Bob Marley’s Sons Talk Singer’s Early Pot Legalization Efforts

Photo Credit: Scott Dudelson

“I was born on 4/20,” Bob Marley’s son Stephen declared with a smile Monday, embracing the unofficial marijuana holiday as he and brothers Julian and Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley announced the first West Coast edition of their family’s Kaya Fest this April. It’s no coincidence that the two-day concert – featuring all five performing Marley brothers and guests Ms. Lauryn Hill, Cypress Hill and Tom Morello – will unfold in California, which last year voted to legalize pot for recreational use.

“Music will keep it together, of course, but we have a greater cause, which is cannabis and the various benefits of the plant,” Stephen Marley said in a press conference at the Sunset Marquis in West Hollywood, a hotel used frequently by the reggae giant. “We’ve always been advocates of herb and the use of this plant for the benefit of mankind. Not all miracles come from the sky. Some miracles come from the earth.”

The all-ages festival is named for the elder Marley’s 1978 album Kaya, a word his sons say he used interchangeably with ganja. The April 28-29 concert in San Bernardino will also include Ziggy Marley and Ky-Mani Marley, plus sets by Action Bronson and rocksteady veterans Toots and the Maytals, among others. The first Kaya Fest was held last year in Miami.

After the press conference (and a stirring acoustic performance of Bob Marley’s “Could You Be Loved”), Stephen tells Rolling Stone that his father was an ongoing influence on the wave of legalization and would still have been part of that effort. “He would be at the forefront of this movement for people to know the herb,” he said. “It’s in his nature, where he come from.”

Damian, whose album Stony Hill just won the Grammy for best reggae album, added: “You see marijuana becoming legal; you see his legacy has taken on more importance because of what he been telling people for years. ‘Hey, I told you so!’ So the legacy has grown another step.”

In 2016, the family launched Marley Natural, a name brand for various strains of cannabis, pipes, hemp-seed body wash and other products. As recording artists, the Marley brothers have remained committed to the genre popularized by their father, with Ziggy, Stephen and Damian each winning multiple Grammys over the years. The five brothers last toured together in 2004.

“It’s a collective,” said Damian. “We tend to present more of our father’s material when we come together. Julian doesn’t perform my songs at his show, but he performs a few of my father’s songs at his show – like all of us respectively. That is a common musical thing that happens at all of our concerts. When we’re all together, you get a good concentration of that.”

Each has developed a distinct style rooted in their father’s history, and a musical connection that Julian calls “one vibration.” Stephen said there is a desire for all five to ultimately create some music together in the studio. “We yearn for that as well,” he said. “For now, we’ll present our legacy.”

The Marleys named their festival after the Kaya album “to align with the greater cause, to educate people about the plant,” said Stephen. “My father sang it many times: ‘Excuse me while I light my spliff.'”

At the time of its original release, Kaya was one of Bob Marley’s first albums to cross over to pop listeners, though it was also criticized for its more romantic, relaxed vibe compared to revolutionary anthems like “Get Up, Stand Up.”

“This is his most criticized album: ‘Bob’s gone soft, and Bob this and Bob that.’ It showed the diversity of the man,” said Stephen, who will perform an acoustic tribute to the album on the festival’s second day. “Art can be hard as stone or as soft as water.”

The songs of Kaya are still some of Bob Marley’s best known hits. “If you’re getting into Bob Marley’s music,” added Damian, who was born the year of its release, “it’s a gateway into the deeper stuff.”