Review: Damien 'Jr. Gong' Marley's "Living It Up"
Updated: Apr 6, 2018
Live it Up!
This one threatens to become a timeless anthem.
My daddy made it out, out of the ghetto
Believe in your dreams, believe you me, don't let go
We're living it up, we're having a good time baby
I was born uptown, I'm the ghetto dream now ain't life crazy?
So this is Jr. Gong's newest video and single, from the Grammy-winning 2017 album Stony Hill. The video was directed by Gil Green, a veteran of elite hip-hop, reggae, and dancehall music videos.
It's a song of celebration and fulfillment, of transcending the struggle, of finding happiness—a theme clearly articulated on another song on the album ("The Struggle Discontinues"). It's a song about hard work and dedication—a theme Damien also explores in the album's first track ("Here We Go"). And it's a song of grounding, of visiting Damien's childhood's roots, and of introducing the next generation—represented in the video by Damien's 8-year old son Elijah—to the roots of family and legacy (also expressed in another song in the album, "So A Child May Follow"). The video was shot partially in Trench town, the working-class neighborhood of Kingston that housed Bob Marley and so many other reggae pioneers.
In Trench town: "This is where Reggae Music comes from... to survive in these places, you have to be a star, you have to be a soldier, you know? This environment is what built my father."
Jamaica has now created multiple generations of path-breaking artists. The older generation were the folk artists of Jamaica, especially the Rastas, who rejected a colonial mindset and paved the way for revolutionary thinking among the poor people. The younger generation, led by Bob Marley, took over the world in the 1970s with reggae music.
Trench town have a grandson, growing up to be somebody...
Damien represents a third generation of artists, the sons and daughters of the stalwarts of the golden age of Jamaican music, who now run the scene. Morgan Heritage is a good example. Some singers, like Joseph Hill's son Kenyatta or Peter Tosh's son Andrew, continue to front their fathers' bands. Damien himself started in the 1990s alongside Shiah Coore (son of Cat Coore, of the band Third World), Yeshemabeth McGregor (daughter of Judy Mowatt and Freddie McGregor), and Noel Parks (Lloyd Parks's son). Damien's son Elijah is, of course, the fourth generation in this lineage, and a famous grandson in his own birthright. And so the Jamaican conscious musical scene, which impressively continues to maintain the feel of an extended Jamaican family, renews itself again.
In Stony Hill: "Everyone wants best for their kids. I'm very comfortable telling people that I grew up here. I think everyone wants their children to grow up in an environment like this, why wouldn't you?"
Damien embraces his uptown (upper-class Jamaican) roots to the fullest on this track. He's never hidden the reality of who he is—reggae royalty, well-off, privileged—but on this track, he comes off as especially transparent and unapologetic about his childhood.
Fi gwaan celebrate inna rich people place
The little Rasta Man from Trench Town fly the gate
With food inna plate and drinks inna crate
We sing till the neighbor dem wake
Back at the release his 2001 album Halfway Tree, Damien suggested that the name of the album contained the hidden meaning of Damien as halfway between the working class (Bob) and upper-class (his mother Cindy), as able to speak for all Jamaicans (Halfway Tree is also a middle-class area and a commercial crossroad junction in uptown Kingston). In 2017-18, however, Uptown doesn't carry the same connotations as it did in 1978, or even in 2001.
Uptown Jamaica born and raised
On the playground is where I spent most of my days
Burning Babylon and dem dirty ways
While watching all the rich kids gone astray
Currently, a new wave of conscious music, a revival movement as described by its practitioners, is leading the way in the Jamaican and the global reggae scene. These musicians are part of a new crew of intellectuals, visual artists, and writers, who identify with Rasta and also identify as middle-class, hipster, and globally aware. They include, for example, singers Chronixx (himself the son of a reggae singer, Chronicle), Protoje aka Oje Ollivierre, Jah9 aka Janine Cunningham, Kabaka Pyramid aka Keron Salmon, painter Matthew McCarthy, and author Dutty Bookman aka Gavin Hutchinson. (Check out Kezia Page's article, "Bongo Futures," in the March 2017 issue of the journal Small Axe, for an excellent account of this phenomenon.)
Jr. Gong has produced tracks with some of these artists, but he has also opened doors stylistically and thematically, paving the way for their success both directly and indirectly. Stylistically, his effortless blending of dancehall and roots reggae can be seen in the new generation of revival singers. But it's also the process of recognizing his own privilege, and how to deal with it tactfully and positively, that makes Damien such a genius of an artist.
In Trenchtown: "This is how small it is—imagine, this is your room! ... We are very blessed, you see? To be coming from these kind of places and living in where we live now, we are very blessed."
Making it out of the ghetto. It's your dream when you're living in the ghetto, but when it happens you and your family are treated as outsiders at best and traitors at worst. It's a paradox that repeats itself, and in the Jamaican music industry its a particularly relevant question.
And if you think mi sell out tell dem ain’t no way
After all, the story of the rise of Bob Marley and the Wailers is a crucial part of Jamaican history and the history of reggae music. Damien embodies it. If he chose to, he could stay in Miami or London or wherever, living off the Marley empire's profits. But his work ethic and his respect for the multiple genealogies of his Jamaican heritage is keeping the Rasta flag flying through his art.
Mi a gwaan live it up life is better than great
Every other day mi voice a dozen dub plate
Put in our hustle we nuh sit down and wait
Tuff up unnu muscle now is never too late
Live the dream, my people.