Reggae great keeps busy with live album, social activism and his own organic food line
By Glenn Kenny
Special to MSN Music
Ziggy Marley (©Jan Salzman)
"Touring is where the real music happens," Ziggy Marley reflects when asked why he's putting out a live album (aptly titled "Ziggy Marley in Concert") this month. "We were in a good groove at the time, we were making recordings of the show and we were having a good time."
A pretty simple rationale, and kind of old-school in a time when YouTube and iTunes and dozens of other iterations are beginning to make the album as music fans have known it, not to mention the live album, something of an anachronism. But while he's only in his early 40s, Marley is in a sense an old-school artist, partially by dint of his birthright as the oldest son of international icon Bob Marley, and partially because of his devotion to that musical legacy. "Ziggy Marley in Concert" is a portrait of the artist as a stalwart reggae purveyor. The aforementioned groove pervades the performance; the socially conscious lyrics and the occasionally stinging guitar solo only add a welcome tartness to the largely laid-back vibe.
Radio not being what it used to be, live shows are Marley's best route to getting his music out there, and he says he enjoys the circuit whether it's touring with a festival of other musicians or on his own. "I like a mixture," he says. "We did a festival tour in South America with Shakira not too long ago. That was pretty cool. We get exposed to a larger audience. And it's more pay for less time! But I like doing my own shows, too, because we want to have people get the full experience without the time constraints that sometimes the bigger festival shows put on us."
Gallery: Ziggy Marley In Focus
Marley's band stretches on a couple of the "In Concert" tunes, particularly "Wild and Free," which was the title track on Marley's last studio album and is a paean to marijuana farming. Like his father and many other classic reggae artists (when Marley's former bandmate Peter Tosh recorded an album called "Legalize It," he wasn't referring to, say, riding a motorcycle without a helmet), Ziggy has spent years campaigning for, at the very least, decriminalization of marijuana use. On some level this might seem like a bit of an anachronistic campaign, but then again, one of the big stories from last year's election was the loosening of marijuana laws. Marley is encouraged by this progress. "I just think that, little by little, the truth is coming out about the plant. For the industrial use of the hemp plant or the medicinal, recreational use of the plant ... I think society is becoming more aware of its properties and its uses, especially in comparison to what is already legal, like alcohol and tobacco -- Things which are so readily available and so destructive. It's a time for the people to open their eyes. And I think a difference in generations, too, is at work here: The generation of today is much more knowledgeable than the generation of past. There's so much more information accessible to us. And that if you tell a lie, I mean, you can check it out ... We don't have to just take what you say as the truth now. We can search and find something for ourselves. I think all of that plays a part in the attitude towards the plant, and I think we're going in the right direction. But we have to keep pushing, because it's really criminal to demonize and criminalize people for smoking marijuana. It's just not necessary. It doesn't create a safer society or a less violent society if you lock up people that smoke marijuana."
Although he's earnest in his crusade, Marley's activism has its playful side. A couple of years back, he created a superhero named Marijuanaman, who took the lead in a graphic novel. And now he is debuting a food line, Ziggy Marley Organics (ziggymarleyorganics.com), which, um, traffics in not just flavored coconut oil but also the "world's first flavored roasted hempseeds." Turns out Marley's passion for the culinary arts goes back a long way. "As a young teenager growing up in Jamaica, you have to be able to cook your food," he says. He thinks he'd get a kick out of going on a food-oriented television program such as "The Chew" and hawking his wares, showing the pros how "to explore our way of cooking food, which is very tasty and organic."
Bing: More on Ziggy Marley
But, in the meantime, mixing music and social activism is keeping him pretty busy. He recently guested on the latest Public Enemy record, "The Evil Empire of Everything," helping the rappers out on "Don't Give Up the Fight," an aggressive gloss on his dad's "Get Up, Stand Up." Ziggy was happy to collaborate, although he has yet to hear the finished version. As often happens these days, the artists worked together by emailing tracks to each other. "If the circumstances are that we're in the same city at the same time, then we get together. But if not, the technology gives us a chance to work with people that we probably wouldn't work with because we were so far apart." Saying yes to the collaboration was a no-brainer: "I met [Public Enemy leader] Chuck D. on one of those festival tours. And I had respected their music for a long time because they were saying something in their music, so once the personal connection had been made, it seemed like a natural to work together."
Marley has also contributed a song, "Personal Revolution," to the "End Polio Now" benefit album. "When I was growing up in Jamaica, I remember hearing polio mentioned in the '70s," he says. "And then after a while it disappeared. But then it came back onto my radar a year or so ago when the people that were doing this polio drive got in touch with me. And I said yes. Because, for one thing, I was surprised that it had not been eradicated, as so many people thought it had been. And also because there's no reason why I would say no to doing something like that. For me, any way I can use whatever influence I have on anyone is to drive them to a cause, I mean, to let them be aware of certain causes. And the polio epidemic is still happening in a lot of the poorer countries, so helping increase awareness of that is something that I'm honored and privileged to do, you know."
Marley seems content at having earned an independent platform (he releases his music on his own label, Tuff Gong Worldwide) from which to propagate his music and messages. "We've been in the business for a little while now," he says. "The way things stand is really the perfect setup now for me. I'm independent. I have a track record already and I can tour, you know what I'm saying, so I think for me it's OK. For a younger artist or a new artist, it might be a little bit more difficult. But I've built up a good platform to speak to my fans directly, and they get their music directly without my having to answer anybody else, or having anybody else telling me what I need to do or what I need to say. It's good for me."
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.