When it comes to reggae music the Marley name is royalty. In 2005, the family’s reigning prince, Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley, stepped out with a reminder that the genre is very much alive with his Grammy-Award winning album Welcome to Jamrock. It went gold in the U.S. and featured a number of noteworthy guests including Black Thought, Bobby Brown, Nas and his brother Stephen.
It also set the stage for his most recent project, The Welcome to Jamrock Reggae Cruise. He is certainly not the first person to charter a boat and throw a party, but he is the first to do it with some of the biggest names in reggae and dancehall.
The 2014 inaugural Welcome to Jamrock Reggae Cruise was such a success that promoters decided to split it into two separate trips this year, the first of which set sail on Nov. 30, out of the Port of Miami with stops in Montego Bay and Ocho Rios. The second leg follows a similar route with a stop in Falmouth, Jamaica and will run from Dec. 5 through the 10.
Both cruises feature the same top tier line-up of reggae and dancehall artists and presents a unique opportunity for fans from the States to see acts like Popcaan, Busy Signal, Jah Cure and Bounty Killer, who are unable to travel to the U.S. because of visa restrictions. It also allows the rare chance for artists and fans to spend time together on their shared 93,502-ton temporary home.
Nearly all of the performances took place on the ship’s expansive pool deck. As it slid away from the port of Miami with the smell of spice and smoke wafting through the air thanks to a traditional jerk chicken BBQ, Protoje hit the stage for a bon voyage set. He ran through a mix of material from his three albums including fan favorites like “Who Dem A Program,” “Who Knows,” and even brought out Ky-Mani Marley to join him on vocals for a soulful version of their song “Rasta Love.”
To everyone’s surprise his band The Indiggnation also did instrumental versions of “Purple Haze” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Morgan Heritage, who played a good deal of new material off their most recent album Strictly Roots and Stephen Marley, who stole the show, were also standouts on the first night. Marley’s set featured a healthy mix of Bob Marley tunes and original material, and Jr. Gong, Spragga Benz, Baby Cham and his son Jo Mersa joined him on stage.
While the music each day was not officially themed, the second night’s line-up consisted mostly of the children of reggae legends. It kicked off with a set of lover’s rock by Christopher Ellis, who is the son of rocksteady pioneer Alton Ellis. Ky-Mani Marley also hit the stage with a set that drew heavily from his latest album entitled Maestro and the night closed out with an incredible performance by Tarrus Riley, who is the son of the great Jimmy Riley. Tarrus was flawless. Not only did he perform crowd favorites like “She’s Royal” and the hit Major Lazer collaboration “Powerful,” but he also brought out J. Boog for a surprise performance of “Let’s Do It Again” and Dean Fraser, his band’s saxophonist, played an instrumental version of “Redemption Song.”
Tanya Stephens’ set consisted of a mix of fan favorites like “It’s a Pity,” “Little White Lie” and “What a Day,” but what made her performance so memorable was her sense of humor, crowd interactions and all around stage presence. She took some time to talk MTV News about the cruise, sharing, “Every time everybody talks about the cruise they speak about it as if it is something reggae does, but Damian did this so I really want to give him his props. Not everybody in reggae does business the same way he does so this is a reflection on him and his business.”
Not only is the cruise Damian’s baby, so to speak, but it was also an opportunity to highlight his new partnership with and co-ownership of Tidal, one of the cruise’s main sponsors. While MTV was unable to catch his performance, he made a surprise appearance during King Jammy’s set alongside Shinehead and Elephant Man that will likely go down in reggae history. A definite highlight: Elephant Man leading a chant of “Long Live The King!” and Jr. Gong toasting flawlessly over some of Jammy’s most timeless work.
None of the cruise’s featured dancehall artists -- with the exception of Elephant Man and Super Cat -- are currently able to perform in the U.S. for various visa-related reasons. Busy Signal had to perform first because the boat could not leave the Port in Montego Bay while he was on board, but he used the opportunity to exceed fans’ high expectations.
He ran through old and new hits like “Unknown Number,” “Nah Goa Jail Again,” and “Reggae Music Again,” but it was a surprise cover of Bill Wither’s “Ain’t No Sunshine” that was the set’s easy fan favorite. He was followed by Elephant Man a.k.a the “Energy God.” His green hair, penchant for climbing the speaker system and nearly taking out the drum kit by dry humping “a fat gyal,” to use his words, made his performance the week’s most energetic indeed.
Super Cat blessed the crowd with his classic lyrical style. Jah Cure (who received a 2016 Grammy nomination along with Morgan Heritage) crooned love songs. Popcaan demonstrated why he is the current face of dancehall. But it was none other than the Mighty Bounty Killer (a.k.a. The Poor People’s Governor) who, with authority, performed the best set on the first leg of the cruise. He ran through classics, gave history lessons on the connection between reggae and dancehall, praised King Jammy’s contribution to his career and the culture of Jamaican music, briefly covered Lauryn Hill’s “Doo Wop (That Thing)” and even laid into Donald Trump by calling him a “fraudulent politician” before breaking into a performance of the “Poor People’s National Anthem.”
It is so rare to catch Bounty Killer performing outside of Jamaica these days that it is easy to forget that he had once recorded with everyone from Mobb Deep and The Fugees to No Doubt.
For reggae and dancehall fans The Welcome To Jamrock Cruise is an incredibly special experience. Plans for next year were announced mid-cruise; a single trip will take place November 14-19, 2016 on an even larger ship. The initial line-up includes: Jr. Reid, Mr. Vegas, Steel Pulse, J. Boog, Assassin, Half-Pint, Collie Buddz and Mavado with a whole lot more artists to be announced. Don’t miss it.