When asked to share their fondest memories from the past four years of the Welcome to Jamrock Reggae Cruise, Damian “Junior Gong” Marley and his manager, Dan Dalton, each began their recollections by citing the initial moments of Jamrock’s 2014 maiden voyage.
As the Norwegian Pearl pulled away from the Port of Miami en route to Jamaica, seemingly all of the ship’s approximately 2,400 passengers gathered on the open-air top deck to experience the Sail Away party, the first event aboard this previously untried venture for reggae music. As the Miami skyline faded in the distance and reggae bass lines reverberated on the open seas, Marley got on the mic, greeted the crowd in the name of Jah Rastafari and thanked them for being a part of this historic occasion. “Let’s start this the right way,” Marley said, motioning to the selector to drop his father’s immortal “Redemption Song” as the crowd sang along, phones held aloft to capture the scenario.
Dalton, who manages Marley through his Dalton Entertainment Group (in partnership with Roc Nation since 2016), recalled what happened next. “Damian and I went up to his room on the 10th floor and from there we could see all of the people on the deck; this was different than a music festival because these were the people who bought into our idea and for the next five days, these were our people. So, we had a champagne toast and said, ‘we don’t know what this is going to be, but here goes something.'”
That something turned out to be a phenomenal five-night celebration of reggae on the high seas, which included primetime concerts by some of the genre’s biggest names, after-hour sound system sessions with unannounced special guests, early morning Rastafarian drumming and chanting circles and unexpected encounters/photo ops with artists in elevators, on staircases and at meals. The response to the cruise also provided further evidence of reggae’s far-reaching impact and audience — achievements, inexplicably, that aren’t reflected in the music’s sales. Without any advertising, except for a few posts on Damian’s Facebook page, the introductory Welcome to Jamrock Reggae Cruise sold out all of the Norwegian Pearl‘s 1200 available cabins almost a year in advance of its October sail date; nearly half of the cabins were purchased by reggae fans from outside North America, representing 40 countries, with an age range evenly split among 25-50 years old.
It’s an impressive feat that’s been repeated with each Jamrock expedition, including back-to-back cruises in 2015. In 2016, Jamrock found a new, larger home aboard Royal Caribbean’s Independence of the Seas, a 15-deck vessel sailing from Fort Lauderdale, FL, which can accommodate 4,370 passengers. The fifth anniversary cruise, Dec. 1-6, 2018, which will dock in Ocho Rios and Falmouth, Jamaica, sold out within 2-3 months after its dates were announced; the Dec. 9-14, 2019 voyage is currently 50 percent sold out, even without the disclosure of its artist lineup.
“The response to the Jamrock cruise has definitely surpassed my expectations, especially when it comes to the promotions; I expected we would have to purchase advertising and do much more promotion than we ended up doing, so that’s been a blessing,” Damian Marley told Billboard in a recent interview in Jamaica. The cruise is named for Marley’s 2006 Grammy Award-winning album Welcome to Jamrock (Universal Motown/Tuff Gong), which reached No. 7 on the Billboard 200; its blockbuster title track won the Best Urban/Alternative Performance Grammy, with Marley the sole Jamaican artist to have ever received that honor. “The cruise’s success makes a big statement for reggae,” Marley continued. “Reggae is listened to and enjoyed by people all over the world, but it doesn’t have the profile of other genres, which might be because we don’t sell units. One of reggae’s missing links is in building up the business side. We’ve always been creators of great music, but we haven’t always been great entrepreneurs, so the cruise shows us how successful the music can be when the business is properly put together.”
Marley and Dalton’s Jamrock Productions presented the 2014-2017 cruises with California based Flying Dutchmen Travel; this year they are partnering with Rose Tours, who are headquartered in Pennsylvania and, like their predecessor, specialize in music-themed cruises and will handle Jamrock’s ticketing. According to the Jamrock website, tiered pricing (per person, based on double occupancy) for the 2018 cruise begins at $899.00 for an interior cabin and increases to $3,299.00 for an ocean view owners’ suite, with an additional $279.00 per person to cover booking and administration fees, taxes and gratuities. Meals and entertainment are included; alcoholic beverages are not.
