Being the son of legendary reggae icon Bob Marley, and the youngest of the clan, it’s fitting that Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley first established himself as a musician. However, being known for creating one of the most notable songs and albums in reggae music history, Welcome to Jamrock, is just one part of his legacy. Outside of music, he is the founder and brains behind the biggest musical theme cruise sailing the Caribbean sea: the Welcome to Jamrock Cruise.
The Welcome to Jamrock Reggae Cruise is a six-day, five-night chartered cruise currently on the Royal Caribbean cruise line that sails to different hotspots in Jamaica while offering live musical acts from the country’s genres. This includes over 30 artistic sets from entertainers like the legendary Buju Banton—who electrically rocked the stage on the December 2019 WTJRC cruise—to young new powerhouses like Koffee and Skip Marley.
From 5 a.m. Nyabinghi sessions to midday yoga, state-of-the-art sound clashes with the best reggae/dancehall DJs, unlimited pool/water-park access, full out day-party performances and live shows, there’s nothing like it sailing the seven seas. And now in its sixth year, we had to find out how the whiz, Damian Marley himself, came up with the idea that has every cruise ship line calling.
BLACK ENTERPRISE: Tell me about the genesis of this cruise?
Marley: This is our sixth year. The idea came about by just throwing ideas back and forth between myself and my manager, Dan Dalton. This is not the first cruise in terms of a musical theme cruise. You have other genres that have cruises like this.
So you were inspired by another genre?
Well, I can’t necessarily say inspired by another genre. But we definitely thought it would be a great fit for reggae music. Having the culture and cruising goes hand-in-hand in terms of it being a tropical experience. If you go to Jamaica or to the Bahamas or whatever island, this is the culture of the island that you are actually cruising to and visiting. That’s the whole vibes of it all.
When did you guys get in touch with Royal Caribbean?
Initially, our first partner going out wasn’t Royal Caribbean. We were in a partnership with some people called Flying Dutchmen who they, themselves, I believe have one or two other music charter cruises that they do. So initially we had been speaking to a bunch of different people trying to find a partner to go into business with us. A lot of people turned us down because of thinking that fans of reggae music would not have that disposable income or perhaps thinking that the genre wasn’t that popular, or that people wouldn’t pay so much money to come or whatever. They didn’t want to take the chance. So we spoke to a few people. The trail got cold for a few months and we would pick it back up and eventually we found our first partner who was Flying Dutchmen. We did the first two cruises with them.
What year was that?
That was 2014, and the second was 2015. That partnership kind of ran its course and, of course, because of the business that we did in that partnership, other cruise lines such as Royal Caribbean wanted to take the chance to do business with us.
Has there been any other cruise line involved besides Flying Dutchmen and Royal Caribbean?
Norwegian! So Flying Dutchmen basically were the promoters and they ended up chartering the cruise from Norwegian and made the partnership with us. Even in the case of this one, we still have a partnership with Rose Tours and they charter us with Royal Caribbean.
Is it a situation where every year it’s up in the air determining which cruise line you will partner with? Or are you guys contracted to Royal Caribbean?
No, well, what happens is that not a lot of the cruises, not a lot of the ships can accommodate the idea. You have other ships that can accommodate more people but not all of the passengers will be able to see the [performance] show at once. So because of that we’re kind of limited to certain ships. A part of coming to Royal Caribbean was because we outgrew the ship that Norwegian had that was suited before. We wanted to make it something bigger so this was the next available ship as a step up.
Many people believe that the Welcome to Jamrock Cruise only plays reggae music. But it’s not strictly reggae. There are dancehall artists on here, too?
Well, that’s a matter of semantics. This is even something we were speaking of in an interview I did a few days ago where [it was distinguished that] dance hall is a place. Whatever music that was played in that place is what you would refer to as dancehall music. And of course, nowadays you can hear that music has evolved; for example you know the type of beats that maybe a Popcaan is on doesn’t sound anything like the beat that my father may have been on. But it is all reggae culture. So reggae still encompasses the world culture. Even though we say this is the Jamrock Reggae Cruise that’s not to say that this reggae is just old school-sounding reggae or orthodox-sounding reggae. It’s reggae meaning the full Jamaican culture musical landscape at large. Reggae encompasses everything. This is only something that’s been coming up recently in the last 15 years where people are trying to make a difference between dancehall and reggae. That was never really a part of it before. So I’m saying that the word “reggae” still encompasses Jamaican music even if it’s not old school. It’s gone further because even some people are saying that some of the music that is coming out now is not dancehall, it’s Trap dancehall and it goes on. But what I’m saying is that what we stand for is Jamaican music culture regardless of the subgenre.
Being able to bring your culture to America and partner with these huge entities was only a vision at one point. Now that it has happened what does it mean for the Jamaican music culture?
This, I can say, is an example to show that our genre of music is worth the investment. That’s what it means. Us doing this is a great example for anyone who is wondering whether or not reggae can fill a venue or anyone who’s wondering if reggae has mass appeal. This is an example that says, “Yes we do. Yes.”
Can you talk about the marketing strategy used to make this a success?
Well, the marketing strategy is a funny thing. Really, what happened was that the first few years [of the cruise] we did some announcements on my social media. It took on a life of its own. So all of the marketing strategies that we had, we never implemented any of them. Right now it has become a culture on its own where I don’t necessarily have to post anything about the cruise on my social media anymore because its own social media has taken on a life of its own. So it’s all really organic, to tell you the truth.
When did you guys form the Jamrock Entertainment team for the cruise?
It was based on the fact that we had the idea to do the cruise and we were feeding off of Welcome to Jamrock. Welcome to Jamrock is the name of one of my albums. And based upon that, the Welcome to Jamrock team, in terms of the production unit that puts this cruise on, that was formed directly for the cruise. It just became the name. So it all happened at the same time.
Did you ever expect it to make it to the sixth year?
Yes, absolutely we expected to do the work. We’re just very thankful that it worked out exactly how we would have hoped and even better. But definitely, we always wanted this to be something that would be long term and we’re hoping for many more years to come.
It’s going to keep getting bigger. So what are you going to do? Soon you’re going to have to build your own ship.
Well, yeah, maybe. We have to put some ideas and thoughts behind what we’re going to do about that.
Editor’s Note: This interview was conducted in mid-December 2019 before the COVID-19 pandemic. In light of the global coronavirus outbreak, the Welcome to Jamrock team says the 2020 cruise is still slated to launch but declined to give any further information about the next voyage.
The title of this piece was updated on May 5. 2020, to include the full name of the cruise.