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The Hard Line According to Ziggy Marley: Our 1989 Feature

Portrait of Ziggy Marley at the Riviera Theater in Chicago, Illinois, September 7, 1988. (Photo by Paul Natkin/Getty Images)

This article originally appeared in the October 1989 issue of SPIN.

He looks a lot more like his mother. He’s got Rita’s apple cheeks and dimples, and a flirtatious, almost girlish smile. No intimidating stares, no tough ras sass, no prophetic, heavy-lidded ganja nods. Still, you can’t help playing the Famous Son game, studying his face for traces of the father whose brooding, angular, saint-like portrait graces West Indian dwellings from Kingston to the United Kingdom. Meanwhile, this bright-eyed Jamaican 20-year-old dressed in sweats and snazzy athletic boots, a graduate of one of his country’s most rigorous preparatory schools, keeps a soccer ball bobbing at his feet. “Me is Ziggy,” he shrugs offhandedly when asked the question he’s probably sick of answering. “Me is my own self. Not me mother, not me father, ya understand?” 

We’re sitting in Sigma Sound Studios in New York City, where Ziggy Marley is putting finishing touches on his new album, One Bright Day. Ziggy and his entourage—Ethiopian manager Addisu Gessesse, bodyguard/buddy Skyeye, some musicians from his Ethiopian band, Dallol, and half-brother Robbie Williams (who lives in New York)—have taken over both of Sigma’s studios, and then some. In a nearby room, vegetarian munchies spill across a table, and unidentified dreads play endless Nintendos on a video monitor. 

What’s missing in this picture? All the things you’d expect to find at a reggae session: ganja, slackness, the molasses flow of Jamaican time. “There’s a time fe play and a time fe work, and this is the workin’ time, ya understand?” Ziggy declares at the start of our interview—his polite way of telling the journalist to keep it short. 

The Marley team is working against a double deadline—the record company wants this LP ready in time for an August tour, and Ziggy wants to take July off in order to be with his girlfriend in Jamaica, who’s expecting their first child then. So while Ziggy records his vocals in one studio upstairs, engineer/coproducer Glenn Rosenstein does final mixes in the other. They’ve been at it for nearly a week, working 10-, 12-hour days. 

There’s another kind of pressure—follow-up syndrome. Ziggy Marley and the Melody Maker’s last LP, Conscious Party, was the group’s breakthrough. Their first release on a new label—Virgin—the company put a lot of effort into promotion and got the “Tumblin’ Down” Marley video onto MTV. That, together with the band’s nonstop 1988 tour (they opened in arenas for INXS), helped Conscious Party climb into the US Top 30. The record sold 900,000 copies in the US, a million and a half worldwide, and “Tumblin’ Down” hit the top of the Black charts, something that Bob Marley and the Wailers had never been able to do. 

Conscious Party made Ziggy Marley well known to a younger audience, many of whom have only a vague idea of what his famous father was all about. Or what reggae is all about, for that matter. Conscious Party‘s rhythms are grounded in the reggae beat, but the overall sound is clever high-tech pop, thanks to producers Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth of Talking Heads. Ziggy Marley’s reggae is an international sound, not a Jamaican one. Indeed, his records don’t sell very well in his home country, where the hip styles are the electronic body-bending beat of dance hall and the retro-crooning lover’s rock. From a Jamaican perspective, Conscious Party is old-fashioned. 

But Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers are no slickly-packaged rehash. Ziggy’s got a mind, and a style of his own, which is one reason why he’s been able to get across to a world audience (post-Marley, no other Jamaican artist has). Onstage, he’s a charmer, loping and scissor-kicking like a soccer star, while his younger brother, Stephen, bops like a wild child behind the keyboards, and sisters Cedella, Sharon and Stephanie do Rasta-aerobic dips and turns at stage right. Ziggy smiles constantly, and has an unconscious knack for taming the arena-rock lions; it’s no wonder the INXS crowd dug him. He’s not heavy like his father, and the best song on Conscious Party is something that Bob Marley never would have written. “Lee and Molly” is about a white guy who falls in love with a Black girl: “These days love has no boundaries,” the song declares. “Let love be free.” 

Ziggy says he wrote that song from a story his sister Cedella told him about a romance that was going on in her private school. Which brings up one more important difference between Marleys senior and junior. Bob Marley based much of his material on his experience of life in the Kingston ghetto, Trench Town. Whereas Ziggy grew up privileged, living in a house on the hill. 

