At the jam-packed gate of a Bob Marley tribute concert in Jamaica, a security guard noticed the late “Tuff Gong” Marley’s youngest son, then just a kid, stuck in the crowd.
“He started to clear people out of the way, and his way of doing it was saying: ‘It’s Gong Junior! Gong Junior coming through! Gong Junior!’ ” says Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley, 40. “I picked up the name and stuck with it.”
Born in 1978 to the late reggae icon and to Miss World 1976 Cindy Breakspeare, Damian was just 2 when his father died.
The four-time Grammy winner has built a name for himself as a reggae artist with crossover hip-hop appeal and high-energy live shows.
His “Welcome to Jamrock” won the 2006 Grammy for best reggae album, while its title track won best urban/alternative performance.
Now “Jr. Gong” brings his beats to Marshfield, as a headliner of the Levitate Music and Arts Festival.
Founded by Levitate Surf Shop in 2013, the grassroots fest is a three-day celebration of music, art, community, coastal surf and skate culture, and “homegrown stoke.”
It all kicks off Friday with the Tedeschi Trucks Band, Blackberry Smoke, and Shovels & Rope. Other folk-rock-roots highlights include Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, Kat Wright, the Wood Brothers, and St. Paul & the Broken Bones. Marley plays Sunday.
With dreadlocks down to his feet and a penchant for jumping and dancing, the reggae scion cuts a dramatic figure when performing.
“I love the energy Damian brings onstage. His live show is intense and inspiring, one of the best I’ve seen,” said fest organizer Daniel Hassett, who owns the Levitate Surf Shop with his wife, Jess, via e-mail.
Growing up in Kingston, Jamaica, Marley first fell in love with “the dancehall stars of Jamaica — Shabba Ranks, Super Cat” — around age 7, and was performing professionally by 13.
“[I was] surrounded by music in my family, and surrounded by it in general,” he says in his thick patois, in a phone interview from his Miami home. (He divides his time between Miami and Jamaica.)
“Jamaica’s a very musical place. Music plays a huge part in our culture. As a young person coming up in Jamaica, it’s very easy for one to be involved in music, and to be affected to it, you know.”
At 18, he cut his debut album, “Mr. Marley,” with help from half-brother Stephen Marley.
A hip-hop aficionado, Marley collaborated with Nas on the 2010 album “Distant Relatives.” He was featured on Jay-Z’s 2017 track “Bam” and performed the song on “Saturday Night Live” with the rap mogul.
He’s collaborated with Cypress Hill, Sean Paul, Skrillex, Bruno Mars, family members, and Ty Dolla $ign, among others.
“Music is music,” he says. “Nowadays in the world of music, everyone really mixes; it’s hard to find a pure genre that does one thing. All genres now tend to borrow from each other. A lot of genres borrow from reggae.”
His 12th studio album, “Stony Hill,” won the 2018 Grammy for best reggae album and was inspired, in a sense, by his childhood.
“Stony Hill is one of the more privileged areas in Jamaica. It’s the area in Jamaica where I grew up. Some of my album titles have geographic names. For example, I had an album called ‘Halfway Tree,’ that’s another place in Jamaica. So it was kind of a continuity of keeping with that theme, and then also wanting to highlight and reflect on my upbringing.”
Halfway Tree, he explains, is “a big roundabout in Jamaica,” a dividing point “between uptown, which is nicer side, and downtown which is a rougher side. So ‘Halfway Tree’ was like a metaphor for my life, being that my dad come from the rough side, and my mom comes from uptown.”
As he notes, some of his songs “are based upon lifting people who come from rough neighborhoods.”
“Every once in a while you have a person who says, ‘Why are you trying to encourage people when you didn’t grow up there?’ But people who are privileged should look out for people who are not.”
Marley’s catalog ranges from fast-paced hip-hop-infused dancehall to a classic Wailers sound. His lyrics are often quite poetic; themes might range from love to political commentary or social messages.
His recent single “Medication” — its video climbing toward 92 million views — has become something of an anthem for marijuana legalization. While he doesn’t remember the first time he smoked, he’s been a longtime advocate for legalization.
“For me, personally, it’s the only discrepancy I’d ever have with law enforcement in that kind of way. Where I’d have to be careful because I don’t want to go to jail. So for me, becoming legal, that alone is a huge weight off my shoulders. Not to worry that I’m going to get locked up because of a joint. That’s the simplest way to put it,” he said.
“Other than that, all these other things, for example, the medical research that’s being done now, all of that is showing very great progress. It goes from me not having to look over my shoulder because of the police, to having young children overcome serious illnesses.”
A few years ago, he partnered with Ocean Grown Extracts to convert a former California prison into a cannabis grow space.
“The irony of it all, that here’s a place that used to incarcerate people for the same thing, [and] we’re now doing legal business there with herb — that’s a beautiful story.”
Levitate Music and Arts Festival
At Marshfield Fairgrounds, Marshfield, July 12-14. Tickets from $59.25 (discounts for children). www.levitatemusicfestival.com