Continuing our exclusive interview, Marlon James—the Man Booker-shortlisted author of A Brief History of Seven Killings—reveals his favorite Jamaican beach, beef patty and Bob Marley song, and talks about his stint working with us here at Island Outpost!
Read our first interview with James here.
By: Nadja Boncoeur
When writing your book, what drew you to the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in 1976?
The Bob Marley angle was actually one of the last elements to happen to the book. It became something that tied it all together. Jamaica was in a very tricky and important position in 1976. Not just because it was an election year, but because of the fear that the country was going communist. Because of that the country ended up in a Cold War. At the same time, there was an explosion of creativity that I don’t think the country has seen since. In music—of course, that we know—but also in art and, hell, even in film there was this huge explosion of creativity.
You’ve said growing up that you weren’t necessarily influenced by Bob Marley’s music, or that you didn’t understand it.
I didn’t understand it because I was six. I’m not going to understand metaphors or double meaning. Marley is a very sly lyricist, which is something that nobody really talks about. That’s the reason there is no new Bob Marley. It’s not because people don’t have talent or musical instinct. No one has Bob’s wit. When you listen to “Ambush in the Night,” and he breaks the sort of social, cultural and economic situation all around him in the first two verses, his shooting almost seems inevitable.
[“See them fighting for power, but they not the hour. So they bribing with their guns, spare parts and money, trying to belittle our integrity now. They say what we know is just what they teach us, and so we’re ignorant cause every time they can reach us through political strategy they keep us hungry. And when you gonna get some food, your brother got to be your enemy.”]
If anybody had the right to be narrow in their perspective, like you know, some people shot me and I am flipping pissed, it would have been him. He earned the right. And yet that’s one of his most expansive songs. He’s not narrowing the view of his own murder attempt, which I think is remarkable. Growing up this is what I knew about Bob Marley: Reggae was exciting, and I was not allowed to play it in the house.
You weren’t even allowed to play it?
No. I grew up in the 70s. The 70s in a lot of ways were progressive, but it was a lot more retrograded than people think. In 1976 Rastas were still the most persecuted group in Jamaica. Bob Marley was the Rasta that a lot of people in the Jamaican middle class did not like. They all pretend they did now. Trust me, this is one six-year-old who remembers everything.
It’s hard to live up to an icon like Bob Marley.
Bob Marley was extremely well-read and he knew what was going on in the world. I don’t think new artists are as interested, or as hungry as Bob was. I don’t think they are as curious as he was. I remember getting every single record and listening to them back to back. In some ways, it was a personal discovery—an adult discovery.
Is there any song that you hold especially dear?
That’s a hard question. The only way I can decide is by thought association. The first song that pops up for me is “The Heathen.” And not because of any deep significance, I just like it the most. I love “Coming in from the Cold.” I flipping love “Kinky Reggae.” That’s one of the party-starting reggae songs.
Who are some of your favorite artists coming out of Jamaica now?
I listen to Chronixx a lot. I like Popcaan, though I’m not always crazy about his lyrics.
What do you think about people calling Chronixx “the next Bob Marley”?
He’s not the first person to get that tag. I wish people would actually study Marley more, and really pay attention to what he was doing lyrically, musically. One of the things that Marley could do very well that a lot of artists are still working on is how to write a simple hook. It’s called a chorus, people!
What do you miss the most about Jamaica?
I miss the ease of coming home. There’s something about landing in Jamaica and knowing, Oh, yeah. Here is the one place in the world I have the right to be. Before I even hit South Camp Road, I’m already in a Juici beef patty. Before I reach home, I go to Suzie’s because they have plantain tarts. I ease back into how I take being at home for granted. That’s what I miss most, taking being at home for granted.
If a group of friends came to Jamaica, where would you take them?
I’d drive them along the South Coast, and end in Treasure Beach. The south is gorgeous, and even though it gets fewer tourists than the north, the south coast has more tourists who end up living there.
We heard you used to work with Island Outpost!
I used to do some graphic design for Island Outpost a lifetime ago. In 1998 maybe. The funny thing is sometimes I would go up for a bid with Colin Channer’s company. [Channer is a fellow Jamaican author, and founder of the Calabash International Literary Festival.] We didn’t know each other back then, and he would win every time. I kept thinking, Who’s this bastard that keeps beating me for the Island Outpost account? One year we competed over the Island Village logo, and his company won. And my logo was cute, dammit!
Photo credit: Jeffrey Skemp