The title of Bambaata Marley’s debut album, UNX, stands for “the unknown.” In the unknown, as Marley rattles off in a text message, is where knowledge is sought after and found. “I travel through the unknown to find my light,” he says.
The palpable freedom and opportunity for self-realization amidst the unknown have been a guiding force in Marley’s life. He wears a necklace his mother gave him, two golden ornaments side by side on a golden chain — a Star of David and a profile bust of Nefertiti, ancient Egyptian queen.
Nefertiti, herself a symbol of feminine wisdom, is celebrated, along with her husband, the pharaoh Akhenaten, for leading a religious revolution in which they worshipped only one god. “Nefertiti represents a powerful woman and this real unknown knowledge of the world,” Marley tells me. The Star of David, he adds, represents not only Judaism — a part of his upbringing, thanks to his father Ziggy’s own exploration into the faith — but also the unity between human beings, the common ground between one triangle symbolizing masculinity and the other femininity.
Marley doesn’t subscribe to a single belief system — he’s not religious, simply spiritual, he distinguishes, subscribing to the eclectic wisdom derived from a pantheon of faiths. “It’s really about the lessons you learn and how you’re living your life,” he says. “I really do grab from everything.” Having grown up in a mixed household — technically half Christian, half Rastafarian — he says he wasn’t forced into anything.
But regardless of religious structure, he explains, ganja, the sacred herb, is spiritual no matter how you use it. Rastas uphold the plant as a sacrament, a religious rite, evoking the common belief that cannabis was found growing on the grave of King Solomon. For Marley, cannabis serves as a vehicle of creativity, an opportunity to “tap into a different vibration.”
Perhaps it’s no surprise that Bob’s eldest grandson, hailing from a legacy of music makers, has also taken a musician’s path. But Bambaata is careful to stake out his own individuality. He’s admittedly yet another Marley in what seems to be an ever-expanding power clan of musically endowed revolutionaries and peaceniks but also his own self within that — a Marley of the millennial generation, a product, yes, of Kingston, his hometown, but also Miami, where he spent his teenage years, and Los Angeles, where he’s lived for the past seven years.
The album UNX is about being yourself, he says, not being held down by anything. “It’s about being as free as you really want, to create and be who you want to be,” he says. “When I do music, it’s me being exactly who I want. I feel genuinely in my heart that if I feel good about it, other people will feel good about it.” The message of his song “In a Ray,” for instance, calls on the listener not to compromise their light for anything or anyone, Marley says, while “Deadbeat” speaks about “people who live their life for the hype and in that have lost out on the true beauty of life and the people they share it with.”
No doubt any 28-year-old coming of age, with or without the surname Marley, has given some thought to the dissonance between society expecting one thing and the reality of delivering another. Like any young Angeleno musician, Marley is discovering life and his sense of self in a world that's increasingly uncertain as well as unknown. Politics aside, he says, he wants his music to make people feel good and to open up a conversation.
Marley's living room looks much like that of any other young L.A. artist, a speaker system and music station in one corner, decorations repping More Justice (his sister Justice’s clothing brand) in another, a surfboard against the wall, bicycles under the staircase, a large-format book about Bob Marley on the coffee table, and a portrait of the reggae legend hanging on the wall by the window. It appears like any other casual fanboy decor but without the cliché. After all, it's an homage to Granddad.
“I can’t feel any way but proud that someone had that much passion and energy, and I feel honored to share DNA and a legacy with someone so special,” Marley says. “But based on him passing before I was born, the way I learned about him was just the same way as you; most of my digging was through the same YouTube clips everyone has, reading the same interviews.”
His grandfather’s mission was truth, Marley says, freedom of expression and spiritual expression, especially for the black community. These are issues that remain relevant today — liberation, honoring the sacred herb, providing hope despite the politics depressing our generational consciousness. “He inspires me to be something good and something greater than myself,” he says.
Marley has been performing his whole life — he's still that same kid that father Ziggy threw onstage when he was barely 5 years old. More than two decades later, here’s Marley now, giggling on the couch with Justice over their favorite YouTube clip, of one of Ziggy’s countless performances featuring his babies onstage, standing there clueless but confident, singing their own childlike rap, a display of the Marley family philosophy: Bring your kids on tour, throw them in the water and let them learn to swim — literally (at least that’s what Marley says Ziggy did with him). “It gives us freedom and bravery,” Justice chimes in. That’s maybe where Marley's relatability originates: We can all relate to figuring it out.
Marley's favorite sport is soccer, his favorite food plantains from the local Mexican market, his favorite thing about L.A. “catching vibes” at the beach with his guitar. Ganja’s a part of his daily life, but he didn’t start smoking until he was of age, after having finished school. He says he didn't want to disappoint his mother. Today, he gets his bud straight from a grower. When I asked his favorite dispensary he said he didn’t have one, preferring instead to go as natural a route as possible, to know exactly what goes into cultivating his pot.
Interviewing Marley feels like a hang — he’s rolling a joint, listening to music, pacing the room, pulling out his art for me to see. He paints, too, and has a clothing line, Damn Too Nice. “You’re nice at what you’re doing, so do that well,” he explains. It’s that generational philosophy — you do you, ditching the dated prescription of a 9-to-5, carving out one’s space in the world via an untraversed path. Marley's family history may be known the world over, but his music is about the unknown he’s heading into, just like the rest of us.
Bambaata Marley performs at Los Globos on Wednesday, June 27.
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