are some of the things you’ve learned from working with a guy like that?

Julian Marley: Well first of all, reaching to Jamaica in the early 90s, mid-90s –

Q: When you moved there?

Julian Marley: Yeah. As soon as we got there, as soon as I got there, it was rehearsals for the Melody Makers. So being a music lover, I find myself at the nearest “Toys-R-Us.” Which is the music place. Anywhere where there is music, it’s like Toys-R-Us for us music-lovers, you know? And that’s just how it is. You find yourself there and you already know that – we already knew that – anyone that has worked with my father, I like to hang out with them a likkle bit and pick up that vibration. So he’s still the one man – you have “Family Man” Barrett, you have Tyrone Downie, you have “Sticky,” you know Sticky?

Q: Yeah.

Julian Marley: One of the greatest percussionists. And Harry T.

Q: Yeah and all of these musicians I believe have worked with you on a lot of your music over the years?

Julian Marley: Yeah.

Q: Now one of the things I wanted to ask you about these guys, [about] the Soul Syndicate, is that despite all of the [reggae] stars that they have played with, and all the hit [songs] they’ve made, even [with] this work that they did with your dad on these songs that everybody knows, neither Tony Chin, nor Santa Davis, and unless I’m mistaken, I don’t think Chinna either, none of them have received any honor, award, or official recognition from the Jamaican government for their contributions to reggae music for over forty [to fifty] years. Now they are very humble men who aren’t looking for and don’t care about that kind of recognition. But recently there have been calls, even some persuasive blogs, written by Jamaican writer Emma Lewis, calling for there to be more than just a Bob Marley and a small Peter Tosh museum in Jamaica; they have been saying that there really should be a Jamaican Music Hall of Fame that’s built in Kingston to honor the legacies of so many legendary reggae musicians –

Julian Marley: Of course. Of course. First of all they’re not even teaching the foundation of the – I wouldn’t say “not teaching the foundation” – they’re not teaching the freedom and the real roots of the music. Like for me, when I listen to reggae music, I go back and I go deep into the infrastructure of music; that means I play many different instruments. So, okay, there are a few different instruments that make reggae – does everyone understand how these instruments play a part? Sometimes they don’t understand. The knowledge – we know how to play it, but we haven’t studied the real foundations. So sometimes you [only] get the icing on top. Oh yeah that’s nice, but did you get the root of the cake? No. So we can play, but because of that lack of history, because we don’t have these museums, because there’s not any [proper] organs in the schools of music where people are learning how to bring these sounds back again, you know? Like any other genre of music, you know?

Q: Respect for that. I’ve asked this question [in my past reggae interviews] and I’ve gotten a variety of answers. Many of them are the same, but still I feel like asking [the question again] now: Why, especially when you see on social media all the politicians who are in Jamaica, and you know, I know what reggae music has to say about politicians – and “politricks” – but, when you see them on social media “supporting reggae music,” they’re waiving a banner that it’s important. But yet at the same time, when you have all these [legendary musicians] – when I met with [legendary drummer] Sly Dunbar, he talked about [another legendary] drummer Joe Isaacs. A very famous drummer who played on one of Johnny Nash’s first, original songs. And people like that [and like the Soul Syndicate] have not – the history is not taught. And I don’t understand because there seems to be a disconnect. Where on the one hand you have politicians who realize, it seems, what reggae music means to Jamaica –

Julian Marley: Well –

Q: — but at the same time not promoting it. How can there not be a Jamaican Music Hall of Fame? If we have a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the U.S. (in Cleveland), how can Jamaica not have [its own music] Hall of Fame?

Julian Marley: Yeah, you know, sometimes it’s what we call a bandwagon-ist thing. Sometimes we can say, [for example,] look at the herb industry. All of a sudden, now we can say “yes” [to legalization], [but] why did you never say “yes” [before]? What [were] you waiting on? So it’s the same thing in the music, anything which is good, they look at it and find something bad. But we had the knowledge already. So this reggae music is like, yeah, if you don’t have that in Jamaica, the [people] are not going to be very happy.

Q: It’s a loss for the youth in Jamaica.

Julian Marley: Yeah. It nah go right.

Q: In an interview with me recently, Santa Davis said that reggae artists really need to come together and invest in their own industry-owned and run awards show in Jamaica that is not funded or connected to the Grammys, the U.S. government, or the Jamaican government. What do you think of that idea and do you think there’s a realistic chance such a thing could ever happen—to put the control of honors and the honoring of legacies in the hands of artists and musicians, outside of government and corporate influence? Would reggae artists that you know—and it would have to be the biggest ones who have the resources—could such a thing ever happen where reggae stars could seize back control from the corporate and government influence, the honoring of reggae stars?

