Ziggy Marley’s power of one
D avid “Ziggy” Marley was 12 years old when his father, Bob Marley, died of skin cancer in 1981 at age 36. He inherited the musical talents and the social conscience of his father, whose final words to his family included, “Money can’t buy life.”
“My dad and my mother started out very poor, but they were always helping others,” says Ziggy Marley, a singer and founder of a charity for children in Jamaica and other countries. “People would come into our home if someone needed a spoonful of sugar or a piece of ice. I saw that. I grew up with a strong sense of the need to help people. [My dad] didn’t forget where he came from, and he didn’t forget the people in his own neighborhood.”
The five-time Grammy winner has contributed a song to a new album that Rotary International is selling to raise funds for and promote polio eradication. He also joins dozens of celebrities in Rotary’s This Close polio ad campaign. They include Microsoft cofounder and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Cochair Bill Gates, professional golfer Jack Nicklaus, and actor Jackie Chan, as well as musicians Angélique Kidjo and Itzhak Perlman, who also perform on the album.
“If I have the opportunity to help somebody because of what I do, or what people think of me, I am going to take advantage of that,” Marley says. “It is part of [my] responsibility to give back to the community, because that’s who comes to concerts, buys records, watches movies. We can’t just take, take, take.”
Marley donated “Personal Revolution” to Rotary’s album, End Polio Now. In the track, from Wild and Free, he sings:
… fighting, fighting, every day
There must be a better way.
I need, I need a revolution,
my own revolution …
“It wasn’t a complicated decision to choose that song,” Marley says. “When I was growing up, revolution meant social change, massive demonstrations in public. There have been so many revolutions, but we never solve [any] problems. The new way to think about revolution is something that happens within each individual.” This is important for any effort to change people’s lives, he explains.
Rotary invited Marley to participate in the campaign against polio because of his “widespread recognition and his commitment to charitable work, especially for children,” says Carol Pandak, Rotary’s director of PolioPlus.
The nonprofit organization that Marley established and leads works in Jamaica, Ethiopia, and other developing nations. Called URGE (Unlimited Resources Giving Enlightenment), its efforts include building new schools, operating health clinics, and helping abused and neglected girls.
Since 2008, Marley has also served as an honorary board member for Little Kids Rock, which provides free musical instruments and lessons to underprivileged children in public schools across the United States. A teacher in California, USA, whose school faced cuts to its music program, founded the charity. As part of his work, Marley visits participating schools.
The father of six children, he performed with his daughter Judah (then four) on Family Time , which won a Grammy Award for best children’s album. The reggae-inflected collection of harmonious family songs features guests such as Willie Nelson, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Paul Simon, as well as Marley’s mother, Rita, and sister Cedella.
Marley lives with his wife, Orly, president of his record label, in California, Florida, and Jamaica. He spent his early years in the tough Trench Town section of Kingston, the birthplace of reggae and its icons: his father, Peter Tosh, and Bunny Wailer. Bob Marley allowed him to sit in on recording sessions when he reached the age of 10. He met many influential musicians, among them the reggae group Israel Vibration, whose members were victims of the polio epidemics that swept the island nation in the 1950s. The three vocalists – Albert Craig, Lascelle Bulgin, and Cecil Spence – learned their harmonies in Kingston’s Mona Rehabilitation Centre.
Marley says he didn’t realize until joining the polio eradication campaign that the disease was what had weakened their limbs, requiring them to use canes and wheelchairs. He grew up in a world without polio: Jamaica was one of the first countries, after the United States, to immunize children against the disease, and it reported its last case in 1982. Most Americans and Jamaicans from Marley’s generation view polio as a relic, like black-and-white television and Pat Boone records.
“I had heard of polio growing up but never knew [the band] Israel Vibration had it,” Marley says. “I was a child when I met those guys. I had no personal experience with polio.”
Israel Vibration and other Jamaican artists, including the Heptones and the Wailers (Bob Marley’s backing band), earned their fame for harmonies that had a spiritual vibe not unlike American gospel harmony groups. Another Jamaican reggae group, the Melodians, released the 1969 hit “Rivers of Babylon,” based on Psalm 137, which crossed over into the mainstream through covers by American artists Linda Ronstadt and Steve Earle.
Reggae harmonies are about “spirituality [and] Jah, our supreme being,” Marley observes. “When you are singing harmonies like that, it gives you an extra feeling. It’s a different edge from [ sings ] ‘Oh I met my girlfriend last night, and we had a good time at the party ...’”
Like American gospel, reggae music is often inspired by suffering. The members of Israel Vibration spent long days and nights at the Mona Rehabilitation Centre, exploring Rastafarian faith and questioning God’s reasons for giving them polio. While there, they met a Rasta elder, who taught them about Emperor Haile Selassie I (born Tafari Makonnen) of Ethiopia. Rastafarians, who have included Bob Marley, believe he was their living God and that they are lost slaves of Israel who were sold into an environment of white colonialism. They adhere to the avoidance of alcohol, the ritual use of marijuana, and a vegetarian diet, and they generally follow Judeo-Christian theology.
“In our culture, we always give thanks to the Almighty, no matter what situation we are in,” Marley says. “But we aren’t negative about it. We accept whatever the universe has brought in front of us and deal with it in a positive way. We keep strong.”
In recent years, Marley has veered from calling himself a Rastafarian; he has said that love is his religion. He also has explored music beyond reggae, incorporating an eclectic mix of influences into his work. Wild and Free features a cameo by rapper Heavy D.
In Jamaica, though, reggae music hasn’t changed much, he says. “Reggae music will not morph into something else. It will always be what it is, because it comes from a spirit that will never die.”
How to buy End Polio Now
Purchase Rotary’s album, featuring songs performed by Ziggy Marley and other Rotary polio ambassadors, as a digital download through iTunes and as a CD at shop.rotary.org.