[4 April 2007]
The fact that reggae music—the very definition of catchwords like “freedom” and “revolution”—should continue in such a clean lineage, from Nesta’s globalization of this rootsy technique straight through to his offspring’s overstanding of the digital age, is not a surprise. Now that Stephen Marley has finally launched into a spotlight already shared by Ziggy, Julian, Damian, and Ky-Mani, a long and industrious circle is completed, or, depending on how you look at things, just beginning. Reggae, like the Jamaican Rasta culture that spawned it, relishes in paradoxes, knowing them to be flip sides of one coin.
When cultures collide, new identities are born. Such was the case when a shipload of indentured servants landed on the shores of Jamaica in 1845. The cargo—a group of Indian workers—would go on to influence what would become Nyabhingi communities, which of course gave birth to Rastafarianism. In a little-known cultural connection (considering Rastas point to Ethiopia, the archaic catchword for all of Africa, as the birthing place), India’s vast philosophical and social landscape gave birth to numerous things associated with reggae culture: bhang, a ganja (the word is Hindi) elixir; jatawi, or thick, matted locks of hair, that Sadhus had been twisting for centuries; vegetarianism and Ayurvedic nutrition, which inspired ital cooking; and, most interestingly, karma. That last one continues uninterrupted this day, as the very theory dictates.
The indoctrinated Africans and indigenous islanders were forced to believe in a form of Christianity claiming that no matter how hard we tried in life, we are never free because of an original sin. (Interestingly the word “sin” originally meant “ignorant”, which is the basis of yoga: avidya, ignorance, is what traps the individual in a world of illusion.) The best we can do is to achieve something great after we die. The Indians showed their new neighbors doctrines rich with karma, how not only do we return from life to life, but that the idea of moksha (liberation) is attainable right now. This idea would eventually creep down to a man named Bob Marley, and the rest, as we know, is history… and the present.
Marley was steadfast in making the African connection, mostly due to his personal and spiritual connection to Haile Selassie and the teachings of Marcus Garvey. As African heritage grew on the island and its music rose to power, the underlying theme in India was severed. When the façade of a building is revamped, however, the stone that the builder refused remains the same. And Marley knew karma well; he sang of it, and his life, while pictured today as the clean rebel of peace and love, was full of discord and weaponry. He knew that to make an impact in the industry, some not-so-civil measures had to be taken, and he took them. Point being, he got where he needed to go, for the better of us all.
I can’t help but think the same thing happened with Mind Control (Tuff Gong), Stephen Marley’s excellent debut. The brother has been undercover in most of his sibling’s works, including Julian’s finest effort, A Time & Place, and, of course, Damian’s breakthrough Welcome to Jamrock (as well as his lesser publicized, though more adventurous, Halfway Tree). Stephen was also Badu-ized on Erykah’s Mama’s Gun, joining the soul diva on the unforgettable ballad “In Love With You”. To say people have been waiting for Mind Control is an understatement—in more ways that one.
We can only speculate on why Stephen renamed the record from its original title, Got Music?. I received a promo of this over three years ago, and was instantly hooked by his bluesy takes on the music his family’s name is synonymous with. It had the stirring strums of Ziggy mixed with the jazziness of Julian, backed up by Damian-sized beats. In the middle of all this was a voice that, every time I’ve played it for friends, warrants the question, “What Bob song is this?” Stephen is the patois-thick doppelganger of all Marleys, and one hell of a songwriter to boot.
Eager to write a piece on Got Music?, I was in constant communication with the publicity department to secure a release date. Every time I queried, another pushback would arrive into my inbox. He needed to do more production. Nothing was firm yet. And then, eventually, “Welcome to Jamrock” happened, and the Marley name reached a stature it hadn’t since—well, we’d like to say since Catch a Fire or Exodus dropped, but we have to be realistic. Bob, much to his chagrin (mostly pertaining to his desire for Africans and African-Americans to accept his music), was not a truly global name until after he died. That little bit of biblical karma may sting, but we can only equate Jamrock with Legend.
Got Music? would have to wait. Jamrock was the perfect balance between the bass-heavy headnods of hip-hop without being overtly Bronx-bound, while it had that thumping luster of dancehall without over-stimulated hype. Damian, and by extension producer Stephen, rubbed the sonic G-spot on this one, and the family once again struck musical gold. Stephen’s debut was indeterminately shelved until they could make sense of a few things.
