Some things are planned, some things just happen, and then there are those things that are simply meant to be. Such is the link between Christopher Ellis, the youngest son of legendary Jamaican vocalist Alton Ellis, and the Ghetto Youths International crew.
“It’s a lineage thing,” says Christopher Ellis, who is currently preparing his debut EP for release on the GYI label. “It stems back to when I met Stephen and Damian Marley. And more than that, it stems to our fathers and the whole Trenchtown thing.”
Trenchtown, of course, is the economically downpressed but musically blessed area of downtown Kingston that was immortalized by The Wailers in their song “Trenchtown Rock.” Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, and Bunny Wailer all hailed from Trenchtown, as did many other Jamaican musical heroes inlcuding Delroy Wilson, Joe Higgs, guitarist Ernest Ranglin, saxophonist Dean Fraser, and the aforementioned Alton Ellis, a soulful vocalist who made his name with countless rock steady classics, including “Get Ready, Rock Steady,” “Girl I’ve Got A Date," “I’m Just A Guy,” and “Willow Tree.”
“When they made music, they would make songs religiously,” says Christopher Ellis, who touring extensively with his father and shared the stage with him since the age of 11, thrilling audiences around the world as he soaked up the finer points of life, music and the music business from the master himself. “When you have a father like that, greatness is passed down onto you.”
After his father passed away in 2008 Christopher Ellis was introduced to Stephen Marley by a mutual friend from Trenchtown. “He drove me to Hope Road one day,” Christopher recalls. “I sat down with Stephen Marley and the rest is history. Just like that it happened—just like that. Stephen said to me ‘It’s a family thing,’ and I really give thanks for that. I learned so much from him and Damian, just being in the studio—sounds and vibes, all kind of things I’m learning.”
The first fruit of that collaboration was “End of Time,” a collaboration with Stephen Marley and Jah Cure based on Alton Ellis’s “You Make Me So Very Happy.” That was followed by a 2010 reworking of the Alton Ellis classic “Willow Tree” that showcases Christopher’s sensitive vocal interpretation over a state-of-the-art reggae track produced by Stephen Marley. More recently, Ellis released the fresh-sounding single “Don’t Change Your Number,” featuring hard-hitting rhymes from Bay-C of the dancehall supergroup T.O.K. which has enjoyed strong radio airplay in his native London.
“I’m so proud of that song, it’s a different mood—total niceness. I was in Tuff Gong studio with Jr. Gong and the vibes were just building. I hummed two things and Gong said ‘Yeah, keep that!’ So we took it back to Miami and Gong did that genius thing he does. When he goes behind that drumkit and orchestrates the thing—it’s crazy.”
The swinging, uptempo track is a departure from the one-drop reggae fare Ellis is best known for, but he’s embracing the creative growth. “It’s always nice when people can’t predict what’s coming,” says Ellis, who recently shot a video for the tune in Jamaica. “Showing versatility
is a great thing.”
For the future, Ellis advises fans to expect the unexpected. “If you don’t hear me singing reggae music, don’t worry ‘cause it’s still music. I love One Drop reggae so much, but we’ve been experimenting with different sounds and it’s really sounding good. I have some things to portray to the world. It’s all about fulfilling the mission of extending my father’s legacy. Anything I can add to that legacy is a blessing.”
“Many are called but the chosen few,” Wayne Marshall sang on “Overcome,”one of his earliest breakthrough hits. “Nothing in this world that you cannot do.” Through a blend of hard work, determination, and undeniable talent, Marshall has managed to overcome all obstacles in his path, proving that these words were more than just catchy lyrics. To paraphrase the singer’s well-known catchphrase, his song proved to be Tru tru tru. And following this credo has afforded him the right to be counted among reggae’s chosen few.
Though best known as a dancehall performer, Wayne Marshall’s multifaceted abilities defy easy categorization. For more than a decade now, Marshall has evolved through different stages in the music industry, playing a crucial role both onstage and behind the scenes as a songwriter, producer, musician, and creative strategist. After collaborating with a variety of reggae’s important collectives, including Ward 21, Vybz Kartel, Sean Paul and Bounty Killer’s Alliance, Marshall has recently aligned himself with the Ghetto Youths International movement—with immediate and explosive results.
