Stephen and Damian Marley’s Brotherly Love

On a warm evening last month, inside a cluster of nondescript office spaces south of Miami, a rehearsal studio with a giant lion’s head painted in red, green, and gold on the concrete-block wall hums with activity. Long after the businesses surrounding them have shut down for the day, Stephen “Ragga” Marley and Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley are putting their band through its paces, tuning up for the Traffic Jam tour, which will be crisscrossing the U.S. and Canada through Mar. 30. 

“Practice make perfect,” Damian, 45, says during a break in the session. “You want to get the show as tight as possible. You really want the thing to be like muscle memory so people are not thinking and it just becomes natural.”

“We don’t play around with rehearsal,” his older brother concurs. It’s a work ethic that Stephen, 51, has had since his days as a member of the Melody Makers, when he was known as Raggamuffin, whose singing and toasting provided the group’s dancehall flair. As a child, Damian remembers playing Melody Makers albums on his Fisher Price turntable before going to bed. Even before he was called Jr. Gong — a reference to their father’s nickname, the Tuff Gong — Damian was thrilled to hear his brother from another mother chatting lyrics on early Melody Makers cuts like “Look Who’s Dancing.”

The brothers’ determination to maintain the family legacy of musical excellence has not eased one bit over the years that they’ve accumulated 11 Grammy Awards between them as performers and producers. Over the years, Stephen has remixed their father’s classics and produced the likes of Lauryn Hill and Erykah Badu. Meanwhile, Damian is one of the few artists to collaborate with both Nas and Jay-Z, along with more recent hip-hop collabs including a remix of Killer Mike’s “Run.” While both are veterans at this point, they work harder than most rookies.

“You hear Bob say they rehearse for years before them record,” Stephen says. “In those days the studio never so accessible. Them rehearse for years with that dream.”

Stephen and Damian have been sharing stages for more than a decade now, but Traffic Jam is their first co-headlining tour, a chance to work through their deep catalog of collabs, from the ganja love song  “Medication” to “The Mission,” a rugged statement of purpose affirming their commitment to spread the message of righteousness and Rastafari to the world. 

They’ve been sharpening their craft in this rehearsal space since the early 2000s. If these walls could talk, they’d tell stories from the creation of Damian’s classic 2005 album Welcome to Jamrock, which was largely produced by Stephen. “I would be in the recording studio and it get a little monotonous,” Jr. Gong recalls, “so I’d come here with the band and start vibing lyrics live and take those ideas back to the studio.”

The bond between Stephen and Damian runs deeper than music, although they grew up in different households. “Steve is a big brother who really check on you when you’re little,” says Damian, who is Bob Marley’s youngest child. Stephen used to pick him up from school. “We come from tie shoelace,” Damian remembers, “how fi play football and ride bicycle, up to music too.”

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The brothers have collaborated closely on all of Damian’s releases. Damian estimates that Ragga wrote 65 percent of the lyrics on his 1996 debut, Mr. Marley. “I would have the melodies and the flows,” he says. “Then Steve would help me with the lyrics and ting and ting until my writing skills developed more over the years.” When Stephen stepped out as a solo artist 11 years later with his own debut album, Mind Control, Jr Gong returned the favor, offering his full support. 

Stephen says he learned patience from Damian, while Damian credits Stephen for teaching him about everything from their father and their faith to how to sing on key and count bars. “So much things, too much to count.”

Now, after so many years of collaboration, they’re excited for the possibilities of their first official tour together as co-headliners.

“Myself and Damian get to do this catalog of music that we have together,” says Stephen with a twinkle in his eye. “We usually do it in pieces — me come pon him show, him come pon my show and do two songs. Now we’re doing a full set of the music that we have through the years. Trust me, the vibes is high.”

“We do this a whole heap of times before, but not billed,” says Jr. Gong. “When his album came out I went on the road with him, just rode the bus and showed up… So Steve and I tour all the while, but this is the first official billing.”

The tour’s timing is auspicious, coming just over a year after the sudden, tragic death of Jo Mersa Marley, Stephen’s firstborn son.


“It was a hard time, still a hard time, “ Stephen says. “But still the music help carry me through and ting. Take time, find your footing, and keep moving same way.” 

While Damian hopes the tour will allow for some healing, Ragga describes it as “a necessity — let me just say that. It was necessary for me go out there and do the music. Damian and Joseph was close too. So even this tour here, it necessary in more ways than one. People might not understand that part of it. But it’s necessary.”