Last year a historic event prompted me squelch my aversion to commercial cruise ships and get on the boat: the inaugural Welcome to Jamrock Reggae Cruise on the Norwegian Pearl, featuring five nights of performances by the biggest names in Jamaican music and helmed by one of today’s most exhilarating artists, Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley—yes, Bob’s son (see my NPR coverage of it here: http://www.npr.org/sections/therecord/2014/12/04/368256462/a-supposedly-irie-thing-ill-most-certainly-do-again). This month I couldn’t resist getting on the boat yet again; memories of stellar performances, lively after-parties, Jamaican film screenings and a stunningly diverse, uber-irie crowd proved too potent a lure. On day one I ran into actor Malik Yoba, known for starring roles in the TV shows Empire and New York Undercover and films like Cool Runnings and Why Did I Get Married? Explaining that he too, wouldn’t dare miss the boat, the actor, philanthropist and reggae lover volunteered to chat with Damian Marley about the evolution of the Welcome to Jamrock cruise as a formidable global brand.
MALIK: I gotta say, right off the bat, this boat is a really good time, an incredible experience. I’ve never been on a cruise before, but I came on this one because I wanted to see what the hype was about.
DAMIAN: Me neither, before I started this one.
MALIK: So how did the idea come to be?
DAMIAN: Well, other genres of music have been doing cruises, so the idea of musical cruises is not original. But there has never been a reputable reggae cruise. Yet it makes such sense: warm weather, Caribbean vibes, traveling to Jamaica, reggae music. So the idea itself is not the achievement as much as executing the idea, which proved to be more of a challenge.
DAMIAN: One of the challenges is what reggae music faces in general, which is that the music is popular all over the world, but we don’t have the structure, the investors–the business side of it has always been kind of wild west: not organized. So because of that we haven’t had the chance to prove our worth and our value, and prove to investors that we are worth the investment. A lot of promoters, people who charter cruises and so on, didn’t think that reggae fans have enough disposable income to come and enjoy a cruise. But check it out—here we are, one of the fastest selling-out in all of the cruise business, so much so that this year we had two boats instead of one, back to back—this is the second.
MALIK: How quickly did it sell out?
DAMIAN: The inaugural one sold out in months. This one is sold out; the one before this was short just a few percentage. And the original one, last year, was only promoted on my Facebook page—no advertising. Next year will be even better because we’ll have a bigger ship, with another company, Royal Caribbean.
MALIK: This boat is a serious business move, selling not just reggae culture but the brand of Jamaica—the “Welcome to Jamrock” concept. I know how a culture can impact an economy; I remember, after filming Cool Runnings, how that Disney film about the Jamaican bobsled team drove up tourism. Even on a simple, local level, we filmed onsite in Jamaica and someone moved into the shack in the country built for my character in the film! So considering this could be a huge economic driver for the community, what does that look like to you?
DAMIAN: How you see it look now, which is a scenario where everyone benefits. This boat sails from Miami to Jamaica and back, so we are bringing 2000-odd people to Jamaica, a lot of whom have never been there, to experience Jamaica and hopefully want to return. Eventually we might partner with the right Jamaican brands, too, once it’s something beneficial to the economy of Jamaica. Marcus Garvey would be proud: We are owning our culture and our economy. And for the music, it all speaks volumes about our value as a genre. Artists who are performing are getting to expose themselves to new fans—there’s people from 52 different nations on the boat. For Jamaican artists without visas, this is their opportunity to perform before an American audience, which is huge for them and their fans. And we just want to keep doing things that are an example of what our value is as reggae music, which I am very proud of. It’s a bigger than just Damian Marley—it encompasses everyone, it’s a unity. And again, that speaks volume in terms of how unity is strength.
MALIK: Great point about the power of unity.
DAMIAN: This is a true example of one love, which my father sings about. There are different races, different religions, different cultures, but they have a common love for reggae culture. There’s a common thread through everyone on the boat. The artists all brought their A games, top performances. A lot of people share the opinion that these are the best shows from these artists.
MALIK: I definitely have been hugely impressed by the quality of performances, and I’m a huge fan of so many of these artists, from Barrington Levy to Tarrus Riley. Tarrus and I actually had the opportunity to record a track together at Tuff Gong studio in Kingston, Jamaica, last year, which will eventually appear on an album I’m working on that’s heavily reggae influenced.
DAMIAN: I didn’t realize you sing.
MALIK: It’s a huge love for me, many years now. So where is this cruise going, in terms of the future?
DAMIAN: A bigger boat, as I mentioned. More fans. And for the first two years we kept it strictly Jamaican in terms of performers, but next year we are trying to start embracing the international community of artists; we definitely want to make a statement about the root of the culture being Jamaican but at the same time we don’t build fences so we will open it up to artists like Collie Buddz from Bermuda and J Boog from Hawaii. We will make sure we have current acts and also pay homage to the root of the music and pay homage to the elders.
MALIK: I’ve been amazed at how deep people want to go into reggae music—so many conversations about reggae history and more.
DAMIAN: Yes. I would personally like this cruise to influence people to get deeper into the music of the artists onboard. So if we introduce a young artist, people are schooled on that artist and we have a whole community of people being schooled.
MALIK: So it becomes a career launching pad.
DAMIAN: Exactly. And in terms of education about the music—more seminars and educational programming about reggae history and culture. And on a behind the scenes note what I think would also be cool is
to have a gathering of managers, producers: The industry people who are on the boat can have a conference to speak about how the music is developing and moving forward.
MALIK: One thing, too, is the philanthropic perspective. This is the music that has always preached love—this is gospel music, essentially.
MALIK: Love of god, love of purpose: this is what reggae is. So to that end, I’m quite invested in the idea of infusing a space like this with purpose and meaning—my company, iconic32, is all about connecting pop culture with social good. You had a book drive for Jamaican schools onboard this year; any plans to amplify the social good aspect of this cruise?
DAMIAN: Definitely. We are looking at ways to involve more causes that allow people to give back to Jamaica, which they love so much—it will be part of the future experience for sure.
MALIK: I’ve got to thank you for the experience. It really is special, like a secret: all these vibes going on in the middle of the ocean that no one else is a part of.
DAMIAN: Like our own country. Our own reggae country.