An uninvited guest lurks on Stephen and Damian Marley’s luxury tour bus in the backstage parking lot of Coachman Park in Clearwater, Fla., on this mid-March evening. Relaxing with a couple of postshow spliffs and beers, the shy scions of Jamaican reggae legend Bob Marley coolly acknowledge their awestruck visitor with a customary patois greeting: ”Nuff respect.” But this is no ordinary groupie. He’s Greg ”Shock G” Jacobs, frontman of the rap group Digital Underground (”Humpty Dance”). ”This is deep to me,” marvels Jacobs, as he takes in the scene — dense clouds of ganja smoke, flowing manes of dreadlocks, throbbing reggae music, and 9 of Stephen’s 12 kids holding court in the lounge area. ”Whooh!” Jacobs hollers. ”You got George Clinton, Jesus Christ, Bob Marley — and Tupac! It’s crazy.”
Inside the cramped mobile recording studio/master bedroom, Stephen and Damian exchange knowing glances that suggest awkward encounters with their father’s fans are a routine nuisance. After 10 minutes of clumsy idol worship, Jacobs leaves, Stephen resumes his work at the keyboard, and Damian turns his attention back to this writer.
How often do you get bum-rushed like that?
”Every now and then,” he says indifferently. ”But I guess it’s a good thing, especially when it’s genuine, because [it lets] you know the music is important to the people.”
When Bob Marley died of cancer in 1981 at age 36, he left behind a timeless catalog of music now estimated to be worth $100 million. His death also inspired the lion’s share of his 11 biological children to continue his mission of promoting peace, love, and liberty through song. These days, the charge is being led by Damian (nicknamed Jr. Gong), 28, Stephen, 35, and Ziggy (né David), 38. At press time, their surname dominates Billboard’s Top Reggae Albums chart: No. 1 (for nine consecutive weeks), Stephen’s long-awaited solo debut, Mind Control, released March 20; No. 2, Damian’s third disc, 2005’s Welcome to Jamrock; No. 3, Forever Bob Marley, the latest of countless collections of Marley’s pre-Island Records output; and No. 7, Ziggy’s second solo CD, 2006’s Love Is My Religion. As if that weren’t enough, collectively Stephen, Damian, and Ziggy have scored a dozen Grammy wins, something their dad did not live to achieve. (Grammys were not given out for reggae until 1984.)
All this — the sales, the awards, the credibility — signals the brothers’ emergence as the rare progeny of music royalty to successfully foster their own careers while honoring their lineage. ”I don’t think anybody ever before has had a second generation of three children carrying on a legacy,” says Chris Blackwell, founder of Island Records, which signed Bob Marley and the Wailers in 1972. ”These boys have actually carried Bob’s message further in that they have reached the black American audience. That was the one thing I would say Bob felt that he failed to do. Had he lived, he would have done it.”
Marley may have struggled to crack the U.S. R&B charts, but by the end of his brief life he’d achieved international stardom, unimaginable wealth, and godly reverence. And yet, while celebrity offspring often flounder in their efforts to follow in the footsteps of their famous parents (Lisa Marie Presley, Julian Lennon, Nona Gaye…), Marley’s sons are proving themselves to be remarkably capable. ”Our father is a very strong role model in our life,” says Stephen, who oversees Tuff Gong, the label founded by his dad in 1970. ”He gave us so much more than material [things] because they can fade away. It’s like him teach me how to fish more than giving me fishes, so that me can fish for me self.”
NEXT PAGE: An unorthodox upbringing forges an impenetrable bond between Marley siblings