Wayne has always been a brethren of mine,” says Damian “Junior Gong” Marley of their collaborative chemistry. “Music is what made me know him. Wayne does a whole heap of writing, even for other artists. He has always had a gift for different topics, and he comes up with certain kinds of concepts.” But most of all Damian Marley rates Marshall for his drive. “He has a great ambition to work—and to cross over and be bigger than just, say, the dancehall market. Sometimes if you have too much ego it is a barrier. But he’s open to try anything to really further himself. He has good music and is always willing to learn.”
And the feeling is clearly mutual: “Damian has a lot of respect on the ground in Jamaica,” Marshall affirms. “He welcomes a different arm of artists who I don’t really know, which brings a different energy and unification. I’m very excited about where I am—productionwise and labelwise, I just feel good. It feels right. The whole Ghetto Youths movement that’s going on right now is crazy. You have Christopher Ellis carrying on his father’s legacy, and then there’s Black Am I and Joe Mersa coming up with raw talent and ability. The thing is alive and well.
Wayne Marshall first established his name with hardcore cuts like “Melody of War” on Ward 21’s Bellyas riddim and “When The Smoke Clears,” a devastating duet with Bounty Killer. Then in 2002 he had not one but two cuts on the internationally acclaimed Diwali riddim, featuring on Bounty Killer’s smash hit “Sufferer” as well as singing the inspirational solo cut “Overcome.” That track became not just a career-defining song, but a mantra of personal responsibility and inspiration: “Times well hard in yard today / If you don’t work then you won’t get pay / Many obstacles come along the way / Overcome, youths overcome.” More recently Marshall experimented with new sounds and styles on tracks like the internationally celebrated club banger “Messing With My Heart” as well as brainstorming the innovative Matrimony riddim, for which all the songs were conceptually linked by the topic of marriage—elevating the project from an ordinary dancehall juggling to a thematically unified mix with a video to match.
Since joining the Ghetto Youths camp, he’s released the epic posse cut “Go Hard,” which also features Damian Marley, Assassin, I-Octane, Bounty Killer, Aidonia, and—most surprisingly—the Worldboss himself, Vybz Kartel, who has been incarcerated for a year now. “Everybody wants to know how did we get Kartel on this track?”
Marshall says with palpable enthusiasm. “It’s crazy. I really feel like that song is a big deal.” Extended mixes of the tune include verses from Sizzla, Kunley of Ward 21, and Bling Dawg—with remixes in the works that include lyricists from other creative traditions such as hip-hop and grime. Somehow as the artists pass the microphone like a baton in a relay race, the musical momentum never lets up—indeed, it only seems to increase as the track goes on.
Marshall says the creative process behind “Go Hard” started with him and co-producer Baby G seeking to create a “mixtape style” record around an explosive rhythm track built by in-demand studio musician Teetimus. “We wanted to make a big collaborative dancehall track with that kind of Wu-Tang feel,” Marshall explains. “Hip-hop energy blended with that dancehall snare—just something anthem-like.”
His debut album under the Ghetto Youths banner will be titled Tru Colors. The brooding title track is a complex psychological study about friendship and disappointment that shows Marshall’s creativity at its finest. Other standout tracks include “Beautiful Wrong” a collaboration with Demarco that looks at the hurtful aftermath of good love gone bad. “That one is all about meeting a girl who’s a heartbreaker,” says Marshall. “We have Konshens on that record as well and you know he did his thing. It was a good blend.” Meanwhile “Long Time” features a remix by one of Skrillex’s dubstep protégés. Other producers on the project include Marshall and his longtime creative partner Baby G, son of the legendary reggae producer King Jammy. “Our musical journey together is so close that we’re almost twins,“ says Marshall.