“Nah! We never live de life of money,” Ziggy Marley denies, shaking his head, and for the first time since we started talking, he looks away. This is a touchy subject, it seems. “It was a normal life we lived, still live. That’s why I grow so. People talk about, ‘Oh, he’s Bob Marley’s son, how much money he does have, the estate, so and so.’ But that didn’t come as nothin’ to me.” The Marley family, Ziggy asserts, is not changed by things like wealth, or by the success of a record album like Conscious Party. “These things don’t affect we. It don’t affect what we are really, what we have been, or what we will be. No matter what happen, we can’t change.” 


The Hard Line According to Ziggy Marley: Our 1989 Feature


Engineer/producer Glenn Rosenstein remembers that before he started working on Conscious Party with Chris and Tina, they gave him some advice: find a copy of one of the Bob Marley bios, and read it before you meet Ziggy. Rosenstein didn’t do it, and still hasn’t. “I don’t want to know… I just wanted things to kind of unfold,” he says. 

Nevertheless, it helps to have the history straight. 

In 1968, Bob Marley was beginning to taste some financial success after years of scuffling for chump change from sleazy producers in the Jamaican record business. He had a publishing contract, Johnny Nash (“I Can See Clearly Now”) had covered some of his songs and released them in the United States, and his band, the Wailers, would soon record their first album. This was the year when Bob Marley began to grow dreadlocks, and when his first son was born to his wife Rita. They named him David Marley, but Bob immediately dubbed the little boy “Ziggy”—Jamaican footballers slang for a totally cool move. 

When Ziggy was 2, his dad bought the first family car with the profits from the Wailer’s LP. When he was 4, living sometimes with his mother, sometimes with a great aunt in Trench Town, his father was in London, recording the first crossover reggae LP, Catch A Fire, for Chris Blackwell’s Island label. At 5, Ziggy moved out of Trench Town with his mother and sisters into the upper class district of Kingston, to a big old colonial house that Blackwell gave to his father. Bob Marley was becoming more and more successful, in and out of Jamaica. This period of Ziggy’s childhood corresponded with the key releases of his dad’s career: Burnin’, Natty Dread and Rastaman Vibration, and the song “I Shot The Sheriff” which, through a cover by Eric Clapton, brought the name of Bob Marley to the attention of the world. 

There was money now. Dad drove a BMW, and the house in Kingston, Hope Road, turned into a Rasta commune, full of friends, footballers, musicians, hangers-on, women and children, living the natural life, Jamaican-style. “Me father give me herb when I young,” Ziggy remembers. “He’d say, ‘Ziggy, take a draw.’ ” Ziggy has another powerful memory of his youth: being rescued from a band of armed gangsters who invaded the Hope Road compound and shot at anything that moved. “Me mother wake me up and pull me and me brothers and sisters from bed in the night.” His dad was shot in the arm, his mother in the head. The Wailers’ manager got shot in the spine and nearly died. Ziggy and his brothers and sisters were hustled off to safety in the country. Ziggy was 8. 

Bob Marley once said to an interviewer that he wanted to have as many children as there were shells on the beach. He wasn’t kidding. Marley fathered three more children with Ziggy’s mother Rita—Cedella, Stephen and Stephanie. (Ziggy has a sister, Sharon, who is Rita’s child by another man.) There are seven other acknowledged Marley siblings, each born to a different woman: Karen, Jahnesta, Rowan, Robbie, Kimani, Julian and Damian. Ziggy grew up knowing all his brothers and sisters, although they weren’t always living together. In the West Indies, “outside” children are not ostracized, and family organization tends to be more fluid, centered around households headed by single women. Still, the Marley brood is unusual, even in a Caribbean context, because of its size, and the number of different mothers. 

On May 11, 1981, Bob Marley died after a long battle with cancer. Ziggy was 13. “The moment I hear the news, me shock.” he recalls. “But me never cry… ah strong, ah strong. Me father, he never grow up with a father, either.” 

The Marley funeral was a public occasion that attracted thousands, and rivalled the ceremonies given to heads of state. In the years following Marley’s death, his legend grew larger than life. Many fans and reggae critics believe that the singer/composer was not only a world-class musician and visionary writer, but also a manifestation of some divine power. 

