Jamaican Me Crazy

To most gardeners, bugs are a nuisance, something to be swatted away or doused to death with a can of Real Kill. But when Ziggy Marley found himself face-to-face with a curious dragonfly, he began to think about how the insect viewed him and, in a wider scope, all mankind.

The chance encounter was also an opportunity to reflect on his own life, musical career and place in the universe. It made such an impact on Marley that it inspired not only a song but also the title of his solo release, Dragonfly (Private Music).

"Hey mister bee the world changes, but you remain the same / And I hope you'll survive with the environment going down the drain," Marley sings in the title track on his first record without longtime family unit/backing group the Melody Makers. The singer-guitarist carries on the theme in conversation. "I care too much, I care about everything," Marley says in his thick Jamaican patois. "I have feelings about everything, and human life means more to me that just myself -- it's the whole earth."

Dragonfly is a wide-ranging effort of love, hope, concern and peace. It's an album of good times and troubled times that -- what's most surprising -- is not a reggae record, or at least not one in the traditional sense. Instead of the familiar riddims and chukka-chukka guitar sound of the genre, there are aspects of acoustic pop, rock, R&B and even hip-hop. Guests include guitarist world music maven David Lindley, Red Hot Chili Peppers Flea and John Frusciante, and even Incubus DJ Chris Kilmore.

"The Melody Makers are taking a break, and I wanted to do this. The music is more, I guess, adventurous," the 34-year-old Marley says. "It's not a reggae record, according to the so-called experts, but to me, it's progressive reggae." Marley adds that its overall musical theme has a lot to do with expressing yourself for what you truly are, preconceived notions and nifty categorical boxes be damned.

Clearly, it's something that Ziggy Marley knows more about than most. As the son of Bob Marley, reggae's greatest icon and a figure of some political, social and religious importance even more than two decades after his death, Ziggy is keen to explore a new direction and shake off a bit of the familial mojo that forever dogs him.

"The main thing is to strive and be a good person and not believe the hype about anything, especially your own self," he offers. "The [comparisons] with my father don't trouble me. It's not about my ego. I just want to make music."

The music on Dragonfly says more about the succinct-in-speech Ziggy Marley than a thousand interviews could. The record's first single, "True to Myself," illustrates just what he means about breaking out of boundaries, something he also addresses in the Living Colour-esque rocker "I Get Out." The acoustic "Looking" concerns the quest for spiritual fulfillment; "Rainbow" is a message of antimaterialism; and "Good Old Days" is about making your own impact on the present instead of always looking nostalgically at the past.

But two songs on Dragonfly hit squarely on two issues of great importance to Marley these days: the Middle Eastern conflict in "Shalom, Salaam" (the words for "peace" in Hebrew and Arabic) and religious hypocrisy in "In the Name of God."

According to Marley, to bring about any real social change, people must face the one thing they don't want to confront. "It's called sacrifice. Unselfishness. If people aren't willing to do that, there's no real change no matter what so-called leader is in office," he says. "But people don't want to do it, everyone wants to live nice, live comfortably."

On the subject of the latter song, a Lenny Kravitz-style shouter in which he flatly states that "all religion should be wiped out," Marley's thoughts are even more emphatic. Despite the fact that he was raised in a Rastafarian household, he holds a dim view of all organized religion.

"I don't think there should be any religions. It's just another tool of the devil used to create divisions among people and cause them to hate each other," he says. "I see how much the same we all are, but others only see the differences because that's what their religion tells them to do. It plays the wrong role in society, and it doesn't bring people together."

Rather than subscribe to any sect, Marley says he follows a simple but effective plan of believing in God and praising him by spreading love and living each of his days to the fullest. "It's not about being a Rastafari, a Catholic, a Jew or a Muslim," he says.

Lest all this heavy talk make one think that Marley's upcoming U.S. club tour will be more sermon than celebration, think again. Marley is eager to make his mark as an energetic, vital and modern performer on the stage and in a slew of TV appearances. "America is a very visual place," he says. "And I want to bring something positive to the people."

After that, Marley will likely alternate a solo career with collaborations with the Melody Makers, the family band that includes brother Stephen and sisters Cedella and Sharon. After the teens debuted in 1985 with Play the Game Right, the band became an MTV staple with "Tomorrow People" and "Tumbling Down" from 1988's Conscious Party, which was produced by Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth of the Talking Heads and Tom-Tom Club. Tours and records followed regularly through the '90s, and the fact that the group's last effort was 2000's Live, Vol. 1 left little room for doubt that the band's story remains to be told.

As does that of his father. While Ziggy has expressed some reservations about the recent spate of dance remixes of his father's material, he ultimately views it as a way to funnel the music and message to a different crowd. Most of Bob Marley's catalog has just gone through an extensive reissue program with bonus tracks, and the Legend compilation remains as much of a necessity for the incoming college freshman as a credit card, fake ID and water bong.

Ziggy also recently announced that the family had unearthed some new, never-heard songs recorded by the elder Marley on an eight-track, and that they would probably be released with added instrumentation and vocals (including Ziggy's) à la the Beatles' "Free as a Bird" and "Real Love." That leads to a natural comparison with another gone-too-soon music icon who (like Ziggy) imagined there was no religion, as well as the career trajectory and pressures that befell his look-alike, sound-alike son.

But if Ziggy Marley has any personal burden, you won't hear it from him. He opts for the sentiment of "True to Myself" to explain what's in his heart and his head.

"It has many different levels; it's very personal," he says about both the track and his father's legacy. "Sometimes people want me to be a certain way because I'm my father's son, but I've got to be true to who I am. And I do that. Every day."

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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero