A couple of years ago, Ky-Mani Marley had a tough decision to make. Continue with the roots-reggae of his legendary father Bob Marley — an option that's proved wildly successful for big brother Ziggy Marley — or make more personal music reflecting his rough upbringing in Miami. After breaking free of a previous contract and taking a six-year recording hiatus, Ky-Mani chose the latter.
Released last fall, Marley's Radio largely abandons reggae in favor of contemporary R&B and hip-hop. The bold move worked. The disc garnered favorable reviews and hit No. 1 on Billboard's Top Reggae Albums chart — testimony to the power of the Marley name. It also cracked the Top 40 on the R&B/Hip-Hop survey.
"Early on in my career, management had their own ideas about what I should be doing," Marley says with a slight a Jamaican accent. "But I've always been a person looking to take another step up the ladder. Now I'm making a live [in the studio] album that goes back to world music and has that soul feel. I never wanted to get caught in one genre. Not rap or reggae — I want to express music to all genres.
"I love playing soul stuff, that's my true passion. For me, being on the road with Van Halen has been a learning lesson. I want to be an artist like them who after 20 years can still sell out a 20,000[-seat] arena. You got to follow the masters and see how they do it."
Marley's been on tour with Van Halen since September. It seems an odd pairing. You can't help but picture him getting booed by mullet-wearing drunks eager to sing along with "Jump." But the Jamaican-born artist sounds positive about the experience.
"It's very exciting for me to try and express this music to their fans," Marley says. "And it's paying off."
Marley joins Van Halen at the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa on Monday. The Friday before, he'll headline a show at Jannus Landing in St. Petersburg. Anyone attending both gigs should notice a significant difference in Marley's performances.
"By myself, I'm raw and uncut," he says with a chuckle. "With Van Halen, I have to pick and choose what songs I'll do to make sure it sticks to what they're doing. On my show it's very free, [incorporating] many different styles."
Marley has been peppering his brief opening sets with songs by his dad like "No Woman, No Cry" and "One Love." These might be performed at Jannus on Friday, but the bulk of the show will feature cuts from the new album. One of the disc's strongest and most popular numbers finds Marley rapping with the poise of a veteran MC. Titled "The March," the lyric cleverly addresses both the violence he witnessed while growing up in an impoverished neighborhood and the war in Iraq. It deftly maintains a balance between opposing war while supporting our soldiers.
"I was given an opportunity to go to Iraq and perform for the troops, and I was like, 'What am I going to sing?'" Marley says. "I knew they'd feel my dad's songs, but I thought, 'I got to [write a song] just for this occasion.' Of course, my own life experiences were also there."
The first album credited to Ky-Mani Marley was titled Like Father Like Son and featured him on acoustic guitar singing 22 of his dad's songs; most of them rather obscure numbers. The disc came out in 1996, when he was barely 20 years old. His voice drops when I ask about the release.
"That was not even supposed to be an album," Marley says. "It was something I was just doing at the studio, singing my father's songs, and someone took the tapes and released it as an album."
Despite his famous name, Ky-Mani didn't grow up wealthy. His mother, Anita Belnavis — a Jamaican table tennis champion — relocated to Miami with her children when he was 9 years old. Recollections of the criminal activities he witnessed as a youth figure prominently on Radio.
"We grew up very poor, actually," Marley says. "There were nine of us in a two-bedroom wooden house in the city. Our block was where all the dopers and dope-heads were. Growing up, I seen everything. There's nothing I haven't witnessed."
At age 5, while still living in Jamaica, Ky-Mani learned that his dad had died — at a Miami hospital in 1981 at only 36 years old. Because he was raised by his mom, father and son weren't close. The scion does recall, though, one special incident. He and brother Stephen borrowed their dad's slingshot. During an afternoon of playing, they lost it in the bushes. Ky-Mani worried that his father would be angry. Stephen told him he was in big trouble.
"When we got back, I told [my father] I lost his slingshot," he says. "He just looked down at me and smiled. I just remember him smiling."