Other writers have taken a more material-world view of the Marley legacy. Bob Marley left this world with 11 children, no will (Rastas don’t believe in them), and much unfinished business. In a fascinating article in the Village Voice of April 14, 1987, Michael Caruso describes the legal and financial circus that’s resulted from Marley’s reluctance to put his house in order. 

According to Caruso’s account, after Bob’s death the Wailers were bullied into signing contracts that deprived them of their fair royalties, and Rita Marley’s legal manipulations prevented the “outside” Marley children from receiving adequate financial support. (Caruso’s interview with Cedella Booker, Bob Marley’s mother, revealed that one of Ziggy’s half-brothers was receiving $90 a month in 1987; still another received $75.) Rita Marley allegedly gutted the multi-million dollar estate of most of its money, and transferred it to accounts in her name. The Jamaican Supreme Court eventually dismissed Rita as estate administrator, and impounded all assets. (Earlier this year, the remaining assets of the depleted estate were sold to Chris Blackwell.) 

In the midst of the worst of the estate legal battles, Rita Marley threw herself into pushing her children’s career. “I wouldn’t say it was a conscious effort… it was a mother’s duty,” she reflects. “Being around them has given me so much strength and courage… With all of that going through legal battles with Bob’s estate… working with Ziggy and the Melody Makers has been a pillar of strength. And it’s also protecting me from who knows what. You never can tell… I don’t feel [threatened]. I know I am. And I’m a threat to a lot of people just being who I am.” 

After the bloody raid on Hope Road in 1976, Bob Marley had written a different lyric to his song “Lord, We Got To Keep On Moving”: “We’re going on another bridge, and it’s a Ziggy, Ziggy bridge.” Rita Marley says now that she believes that this was her husband’s prophesy for his eldest son Ziggy, who was already singing and playing guitar. Three years later, in 1979, Ziggy Marley and Rita’s other children, Sharon, Cedella and Stephen, made their debut as the Melody Makers recording a song their father wrote called “Children Playing In The Streets.” It’s full of youthful enthusiasm, even though the singing is slightly off-key. 

In 1985, the group was formally presented on a Bob Marley Memorial Tour that included the Wailers as back-up band, plus the I-Threes, singers Rita Marley, Judy Mowatt and Marcia Griffiths. Ziggy, now seventeen, tall and dreadlocked, was the star of the tour. The press constantly compared him to his late lather. And mostly he sang his father’s songs. 

The Melody Makers subsequently made two albums for EMI, Play The Game Right and Hey World. The first won a Grammy nomination, and both showcased Ziggy’s songwriting potential, but neither sold particularly well. After the second, Rita found her kids a new band, Dallol, a Chicago-based reggae group of Ethiopian cousins she found via a random demo tape delivered to her record company. Then she found the kids a new contract. The Melody Makers signed a long-term deal with Virgin in late 1987. Conscious Party came out soon afterward, and at last, things clicked for Ziggy. 

“He’s a man now,” Rita Marley bubbles over the phone from the family house in Kingston. “He’s momma’s man… most people are realizing that he favors me when they get to talk to him and get close-up. He has most of my attitude. Ziggy’s real forward, full of force. Bob had that lion in him, too, but there was something else behind Bob’s. Ziggy is serious, but he’s serious having fun.” 


The Hard Line According to Ziggy Marley: Our 1989 Feature


Robbie Williams is a dark, intense boy, another Marley son. He wanders into the interview room and sits down to listen to his famous brother. Robbie is shy, and has none of his brother’s easy confidence. But Robbie didn’t grow up as the eldest son of Jamaica’s first reggae family; he moved to Florida, then Queens, New York, with his mother when he was a child. 

Ziggy introduces us. I say hello, and ask him if he’s part of the band. Ziggy answers for him. 

“Not musically, but he’s in the band, same way.”

Robbie runs down the family ties: he’s a month younger than Steve, three years younger than Ziggy. His mother is Lucille Williams, and she brought him to America when he was 4. He has an American accent. 

The family is tight, Ziggy explains. All the success in the world won’t change that. His best friends are “me brothers. All of them. Because we have the same father. It does that keep it together, even though we may have different mothers, we come from the same father.” 

SPIN: But what happens when the mothers aren’t talking to each other? 