Julian Marley: (Laughing) Well, let me tell you something: Yeah, but you can’t do it from out[side] of Jamaica. So sometimes [people say], “Yeah we need to do this over in Jamaica.” Who needs to do it? Maybe who is saying it needs to go there to get it going. Because sometimes we are looking over there; we’re here playing our reggae music, and everywhere around the world, you have a different kind of reggae music. So when you go to Jamaica, you hear the reggae music but the reggae music that we might know – you still don’t hear it. Because they haven’t figured out the difference between, say for instance, R&B and Hip Hop. They haven’t found the difference between dancehall and reggae. So you can’t jumble up everything in one. So there’s no unification, no identification, losing the roots of the music, and that is what’s happening. So we’re out here looking into Jamaica – we need to get into Jamaica to change that. So right now what I have to say is that a lot of people would love to get some lessons from [legendary drummer] Santa [Davis]. Learning that style. Because they don’t know that style, they’re playing, you know, it’s light.

Q: Would there be enough musicians and reggae artists in Jamaica who could pull together and say, “Hey, you know what? We need to do our own thing.” Could that happen? Or are they too disconnected?

Julian Marley: No, there’s a lot of great musicians there, but it’s just the artists – because the musicians dictate what we are doing.

Q: Now if you win the Grammy tomorrow night, just like every time a Marley is either nominated or wins, there will be people the next day, commentators in both the Jamaican and foreign press, who will write articles and post on social media that they believe the Grammy awards have always been and remain biased in favor of anyone carrying the last name “Marley” – this happens any time a Marley is nominated – so I’m sure I’m not telling you something you haven’t heard. Some will even point to connections between the Marley family and the Grammy executives. What do you say, if anything, to this often made criticism about Marley favoritism at the Grammys?

Julian Marley: You know what? I’m gonna wake up the next day like it was two days ago or four days ago – that’s not on my mind. So people can say what they want to say. Jah is who is saying what is to be said. So I don’t really – me personally, [I’m] humble in music, humble in life, humble in everything. We a-mek music from when I [was] in my mother’s kitchen on her pots and pans. From way back in the day, so coming up, shows you that music is over everything. Music is not about the material, music is what we are giving.

Q: So this Grammy thing –

Julian Marley: Grammys is set up like the city out there (pointing to the Los Angeles skyline through nearby glass windows) – McDonald’s down there. You have a whole heap of businesses down there – it’s a business. But the music is for the people.

Q: Just recently there have been news reports about a woman [named Deborah Duggan] who was involved in the running of the Grammys, but has been fired by the Grammys; she claims she suffered misconduct [within the Grammy organization] including sexual harassment, and also, that she observed voting irregularities and rampant conflicts of interest among the Grammy board members. Have you read or heard about this –

Julian Marley: I heard some of [it].

Q: Do you have any reaction or thoughts about it as it concerns the legitimacy of the Grammy Awards?

Julian Marley: Like I say, again, mek the musicians get some pay. Make sure all those hard-working artists and musicians who love the music – because as we say, the Grammys, that’s like the “government of the music.” We are the civilians that are here. We don’t know what that is, so I can’t say anything about that.

Q: I really dig a lot of songs on your album. It’s a very eclectic album and it shows that you’re very good at arranging music, and also, I can see how talented you are – I already knew that you play lots of different instruments – and this all comes out on your [new] album “As I Am.” I like some of the songs like “Hey Jack,” “Chalice Load,” I like “Cooling in Jamaica” – these are songs that I could listen to right now in the sunshine and be very happy, chilling –

Julian Marley: (Laughing) Yeah, yeah.

Q: But I think my favorite songs on [the album] are the two inspirational ones, “Broken Sail” and “Straighter Roads,” as well as the feel-good, irie song “Family & Friends.” Those three are actually my favorites on the album.

Julian Marley: Give thanks.

Q: When I listened to those three songs especially, I couldn’t help thinking about your daughter, Caveri, who died tragically this past year from cancer. I wanted you to know how sorry I was to hear about that. I’m not a parent, so I can only imagine. And when I imagine, it’s too painful to imagine.

Julian Marley: Yeah.

Q: Were any of those three songs, “Broken Sail,” “Straighter Roads,” or “Family & Friends,” written with Caveri in mind?

Julian Marley: They were written before.

Q: Before she passed away?

Julian Marley: Before everything. These songs are songs for the whole universe. I am just one person who has experienced what millions of people have experienced. I am not a single person – or my daughter is not a single person – we are not single people. When you look out there on the earth – see the smog there (pointing outside)? Pollution. And corruption. So it’s something that gives us knowledge, ok, because we live pon the planet earth. And every day you see the technology rising – everyday what was organic and what’s real is getting more – it’s like sandpaper, you keep on scraping, and there will be no foundation after a while. Because they’re killing off – as Bob Marley would say, “They’re eating up all the flesh from off of the earth.” So “we don’t know how we and dem a-go work it out.” ‘Cause it’s a fight against vanity. People want to make money, and people who need food, shelter, clothes, healing cures.