In addition to his own album, Marshall has collaborated with a unique coalition of Junior Gong, Tarrus Riley, and Bay-C of TOK. Though all four artists have distinctly different careers as individuals, they found that they work well together, making a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. “All of us are accomplished to various different levels, and young at the same time. To come together on a creative vibe—out of this world. Just building out of the silence of the studio just came forth sound and lyrics and ideas. It was just a melting pot of creative vibrations. Amazing.”
Aside from the foursome’s unique creative chemistry, Marshall felt it was important to send a message of unity within the reggae fraternity. “As you can see in the dancehall there’s a whole lot of segregation—crew against crew. This man stand off against that man. Man a war against this and that. As a music and as a movement, Ghetto Youths needed to show some solidarity at the end of the day. We can’t just a war-war. People gonna take us for some crabs in a barrel. We need that collective energy. In unity is strength.”
Not content to write, produce, and record music, Marshall has been developing his musicianship as well.. “I’m almost there. I’ve done my 10,000 hours,” he adds, referencing author Malcolm Gladwell’s formula for mastering a new skill. “I’m trying to dig deep,” he says of his Ghetto Youths affiliation. “I’ve done a whole lot of soul-searching and I’m ready now to unleash on a different level.” Consider this your final warning.
black am i
One of the newest recruits to the Ghetto Youths International ranks, the culturally inclined reggae singjay Black Am I has already distinguished himself as a powerful voice of Jamaican music’s next generation. While he may be fresh to the music business, Black Am I has got ambition aplenty—and the talent and integrity to back it up. If you don’t know his name yet, then it’s time to get familiar.
In this time, when some of the most fundamental tenets of reggae culture seem to have fallen by the wayside, Black Am I replenishes the great traditions of self-determination, equal rights, and celebration of one’s African identity through hard-hitting yet conscious lyrics. Backed by fresh sounds that blend classical roots reggae with contemporary dancehall energy, the young artist is poised to spark a revolution in the minds and hearts of music lovers worldwide.
Born in the rural village of Nine Mile, situated in the hills of the Jamaican parish of St. Ann, Black Am I knew that he was blessed with the gift of music. “Growing up in Nine Mile reggae was a part of me,” Black Am I explains. His father chose to call him I-Nesta, out of respect for Nine Mile’s most famous son, Robert Nesta Marley. Sometimes a name carries the seeds of destiny—in keeping with the Rastafarian concept of word, sound, and power—so it came as no surprise somehow when Black Am I was inspired to sing.
“Music we say,” Black Am I affirms. “I love the thing for a long time. I just want to see it reach to a level.” But the level he’s aiming for isn’t just the usual “next level” cliché of searching for any form of success by any means necessary. Instead, Black Am I holds himself to a higher standard. “I feel like I’m responsible to bring back roots reggae,” the young singer says without hesitation. “Cause the thing get watered down.”
From an early age—long before he had access to a recording studio—Black Am I began writing his own songs. Right now all I need is a producer, he told himself. So when Damian “Junior Gong” Marley was visiting Nine Mile one day, he recognized the opportunity. “I approach him and say, ‘I am the artist in the place y’know,’” Black Am I recalls. Always willing and able to support fresh talent, Junior Gong asked him to sing something.
“The first time I met up with Black Am I in Nine Mile,” Junior Gong says with a smile, “I told him that he needed some more practice.” But Black Am was far from discouraged—quite the contrary. “I was never disappointed,” he says, “cause practice is perfection. So I just went for it.”
Rising to meet the challenge, Black Am I diligently put in the required work, and made sure he was ready the next time Junior Gong visited Nine Mile. The occasion happened to be a celebration of the Ethopian Christmas on the 7th of January. “Gong was in the place again, and a celebration was in the air,” Black Am I remembers. “After the gathering he was walking back to his father’s place. And I just started to sing."
The memory remains fresh for Damian Marley. “He just came up beside me and started sing: If you don’t wanna be misled, I tell you Ras up and come. He did this whole tune and I said, Wait! Who’s this?” Something about the voice seemed familiar but he couldn’t quite place it. That’s when Black Am I reminded him. “You don’t remember me? The same one you meet a year ago—you told me to practice.” Impressed by the youth’s talent, Junior Gong invited him to a formal audition at Tuff Gong studios in Kingston.
