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With signature dreads, gold chains around his neck, and a tattoo of his father on his right arm, Ky-Mani Marley has a presence that is unmistakably Marley. Despite a Miami swagger, he speaks softly, with a Jamaican accent. The resemblance to Bob is remarkable.
Ky-Mani, 31, is one of Bob Marley's 11 children from eight mothers. Several have successfully followed their father's path into music, most notably the eldest son, Grammy Award-winning Ziggy, who was born in Jamaica. Ziggy's group, the Melody Makers, also features brother and five-time Grammy winner Stephen, who was born in Delaware. The youngest Marley son, three-time Grammy winner Damian (also born in Jamaica), has worked with Cypress Hill, Snoop Dogg, Nas, and Gwen Stefani.
Making music for 11 years, Ky-Mani still struggles to carve his own niche. It's the "double-edged sword of being a Marley," says Ky-Mani, who from age 7 was raised in Liberty City by his mother, former table-tennis champ Anita Belnavis.
Ky-Mani's status as a forgotten Marley is about to change. With his fourth and most recent album, Radio (Vox Music), released in September, he has created a distinct stylistic identity. The 14 tracks blend hip-hop, R&B, and rock into a postmodern version of his father's reggae. Last fall, he embarked on a national tour as opening act for classic-rock gods Van Halen. It initially sounded like an odd pairing, one that almost seemed destined for failure, but several months later, Ky-Mani and his band are still on the Van Halen tour at the rock group's request.
The tour started in late September and initially ran through December. "The reception was really good, and they invited me on for another stint," Marley says during a recent interview. "I'm flattered that they want me to continue, but I'm not surprised."
That's the type of confidence you'd expect from a Marley, but Ky-Mani is picking up a bit of extra swagger these days from none other than David Lee Roth. "If I'm picking up anything from David, it's just learning to be free with it," he says, " 'cause David just says whatever the hell he wants. He's a wild dude!"
The Van Halen gig is the biggest opportunity for exposure that Ky-Mani has had. He knows people think it's a bit weird for a Marley to open for David Lee Roth and company, but Ky-Mani stresses that he's not nearly as one-dimensional as critics might suppose.
"My reach doesn't stop at one place," he says. "We play soft rock, urban, reggae, hip-hop. I play music where everything blends and works as one. The new album is really a new vibe. It expresses me from the roots on up. I titled the album Radio because that's the only place where all forms of music meet."
Ky-Mani is also starring in a reality series, Living the Life of Marley, that's been airing on BET since October. It's a lot to juggle, but he considers himself the soldier of the Marley clan, so he's not backing down from a challenge.
As a teenager, Ky-Mani had no real interest in the music world. He did some DJing for fun, but his true love was sports. He grew up in the projects, in a small two-bedroom home shared with eight other family members. "I grew up in what you would call Liberty City, NW 22nd Avenue," he says. "I saw a lot of crazy stuff. I remember once when I was in fourth grade, walking home from school, I saw a dead body on the side of the road. That was before the cops got there... She was under a tree. She had probably just died... Nobody else was around."
He hopes to continue exploring his background through his BET show, for which a camera crew has been following him, creating a docudrama that "exposes a little of my upbringing, where I'm coming from, and where I'm heading," he says. "It took time getting used to the cameras being around me and going about with my day-to-day life... My reality is a harsh reality, and not all of it is made for TV. Even though I'm a Marley, I face plenty of struggles."
The major struggle for Ky-Mani is creating his own style of music in the face of the Marley name. "The only thing I can do is carry on the legacy by making good music," he says. "A lot of people can't understand that. Once they hear 'Marley,' they think you gotta be playing the one-drop or the two-drop" — he hums a common reggae riff — "and the guitar gotta go chicka-chicka."
Instead, he modernizes the music of his familial legacy through digital samples and electronic beats. "My case was different than Ziggy or Stephen," Ky-Mani explains. "I grew up in Miami in the heart of the ghetto... I witnessed everything happening. So that's why I can express myself the way that I do... with that aggression, depth, and feeling, so you know it's real. Some people are gonna love it... People that hate it motivate me to write more music, so the balance is good."
Radio contains music that's relevant to the urban realities of both South Florida and Jamaica, two distinct worlds that collide as Ky-Mani pens lyrics about "livin' and dyin' in the streets." On tracks like "Ghetto Soldier," topics include the usual street fare: drugs, guns, prostitutes, and snitches. Here, he transforms the buffalo soldier his father sang about into a Miami-bred, urban character. And just as Ky-Mani appeared on Young Buck's classic hip-hop song "Puff Puff Pass," Buck returns the favor by appearing on "I'm Back," which blends Tupac-influenced, thug-style hip-hop with that smooth Marley flow. "I got the herb if you're ready to fly/Light up and let's hit the sky," Ky-Mani sings. But where those songs can be confused with typical drug raps, Radio also contains no fewer than three songs on which he sings duets with women (Mya, Tessanne Chin, and Gail Gotti) that discuss how difficult the street life can be on the women who have their men's backs. The most powerful of the duets is "Conversations," a song so infectious that he's been performing it night after night on the current Van Halen tour and winning over audiences.
"It's not a reggae album; it's not hip-hop," he reiterates. "It's a fusion of all those together, which expresses me and brings me out as an individual. I've been trying for the last ten years just to develop my own sound, my own vibe." He smiles.
"I think I finally got it."