“To call these songs protest songs is almost redundant,” says Damian Marley of a playlist he put together for Rolling Stone. “Reggae is a very ‘speak your mind’ kind of genre. That’s what the music is for; that’s what it does. Reggae music speaks out without any apology and talks the whole truth without fear, even if it’s an offense to the bigger heads who may be in a position of power. All of these songs do that.” Marley, whose new album Stony Hill hit in July, shared his thoughts on the tracks below.
That’s a very powerful song. The way it’s written is very poetic. There’s something about the way he talks about all the details in the life of a so-called gangster in Jamaica that makes you feel everything. It’s very real, the song brings everything that he’s talking about to life. “Look into my my eyes/Tell me what you see/Can you feel my pain?/Am I your enemy?/Give us a better way/Things are really bad/The only friend I know/Is this gun I have.” I remember when this song came out it was really speaking to what was happening in the streets at the time.
In this song Capleton is talking about Jamaica, which of course is more than just a city. As the birthplace of Rastafari, Jamaica will always have a strong connection to His Majesty himself and Jah people. In that sense it is a holy city for the faithful. The lyrics to this song are really blazing a fire on all the corruption that’s going on behind the scenes, and speaking to the crime and violence that so often happens in such a blessed place. That’s why Capleton says “They want to turn it inna Cowboy Town,” almost like a Wild West shootout. Jamaica is a country of great extremes – you can have the most amazing experiences with some really good people and you can also have the complete opposite of that.
This is another song by Dave Kelly, the producer who wrote “Look Into My Eyes” and many more great dancehall songs. The whole story here is very real, in terms of the way some youths may travel with their family to the U.S. and they get in a position to send down some guns or whatever else. I did not grow up in the ghetto, but my family has always been in touch with both downtown and uptown. I’ve had a few friends along the way, good people living a hard life who got themselves into difficult situations like this. This song is extremely relatable to real things that happen. And I just love all the little details, how the boy’s hair is never combed and he refuses to take a bath. I always like songs that bring you into the story they’re telling with those kinds of tangible details. You can feel it.
I decided to choose something a little bit unexpected here and go for a Melody Makers song off their One Bright Day album. My brother Ziggy is such an underrated writer. The Melody Makers did some really great work and it seems like some people don’t remember. This song isn’t very well known, but the lyrics on this are crazy! He’s breaking down all the different kinds of problems – starvation, sufferation, segregation – and saying we’ve got to solve them. I can almost hear a rapper or a dancehall DJ on the chorus.
My final selection is one of my own. This is a song that talks about the reality of what actually happens in the life of someone who makes his living in this way. One thing that I’ve learned in my life is that people are just people, and as I say in the song, “Mankind will do what they must to survive.” Sometimes when you meet these people you’ve been hearing about – whether it’s policemen and politicians or thugs – they’re neither as great as you thought they would be nor as bad as you think. Some people think about the image of a gunman and for them it’s all about the machismo of the big man with the big gun and “busting shots” and all of that. But what about those days when a gunman hasn’t had a good night’s rest? Does he feel cranky in the morning? What does a gunman pray about? What is he thinking when he kisses his kids to sleep? Those are the questions that I’m interested in because at the end of the song you realize maybe you have more in common with this gunman than you ever thought you would.