Julian Marley has a famous last name. But the 47-year old singer, songwriter and musician has never rested on the shoulders of his father’s reputation. Born in London, he’s the ninth child of legendary reggae pioneer Bob Marley, and one of several to pursue a life in music. Julian Marley’s latest release, Colors of Royal, has its roots firmly planted in reggae, but it also represents Marley’s interest in – and considerable skill with – other musical forms.
“Normally, when most of the fans hear me, they hear the roots rock reggae, the ‘one drop,’” he explains. “This album has a different sound.” Producer Alexx Antaeus has worked with artists diverse as the Rolling Stones, Malcolm McLaren and Young M.C., and he brought that wide experience to the making of Colors of Royal. “He took me out of the box for this one,” Marley says.
But Marley established his musical bonafides long ago. With brothers Stephen, Damian and Kymani, he formed Ghetto Youths Crew in the late 1990s. More than a mere record label, it’s one component of Ghetto Youth Foundation, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to bettering the lives of underprivileged people around the globe.
Julian released his first solo album, Lion in the Morning, in 1996. He toured internationally in support of that album, and was a featured main-stage artist on 1997’s all-star Lollapalooza Tour. Subsequent releases like 2003’s A Time & Place, Awake (2009) and 2019’s Grammy-nominated As I Am built his substantial following. Along the way, Marley’s style has broadened to embrace all the kinds of music that inform his unique musical sensibility. His latest record is a culmination of his decades in music.
Marley says that Colors of Royal “has a bit of dance style, a bit of Afrobeat, a bit of Latin vibe.” He says that for him, making music has always been about “pushing the message beyond the limits, taking it to [different] places. If it can be translated in different ways and different sounds, then I’m all for it.”
Marley’s upbringing in London gave him a front row seat to many styles of music. “When you’re in England, every music is top music,” he says. “You have rock, you have jazz.” He took it all in, as well as enjoying sounds from his mother’s record collection. I was surrounded by that,” he says, “listening to Pink Floyd and Jimi Hendrix. So I’m influenced by everything from Nat King Cole to John Lennon.”
Combined with the reggae and ska of Jamaica, those influences all swirled around in Marley’s head. Colors of Royal had its beginnings during the pandemic. “I was in Jamaica,” Marley recalls, “and obviously everything was locked down. But I was exploding with music; I had so much stuff inside that wanted to be released.” When he was able to go out again, Marley visited a small local restaurant that hosted nighttime music sessions. There he met Antaeus. The two became friendly, and would meet again and again at the restaurant.
On their third or fourth meeting, Antaeus approached Marley, saying, “You know what? I’ve got a studio inside this room here.” Marley was surprised and intrigued: “Let’s go check it out,” he enthused. Antaeus had already begun work on a recording of “The Tide is High,” a 1967 classic by legendary reggae artist John Holt. The song had gained a second round of popularity when Blondie released their version in 1980, but Antaeus believed there was still more mileage in the song.
“I’ve been thinking about you for this track,” the producer told Marley. “I’d like to hear how you sound on it.” Marley agreed, cut a vocal, and was very pleased with the results. “From that seed, Alexx was like, ‘You know what? It would be nice to do more,’’’ he recalls. Colors of Royal is the result of that working relationship. “It just came from nowhere,” Marley says. “It was not thought about; it wasn’t in the plan. It was just led by a true divine inspiration.”
That divine inspiration is at the heart of everything Marley does. A devoted Rastafarian, his original lyrics are suffused with the positive, uplifting messages of that faith. Even in a world filled with pain and suffering, Marley’s mission is to share good vibes wherever he and/or his music goes.
“The positive is in every person,” Marley emphasizes. “The only time the positive is not there is when you’re not yourself.” And his idea of success is about much more than selling concert tickets, CDs or downloads of his music. “I want to see the people rise up,” he says. “That’s what success is. We want to see that seed of love and peace out there in the world.”
Another part of Marley’s message is extolling the benefits of ganja, considered a sacrament in the Rastafarian religion. His popular single “Boom Draw” from Awake praises the herb. And he’s encouraged by recent changes to the laws in the U.S., where marijuana is now legal for recreational use in 21 states and the District of Columbia. “It’s good to see,” he says. “We know what we’ve been talking about all these years: the medicine part, the meditation part and the spiritual values. So let’s give thanks for a step in the right direction after all of these years.”
Traversing the globe to perform for audiences on nearly every continent, Marley has made an important discovery. “Everywhere you go is different, but people are people,” he says. “As soon as that music starts, I don’t even remember what part of the world I’m in anymore, because that spirit in the music takes over, and we all become one people.”
Traveling the world with a famous surname all but guarantees that people will have their own expectations of you. But Julian Marley is at peace with that, proud of his family name but nonetheless forging his own way in the world. He admits that his father inspired him: “When you see the thing that your father is doing, yeah, that’s what you want to do,” he admits. “But I didn’t want anyone to tell me to play music, and no one could tell me to stop.”
He says that growing up around his father’s music was an education. “Listening to my own family was like going to university for music,” he says. “You feel no pressure, because you’re already educated with the right tools to go out there.”
And Marley does indeed go out there. Ahead of a run of show dates in the Southeast, on June 24 he was a featured performer at the 3rd Annual Reggae Fest in Truckee, California. His set was expected to include songs from Colors of Royal as well as favorites from his back catalog. And it was all delivered in harmony with his messages of love and unity.
“That’s why we go out there in the first place,” Marley says. “If it was just to sing about anything, I wouldn’t have the drive.” He emphasizes that a career in music built around the idea of merely being “an entertainer” wouldn’t be fulfilling for him. “I want to make music because I want to free the people’s minds and bring people together for a good cause,” he says. “If it wasn’t for that, I could be doing something different.”