ASPEN — It’s late afternoon on April 19, and on the other end of the phone line is Stephen Marley. The singer is about to head into sound-check for that night’s show at the Warehouse Live, in Houston, but I am more curious about the following day, when he will turn 39. Yes, Stephen Marley was born on 4/20.
“Sing. Just sing,” Marley said with an amused laugh about his plans for his birthday and the date pot-smokers have designated as their annual cannabis coming-out party. (Marley was, in fact, scheduled to perform on April 20, at Dallas’ South Side Music Hall.)
It is a particular type of song Marley has in mind these days — and it’s not necessarily “One Good Spliff,” the marijuana ode he contributed to “Spirit of Music,” the 1999 album by Ziggy Marley & the Melody Makers. On May 24, Stephen is scheduled to release “Revelation Part 1: The Root of Life,” the second album under his name. And the revelation in question doesn’t have to do with the last book of the New Testament, which describes the final confrontation between good and evil. Instead, Marley hopes to unveil the roots of reggae music.
“Everyone has a revelation. Some people have them every day, some kind of revelation,” Marley said. “And in the album, it means the music is being revealed, this kind of music.”
Marley points out that, for a younger audience, or listeners just discovering reggae, the style known as roots reggae might genuinely come as a revelation. Over the decades since the music first came out of the ghettos of Kingston, Jamaica, reggae has been altered in all sorts of ways. In Southern California, for instance, reggae ideas were appropriated as the basis for a harder-edged style associated with skateboarders. Rappers have freely taken musical and cultural tips from reggae, and in the process, reggae has sometimes been entangled with the base values — thuggery, materialism — that often mark hip-hop.
“Some people are being introduced to reggae music right now, in 2011, but the style is pop reggae, not what you would find in a dictionary under reggae. Not Bob Marley, not all the things you would put into the music if it were the real roots of reggae,” said Marley, who performs Sunday, April 24 at Belly Up Aspen.
The second son of Bob Marley aims to do something that will resurrect the roots. “Revelation Part 1” — which was recorded at both Kingston’s Tuff Gong Studios, a recording space associated with the Marley family, and in Miami, where Stephen lives — includes such songs as “Jah Army,” the first single from the album, and “No Cigarette Smoking.” The former is a Rasta worship song — “I took a vow to spread Jah light” — set to an old-school sound, heavy on bass and drums. The song, which features vocals from Stephen’s brother, Damian, also points out that music is vital to spreading Rastafarian beliefs: “Inspire I with clever adjectives and pronouns/ To influence da’yout dem” — the youth — “with word power and sound.”
“No Cigarette Smoking,” which features Guyanese-Canadian singer Melanie Fiona, is deeply romantic, and echoes Bob Marley’s “Waiting in Vain” with its sense of patience and anticipation. But as the title suggests, Stephen took the opportunity to squeeze in some Rasta beliefs as well.
“It’s not about cigarettes,” he said. “Cigarettes is just one of the things that is a no-no around me. She’s telling me, ‘What am I supposed to do, sit here waiting for you?’ It’s about my space and the things I like, and if you follow these rules, we’ll be OK.” (The song provides a great counterpoint to “One Good Spliff”: marijuana is sacred; tobacco is forbidden.)
Other songs on “Revelation Part 1” include “Made in Africa,” “Old Slaves” and “Can’t Keep I Down,” titles which suggest such roots reggae themes as black emancipation, pride in African origins and shrugging off political oppression.
Marley believes his first album, 2007’s “Mind Control,” made a different sort of statement than “Revelation Part 1” does. “Mind Control” was made in the wake of Damian Marley’s “Welcome to Jamrock,” which was produced by Stephen. The 2005 album was a huge hit and earned the Grammy for best reggae album. Stephen’s “Mind Control” borrowed some of the hip-hop flavor of “Welcome to Jamrock.”
Before making “Revelation Part 1,” Marley read a few articles on the state of reggae — “that reggae was withering away,” he said. “That motivated me. There is good reggae music. But what happens to be promoted … . There’s nothing wrong with growing. But some of it needs integrity. When reggae was introduced to the world, by Jimmy Cliff, Bob Marley, Burning Spear, it had integrity. The instruments, the lyrics were a movement. These brothers were at the forefront; what we presented then was what the world knows. The media goes for another kind of thing.”
It isn’t just talk when Marley says it’s OK for reggae to change. “Revelation Part 2,” already recorded and tentatively scheduled for release in the fall, is subtitled “The Fruit of Life,” and is designed to show where the music has gone since the early days.
“It’s a continuation of the story,” Marley said. “After the roots comes the fruits. You plant it, you water it, it catches some of the sunshine. And the fruits become all different fruits — some sweet, some tart. It’s the journey of reggae music and where it is today — the more popular styles you’d hear on the radio.”
Given Marley’s past, two albums in a half-year span is a notable blossoming of productivity. Marley was 34 when “Mind Control,” the first album to bear his name, was released. Not that he had been slacking in his career. He had been busy as a member of the Melody Makers, a prominent band led by his older brother David, who is better known as Ziggy. (Stephen is often called Raggamuffin, or Ragga.) And Stephen was the family’s go-to producer, the man behind the controls for two Grammy-winning albums by Damian, and “Chant Down Babylon,” an album of posthumous duets between his father and other prominent singers.
Stephen seems, above all, a team player, who went as far as delaying his planned debut album, “Got Music?” so as not to interfere with the release of Damian’s “Welcome to Jamrock.” He chalks up this quality to the month of his birth: April is when Reuben, the first son of Jacob, was born; the Reubenites thus became the first tribe of Israel. Stephen Marley may have been the second Marley son, but he identifies with Reuben, overseeing the flock.
“It’s a checking up on everyone type of vibe,” Marley said. “As long as the team is winning.”