Ziggy Marley: We is man, y’know? So if your mom she don’t want to talk to my mom, whose business is that? We are the man, and we deal with each other. 

Is this really true? One of the issues that came out during the estate battle is that some of the Marley children were living in poverty… 

No sir. That never affect us. These things, these things is between woman. Woman! Woman bring more quarrel than the man. The estate thing… everyone who is fighting for the estate, everyone, you understand, is all woman, no man, you dig me? I don’t think it’s so easy for woman to get along as it is for man. In Jamaica, y’know, if you have a girlfriend, you have a girlfriend, but if something happen you don’t get along easily. So, from beginning of time, I really would say from Adam and Eve, is a history of woman business. The whole estate thing has been a woman thing. I don’t know if that’s why it so hard. Maybe if it was me and my brothers dealin’ with it, it would be simpler, easier to come to a conclusion. If it was just the brothers dealing we’d get it together quick, quick, quick. No confusion. But we young, underage, minors… but when all of us get older now, we all of us can say, stop this fuck we, you know what I mean? And control for ourself now. 

Do you tell this to your mother? 

To my mother? No, not tell her this. These things… I don’t even think about them a lot until I am at the moment of saying it, like now. But, when the time is right [snaps his fingers in the air] everything will work out. And even like these thing which I am saying now… It’s going to be very funny in the writing because it might sound like something else, you know? 

Are you trying to say that the estate is not your fight? 

No, it is my fight because these are my father’s things. But money is not my fight. The idea behind it is that what belong to my father, we will fight for it. But if the argument is about money, money, money, who is getting what money, we won’t fight for that. To help somebody who is less fortunate, we will fight, ya understand? The time will come when me have to go fight for what is going on now, but I don’t feel it yet. 


The Hard Line According to Ziggy Marley: Our 1989 Feature


Whether or not he wants to admit it, Ziggy Marley has grown up privileged. Not in a material sense, perhaps, but psychologically. He’s had the leisure time to listen, to learn, to travel, and he’s always been a center of attention, inside and outside of his family. Ziggy doesn’t have any of the defenses that you have to learn to survive in the street. His face is wide open, not a mask, and he looks directly at the person he’s talking to, instead of shifting his radar every now and then to pick up the enemy tiptoeing up to stab him in the back. 

He’s also very intelligent. During session breaks, he watches CNN, and (as his mother proudly points out) he won a scholarship to that good Jamaican school by getting one of the top scores in an island-wide test. The concept of the “conscious party” is no joke—even during playtime, Ziggy’s always got his head on. “He asks you what you think about everything, then sits and listens and soaks it up. Being around Ziggy is like being in college again,” says Glenn Rosenstein. “You don’t usually get to talk about world politics and economics with a rock artist between takes.” 

But he’s not a political figure, the way his father was. During the recent Jamaican election, he didn’t perform on behalf of either candidate—the politicians wanted the dancehall stars, not Ziggy Marley. The day the election was held, Ziggy was away touring US colleges for Black History Month. Ziggy’s not on the front line; he’s the thoughtful, well-educated observer. 

Take his new song, “When The Lights Gone Out” from One Bright Day. At first it sounds like a reprise of Bob Marley’s poignant ballad, “No Woman, No Cry.” But here’s Ziggy’s story: “I came back to Jamaica after the big hurricane, I was on tour. It frighten me, ’cause when I heard the news, it sounded like everything was mash up. The way dem put it over the news: Prime Minister Seaga says Jamaica gone. When me go back home the first thing I do is went home, then check with me brethren down in the ghetto, see what’s going on. Plenty looting. Men gone a jail for looting. Things like dat. That is how the song on the LP came about… ‘When the lights gone out, and the food run out, all we have is music.’ Because after the hurricane everybody had a battery tape player playing in the street, the only relief. That was what inspire the song. ‘Cause even in my house, the cupboard was empty, fridge empty.” 

And so, here’s the Marley for the 90s: smart, cool and born to rule. “It’s a new generation, with a different upbringing,” observes Rita. “They think, ‘Hey, we can do everything easy, man, just be cool.’ Bob Marley sang about revolution, but Ziggy sings ‘the walls come tumblin’ down.’ ” And that, explains Mrs. Marley, is what makes her son the voice of his reggae nation. “His music is caressing, y’know? Ziggy’s music don’t make you worry.”