“I did not even know Tuff Gong at that time,” recalls the singer, who was then still known as Nesta. “I came to Hope Road to the demo studio. Some tracks were playing and we voiced on them.” That initial session would prove to be fateful for more reasons than one.
The first song he recorded that day went like this: “Black am I, why should I stray? / Sticking to my roots and culture and so me ah go stay. / Black am I, like who must I say? / Martin Luther King and Marcus Garvey.” That powerful lyric had an immediate and lasting impact on all who heard it, and on the artist himself.
“People never knew my name at the time,” the artist recalls. “So everybody was calling me ‘Black Am I.’” Soon thereafter Junior Gong made it official, telling him “that’s the name we’re working with.”
Since that time, the artist formerly known as I-Nesta has come to appreciate the significance of his powerful new name, his consciousness expanding to fulfill the potential implied by the title. “Being Black Am I, now I just represent for ‘I and I’ roots and culture,” And we burn bleaching. We are African—there’s no denying that. So that is why we have to just accept our name and say: This is the job we’ve got to do. Nothing has changed. Rastafari come from the root—Africa. The Lion of Judah shall never break him promise.”
Junior Gong has invested significant time and effort on artist development, and has noticed a rapid evolution of the young singer. “When we start work with Black Am I, it was just really natural talent and love of music coming through,” he says. “Since that time, he’s started to get more calculated.”
“With Damian Marley I become a workaholic,” says the artist, who has put down tracks like “Dwelling”, “People Kill People” on King Jammy’s General Riddim and the thought-provoking “Modern Day Freedom,” which raises timely questions about life within a 21st century system of economic dependency.
“How can we free ourself?” the artist ponders. “We have to put our shoulder to the wheel. No more complaining. Work to be done. I myself call pon every Jamaica right now. Stand up for your right. Get up, stand up. Sitting down too long right now. You know what I mean? It’s game time. Training. Practice. Perfection—straight.
Moving forward Black Am I continues to record and tour with Ghetto Youths International, moving toward his goal of being a voice for the voiceless. “Who have ears to hear, let them hear,” he says. “I do music from my heart. I express myself in a way that I feel like the world want to express themselves. Because,” he says, closing with a line from the book of Marley, “there are so much things to say right now."
JO MERSA is the second generation offspring of reggae legend, Bob Marley and eldest son of Stephen Marley. In the same tradition as his father and grandfather, Jo Mersa's music has been deeply influenced by the reggae culture, family and spirituality.
Growing up as a youth in an atmosphere filled with conscious musicians, Mersa naturally began exploring his own musical journey. During his impressionable years, the musical youth would observe his father and uncles Damian Marley and Julian Marley produce music at the Lion's Den studio in Miami, which was the catalyst to Jo becoming an accomplished, self-taught musician, perfecting the craft of how to build his own beats and riddims.
In 2010, Ghetto Youths International released Jo Mersa's first single entitled,
"My Girl", a cross-over reggae / pop collaboration between Mersa and his cousin, Daniel Bambaata Marley, which was produced at the Lion's Den in Miami by Stephen Marley.
In 2012, Ghetto Youths released Jo Mersa's second single and music video entitled,
"Bad So". The dancehall track hit international air-waves to heavy acclaim, and finds the once fledgling artist rising to the top of the radio charts in major markets, including London, Jamaica, New York City, Boston and Miami.
The inspiration of Jo Mersa's lineage has harnessed his organic, creative energy, and affirms his natural passion for creating music and performing on stage. But regardless of his heritage, Jo Mersa has forged his own identity with a style that ranges in a variety of categories, including roots/reggae, pop, dancehall and hip-hop.
In 2013, Jo Mersa can be found working on new music and touring internationally with his father, Stephen Marley. Mersa notes, “I feel Blessed to have the opportunity to spread the messages of my grandfather, and through my own musical visions I hope to continue on with my father's musical legacy.”