Q: This is so big in Los Angeles right now. You probably saw, or when you go out on the streets to go to the Grammy Awards you’ll see the homelessness problem –

Julian Marley: Yeah.

Q: – that exists here. In allegedly one of the most developed, wealthy, and civilized cities. And yet if you go downtown, right next to the biggest skyscraper that you can see, and the richest businesses, you’ll also see people who are living in tents.

Julian Marley: True. Dem say Hollywood, we are playing, acting here. [So] “I can’t see you. I’m not gonna see the truth. I’m gonna hide the truth behind the screen.” (laughing)

Q: In “Broken Sail,” you sing “I pledge to find a cure and work for equality…I’m tired of oppression on the poor…no more.” This is a very deep lyric—respect!

Julian Marley: Yes I.

Q: I understand you wrote all of the lyrics for the songs on “As I Am” with the exception, of course, [of the cover of a cover,] “What’s New Pussycat.” Can you talk for a minute about how you write the lyrics to your songs and the process behind it? Like for example: Where do you find yourself physically the most when you write songs – like are you in your bed, are you on a plane, what time is it – is it late at night, or is it in the morning, are you smoking herb –

Julian Marley: That depends. That, we call it inspiration. Inspiration can zap you at any time. You can be walking down the street about to go into the supermarket, [and it can hit you. And you need to stop.] Because if I go in through that door, it’s gonna be gone.

Q: So what do you do when you get that inspiration? Do you write [whatever it is] down quickly?

Julian Marley: No, you pick up your phone and you go, “voice notes.” Beep-Beep-Beep. Pause. (Laughing)

Q: Three last questions Julian, and I really want to give thanks for this time with you again. I mentioned legendary drummer Sly Dunbar earlier in this interview, who of course played with your dad and is one of the best drummers to walk the earth, in any genre of music, period.

Julian Marley: Yeah.

Q: As you know, at tomorrow’s Grammy Awards, your competition for “Best Reggae Album” includes –

Julian Marley: (Laughing) Our teachers! It makes us feel good to say, “Teachers: Are we coming along well?” [And they say,] “Yes, you’ve improved in your studies.” (Laughing)

Q: And as I was saying Sly and Robbie & Roots Radics’ album “The Final Battle: Sly & Robbie vs. Roots Radics” is in the running with “As I Am” for Best Reggae Album. I was fortunate to interview Sly last year and have been friends and stayed in touch with him since. Before today’s interview I reached out to Sly Dunbar, and I asked him for a good question to ask you today, and this is what he said: “Ask him why is he so cool? I love his vibes.”

Julian Marley: (Laughing)

Q: What do you have to say about that?

Julian Marley: [Sly] is a teacher, man. I was in Europe maybe two years ago and we was there talking for hours, me, Sly, Robbie [Shakespeare], because I know them from yay high to yay high (gesturing). So if I see him right now, hours [we would talk for].

Q: Has he changed any, [Sly], from the time when you knew him as a youth?

Julian Marley: I get to know him more as I grew, you know? Because when you’re a youth, you’re kinda humble. And you see the teachers and you can’t just run up to them. No, you have to have respect. We always have respect [for them]. But when you get older, now you can sit down and drink a Guiness or talk, or whatever you want to do. So now you can talk with the “big guys” now. You’re not a little child no more.

Q: Also, legendary sound engineer Scientist –

Julian Marley: The dub master, yeah.

Q: Scientist, also known as Hopeton Brown, he works only a couple of miles from here, and he said he wants to record with you and also do a dub album with you. What do you think about that?

Julian Marley: That would be something tough.

Q: Julian, where will you be performing next? What are your immediate touring and travel plans?

Julian Marley: The first stuff we have coming up in March, we’re supposed to be going to Japan.

Q: Nice. Have you been there before?

Julian Marley: Years and years ago.

Q: What’s the reggae community like there?

Julian Marley: It feels like you’re almost in Jamaica. A “Japan-Jamaica.”

Q: I’ve heard this. They are huge reggae fans in Japan. Finally, Julian, I want to wish you good luck tomorrow at the Grammys. No matter what happens, Jah knows you’ve already won. Is there any final message you have for all of your fans around the world?

Julian Marley: Well I just want to say, you know, love each other, respect each other, and just be true. Be yourself. And Rastafari is the almighty.

About the Author: Stephen Cooper is a former D.C. public defender who worked as an assistant federal public defender in Alabama between 2012 and 2015. He has contributed to numerous magazines and newspapers in the United States and overseas. He writes full-time and lives in Woodland Hills, California. Follow him on Twitter at @SteveCooperEsq


Stephen Cooper is a former D.C. public defender who worked as an assistant federal public defender in Alabama between 2012 and 2015. He has contributed to numerous magazines and newspapers in the United States and overseas. He writes full-time and lives in Woodland Hills, California.