Stephen “Ragga” Marley
“Anything that sounds good is good,” says Stephen Marley, paraphrasing Duke Ellington. Don’t be surprised to hear the King of Reggae’s son referencing Harlem’s master of the jazz orchestra. Never one to limit his musical horizons, Stephen has always listened without prejudice, letting his inspiration set him free as a singer, songwriter, musician, and producer—whether collaborating with his own illustrious musical family or with the likes of Lauryn Hill, Bobby Brown, Nas, or Erykah Badu.
Beginning his lifelong musical journey at the age of six, Stephen shared some historic stages with his legendary father and toured the world with his brother Ziggy and sisters Cedella and Sharon, The Melody Makers. The Tuff Gong instilled a strict work ethic and an awareness in all of his children that “music is way more than just music.”
Over the past 45 years, Stephen has won no fewer than eight Grammy Awards—three with The Melody Makers, three times as a solo artist, and twice as a producer of his younger brother Damian Marley. Every one of his solo projects to date has topped the Billboard Reggae charts.
All of which is to say that Stephen Marley’s place in music history is already secure. He does not need to push the envelope, defy expectations, or let the whole world into his world. And yet, that is just what he’s decided to do. “We got some new music coming your way,” he says while performing his latest songs live. “Something for your soul. I think we need that.”
His first full-length project since 2016, Stephen’s highly anticipated fifth solo album, Old Soul, released on September 15, 2023 comes as a complete revelation. With his well-earned reputation as a studio perfectionist, “Ragga” – as he’s known to friends and family – is a consummate live performer with a knack for spontaneity. Old Soul leans into those strengths and opens up the artist as never before.
Released earlier this summer 2023, the retrospective music video for the album’s title track, “Old Soul,” features unseen family images and a montage of Jamaican musical heritage. A warm acoustic narrative, the song carries listeners through Stephen’s evolution, intertwined with the Marley legacy. Originally penned by Jamaican artist Omi, Stephen adapted the lyrics to reflect his personal journey, suggesting a familiarity with past life experiences. Echoing his father’s sentiments, Stephen’s core message promotes mental freedom and unity. “Me did haffi change up the years and kinda place my life in it,” Stephen says, “but really Omi give me the first inspiration.”
While grounded from the road during the COVID lockdown, Stephen set up a new studio on a remote family farm in the Florida countryside, holding nightly jam sessions in a converted garage. With a stripped-down ensemble comprising binghi drums, bass, acoustic guitar, and flute, Stephen played whatever he felt like — ranging from original compositions and reggae rarities with deep personal meaning to classics recorded by Ray Charles, Frank Sinatra, and The Beatles. “Irie vibration,” Stephen says of the sounds made together on the farm. The lion’s share of Old Soul was recorded during these “unplugged” jam sessions.
“April 1972, my mom and poppa brought me through… back then, I was the favorite, so they say.” Reflecting on his life as a youngster growing up as the second eldest son in the royal Marley family, Stephen marked his 51st year on earth by sharing glimpses of his past and releasing the title track of the album on his birthday (4/20/23) earlier this year! “I’m an old soul, living in the body of a 9-year-old / Guess I’ve been here before.”
Old Soul explores a musical palette that spans a variety of cultures and genres alike, with hand-selected special guests furthering the spiritual journey that encompasses the album. Stephen and his elder brother Ziggy collaborate on “There’s A Reward,” a heartfelt tribute to Joe Higgs, the man who mentored young Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, and Bunny Wailer when they were all aspiring singers in Trenchtown. Meanwhile, Stephen’s younger brother Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley features on “Cast The First Stone,” a powerful, thought-provoking tune set to an ominous groove that sounds like something from a lost spaghetti Western soundtrack.
Stephen enlists his old friend Buju Banton on the ska-flavored “Thanks We Get (Do Fi Dem),” a Lee “Scratch” Perry composition made famous by Junior Byles that explores the idea that no good deed goes unpunished. And Kyle McDonald of Slightly Stoopid joins on a verse on “Standing In Love,” a beautiful ballad that hearkens back to reggae’s sweet rocksteady era.
Eric Clapton laces up tasty lead guitar riffs over a powerful acoustified version of Bob Marley’s “I Shot The Sheriff,” while the album gracefully closes with Grateful Dead legend, guitarist/vocalist Bob Weir, and singer/songwriter/soul surfer Jack Johnson, joining Stephen on the LP’s final track, “Winding Roads.” Recorded at Bob Weir’s TRI Studios with his Wolf Bros band, including Don Was and Dead & Company members Jeff Chimenti and Jay Lane, “Winding Roads” stands apart as the only song on Old Soul recorded with a full band.
“We definitely did want some different sounds,” says Stephen. “We never want to come with the same ray ray ray. We try to make some of them something you can’t really identify. Ah, just music.” Among the more unexpected selections embedded on Old Soul are a disarmingly sweet cover of Sinatra’s “These Foolish Things (Reminds Me Of You),” as well as Stephen’s take on The Beatles’ perpetually pleading “Don’t Let Me Down.”
In celebration of the new album, Stephen has embarked on an ambitious Old Soul Tour -Unplugged 2023 through the early fall.
Stephen is no stranger to acoustic recordings, which tend to reveal the raw power of songwriting and musicianship without the benefit of studio wizardry. Just a year after Stephen released his 2008 solo debut Mind Control, he returned with an acoustic version, stripping each song down to its essence—both albums won Grammy Awards, back to back. Five years ago, Stephen embarked upon an acoustic tour of the U.S., then closed 2018 with the release of One Take Acoustic Jams, an EP recorded in the living room of his home studio, the Lion’s Den—a precursor to farm jam sessions that form the core of Old Soul.
The free-wheeling song selection on Old Soul demonstrates the courage to defy expectations. “You haffi be true to yourself,” he says. “I refuse to be put into any category. I am inspired by everything. So if me feel like me wan’ play some jazz music, me ah go play some jazz music. Who dig it, dig it.”
Even as the album showcases Ragga’s versatility, the message within his music remains consistent. “We come to free the people’s minds,” says Marley. “Only way you can free your soul is to free your mind. My father say, ‘No chains on my feet, but I’m not free.’ And then he come say, ‘Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery.’ Anywhere the music calls us, we are going to be there to spread the message of love and unity.”
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