One of those things, ironically, is property control. What annoyed me about Got Music? was its watermark, which prevented me from playing the CD in my computer. To listen I had to hook up my failing Discman. I’m fully cognizant this is a trite complaint, but—and this is an important one—I’m realistic about where music is going. And for me, and many journalists like myself, it’s into my iPod. Most of my reviewing time is done on subways and street corners. These little copy-protected nuances are just an irritation, since it took no more than an hour to rip the songs into mp3s. And that’s the exact disclosure record labels don’t want to hear, because it means their mind control is failing.
At 31, I was born into an era that really believed the path to musical stardom involved being snatched up by a record company that took you on a multi-million dollar ride onto MTV and national radio. End of story. That fairy tale suited the labels well, and the illusion held for quite some time. It began when Thomas Edison started pimping his oversized boxes door to door, and was mastered by Motown. By 1975 that was the rule, not the exception, much like our ancestors were taught you could not be free in this life. (As Richard Dawkins so ingeniously wrote, when he first met his wife she had never realized she could not believe in God. The record labels had constructed a similar sort of hypnosis upon its consumer market. If the connection seems implausible, remember we are dealing here with a concept, not the form of the concept, which can assume many shapes.)
We can’t blame Stephen. His music is worth purchasing. But he had to play along with at least some of the rules. Remember, we’re not living in an American-dominated Jamaica 40 years ago, where local stations were forced to play R&B, country, and jazz from the States. Bob, like other local heroes, broke his own cultural mind control by stampeding into these studios and forcing deejays to play his songs. Peace and equanimity pays a price, after all.
All these years have not been waiting in vain. Mind Control is a fierce album, with beats like iron and lyrical tirades of a lion. Yet it’s not Got Music?. For the most part, the blues have been stripped and replaced by beefed-up bass and thick drums. His work on Jamrock tapped him into what our culture craves: a cadence that depends on the four to find the rhythm. This does not detract from the songwriting by any means, and some of the adjustments were for the better. Mos Def steps in to give a smooth rap on “Hey Baby”. The hypnotic guitar line is down while the kick is up. The same holds true for “Chase Dem”. And “Iron Bars”, by far the catchiest track, was completely revamped, adding a dancehall vocal section and rearranging numerous lyrics. Both hold up, but the latter hits harder.
Most interesting is what’s been removed. Gone from Mind Control are the straight blues of “My Way” and “Winding Road”. The pleasantly analog “Someone to Love” is also absent, as well as the title track and “Baby Mama”, another quaint ballad. The two strong slower tracks to remain, “Fed Up” and “Inna Da Red”, are only partially touched, and tastefully so. And “Mind Control” remains, with a bit more bravado.
There is nothing lacking from the newer version, and indeed, the songs he replaced these with deserve mention. The most dance floor-ready cut, “Let Her Dance”, with a soaring vocal hook by Maya Azucena, is gorgeous. Ditto “Lonely Avenue”, a slower jam worthy of the status of “Stir It Up”. And, of course, the leadoff single: the crunchy beat-boxing, herb-celebrating flow of “The Traffic Jam”, featuring Mr. Jamrock himself, Damian. Any way you cut it, Stephen’s debut is a welcome addition to the reggae pantheon.
Still, I keep coming back to “Iron Bars”. The lyrics parallel the modern state of affairs in the music industry: “I’m a prisoner, locked up for what? / Freedom of speech, ain’t that all we got.” In many ways what has been termed the “downloading scandal” is really just a leveling off of the playing field. It doesn’t take Marshall McLuhan to tell us that whoever controls the media controls the mind of those the media reaches. And the major label releasing Mind Control, Universal, has vested interest in the sales of this and other artists, as well as a large percentage of media. Remember, its parent company, Vivendi, has helped it achieve the sales of one in four CDs worldwide.
To my slight annoyance, Mind Control also arrived watermarked. Nothing a quick wiring couldn’t solve. So as I sit here with both versions of “Mind Control” playing back-to-back on iTunes, I’d love to let you hear the difference, the ways in which this young Rasta warrior has gone to great lengths to express his disapproval of major corporations strong-arming consumers to disarm them. Writing is a limited art, when it comes to describing music. Yet the simple two-click process that can virtually transport these versions from my player to yours could land me in a physical jail, or, at the very least, into an unthinkably absurd lawsuit.
As I listen to these beautiful blues so few ears will chance to hear, I can only reminisce about a time when that very genre was created, when all that those musicians had was a guitar and problems to contemplate, well before this beast of an industry began controlling the minds of its listeners. All we can do now is dream up this former day, when music was judged by how it made the listener feel, not how many times it was downloaded or how many markets it penetrated. The music business acquired its name for a reason, thought perhaps without weighing in the karma they’d have to face.