The First Family of Reggae Returns to Philly this Saturday

Stephen Marley chats about the kickoff of his Catch a Fire tour at the Mann Center and his impressions of Philadelphia.

Stephen Marley

Stephen Marley

The good news for all you reggae fans is that Philly welcomes Stephen “Ragga” Marley, Bob Marley’s second son, Damian “Jr. Gong,” Bob’s youngest son, and Jo Mersa, his grandson, this Saturday as they kick off their Catch a Fire tour at the Mann Center’s Reggae Fest. The bummer is we don’t get even more of the Marleys: No Ziggy, Julian, Ky-mani.

It’s notable that those Marley men are now all older than their father was when he died in 1981 at age 36. Stephen is 43 and Damian is 37. Yet, Bob Marley’s musical presence and message of love and tolerance in the world seem as in demand as ever. (Forbes magazine’s 2014 ranking puts Bob Marley behind only Michael Jackson and Elvis in postmortem earning power. And only the Marley estate’s income is on the rise.). I spoke with Stephen, an eight-time Grammy winner, over the phone to talk about Saturday’s upcoming show and his impressions of Philadelphia.

And yes, it did sound like I was talking to Bob himself. Their voices are eerily similar. And yes, he did address me as “mon” a few times.

What is it like seeing images of your dad on t-shirts, posters, and merchandise all around the world? I can’t imagine what it would be like to see my dad’s face everywhere.
I love seeing my dad’s face everywhere. You know, it’s definitely like, ‘That’s Dad,’ at the same time I appreciate what it means. It’s more than him being my dad, it’s what he stood for. He’s so strong. When I see the image, it does the same thing for me as if I wasn’t his son. He’s a leader and is like a book to guide us through life. He’s always there …

How do you and Damian figure out the set list?
Damian and I have been doing this for so long, for over twenty years. We have new songs we’re promoting, as well as our father’s songs. I’ll definitely be doing “Rock Stone” [from his upcoming album, Revelations 2: Fruit of Life]. We plan it out, but we also go by the spirit. A lot of shows do have impulsive things. I’ll stop the show and speak. We’re not in a box. We keep it fresh. We are fresh. [laughs]

What’s your favorite Bob Marley song?
[laughs] I like to perform them all. We might have a favorite one week and it’s different by next week. So yah, there’s no one song … What’s your favorite song of my dad’s?

Umm.. Yeah, it’s hard to pick just one.

But I don’t have to sing them in front of people.

What’s the energy between you and Damian?
Ziggy is our big brother, the first boy of Bob. I look up to him, and Damian is my youngest brother … We’re very close. We can look at each other and communicate without words. That energy is just awesome, It’s a beautiful thing …

Yeah, not all brothers get along that well.
Yah, mon. I give thanks for that.

So when your father is one of the most famous musicians in the world, who else inspires you? Who are your music heroes?
Yah mon, James Brown, Toots and the Maytals, Burning Spear, Nina Simone, Marvin Gaye … I’m a big fan of music in general, from the oldest to the newest.

How is the Marley sound evolving? You and your brothers have incorporated dancehall, hip-hop, rap, R&B and collaborated with lots of different artists—Busta Rhymes, Mos Def, Skrillex, Nas. Do fans want you to keep it old-school?
Of course, when it was my father’s time, it was the same thing, even though the music was evolving, people in 1978 liked how reggae sounded in 1972 and didn’t want it to change. That type of yearning for music in that way has been going on since my dad’s time. Reggae is much like a tree, it evolves from a root to flowers and fruit. You can’t just have it stay as a root. The root’s still there, but it’s a natural evolution.

You were born in Delaware [Stephen was born on 4/20 … I kid you not] and your family has a lot of connections to Wilmington. [Bob Marley lived there on and off into the 1970s, and he drove a forklift at the Chrysler Assembly Plant in Newark and worked as a lab assistant at DuPont Co.], so what’s the feeling when you come back to the area?
We’d go to Wilmington for holidays … Philadelphia always brings back memories of that time. For me, Philadelphia represents that whole vibe of the 70s … My father played Philly quite a few times. I always get a certain spirit about Philadelphia.

If you read the headlines, is your father’s message of ‘one love’ and peace more in jeopardy now than ever before?
Listen, people are going to need his message. It cannot be in jeopardy. Truth is like water. It’s so necessary. You need the truth to survive … The headlines in the news is what Babylon puts out there. There’s good and bad in everything. It’s a struggle, that fight of good over evil, so you have to promote the good things.

Finally, what’s your son Jo Mersa, 24, learning from being on tour with you and his uncle?
It’s a great treasure and we are grateful to Jah to perform together. Those are the things I’d like to have done with my father, to perform at this stage of life. I did perform when I was young, but not during the evolution into a man. I give thanks to do that with my kid. It’s a perfect joy.

Festival doors open at 2:30 pm, Reggae Fest starts at 3 pm. Tickets are now on sale here and the Mann box office, located at 52nd Street and Parkside Avenue.