As the Jamrock price points indicate, cruising is an expensive activity, and some people Dalton initially approached assumed reggae fans couldn’t financially support the endeavor. “Prior to Flying Dutchmen, who believed in the idea from the outset, some of the people we reached out to told us the cruise won’t work; they suggested reggae was a poor people’s music and the audience has no money. It was very offensive, a stigma that puts the genre in a hole,” Dalton told Billboard. “But I have traveled the world with Damian, we’ve seen how passionate the fans are, supporting the shows, buying the merchandise, so we knew it would work. People who are considering investing in reggae need success stories to look at and we pride ourselves on contributing new ways to keep the music alive and exciting; when the traditional markers don’t reflect reggae’s success, events like this cruise do.”
Welcome to Jamrock has proven so successful it has spawned two competitor reggae cruises. The Love and Harmony Cruise, a lovers’ rock affair headlined by beloved Jamaican singer Beres Hammond, will celebrate its third anniversary April 13-18, 2019; the inaugural Dream Weekend cruise, the at-sea extension of the popular series of dancehall parties held the first weekend in August in Negril, Jamaica, sails March 10-15, 2019. Dalton acknowledges imitation as the sincerest form of flattery, but nonetheless he is concerned about an oversaturated marketplace. “The objective is to see reggae music grow so bless them all, my only fear is that we could cannibalize each other because I am not sure what the market can bear,” he said. “Still, Jamrock appeals to a different audience because we encompass all music that falls under the reggae umbrella: ska, dancehall, dub, roots, and sound system clashes. No one does what we do and as we go into our fifth year, we have established a brand that people trust.”
The Jamrock cruise’s dependable, all-encompassing musical brand has yielded an impressive roster for their fifth anniversary celebration. Ziggy Marley joins his younger siblings Stephen, Julian, Ky-mani, and Damian, the first time the five Marley brothers have performed together on the cruise. A third generation of Marley talent, Stephen Marley’s son Jo Mersa Marley, will be performing too. Making their Jamrock debut, seminal ska outfit The Skatalites will back veteran singers Horace Andy, Ken Boothe and Leroy Sibbles. Mykal Rose, former lead singer of vocal trio Black Uhuru will be onboard for the first time backed by the renowned drum and bass/production duo who were essential to Black Uhuru’s international success in the early 1980s, Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare. Singer Tarrus Riley, who has put down spectacular sets on every Jamrock cruise, returns this year, as does vocalist Jah Cure, stalwart band Third World (whose forthcoming album is produced by Junior Gong), the much in demand millennial roots star Chronixx, who was outstanding in his 2016 Jamrock debut, and his contemporaries sing-jays Kabaka Pyramid and Jesse Royal.
Dancehall reggae is well represented by Aidonia, Agent Sasco, Dexta Daps, Konshens, seasoned crowd pleaser Elephant Man and the poor people’s governor Bounty Killer. Rising dancehall star Shenseea is one of three females on the lineup, alongside Rastafarian sing-jays Queen Ifrica and Jah9. Dancehall’s 1990s golden era is celebrated with a set by four of the decade’s most popular deejays (Jamaican rappers) Buccaneer, General Degree, Red Rat and Spragga Benz.
Legendary producer/sound system owner King Jammys returns with live dubbing of his productions, this time featuring artists with whom he worked closely in the late 80s-early 90s: deejay Admiral Bailey, and singers Pad Anthony, Bunny General, Johnny Osbourne and Pinchers. The Jamrock sound clash, perhaps the cruise’s most popular event, features four sound systems in a heated competition: Heavy Hammer from Italy, Jamaica’s Bass Odyssey, Renaissance and Tony Matterhorn. Japan’s Mighty Crown, who’ve won the clash each year since its 2015 inception, aren’t competing this time but they’ll be playing a special 1990s themed set on the ship’s promenade. Providing further insights into the life of Bob Marley, his former art director Neville Garrick and Damian’s mother Cindy Breakspeare will each give presentations about the years they spent with the reggae legend.
“We try to keep our lineup fresh, make sure we have credible acts to uphold the genre and as much as we can, share the culture of reggae and Jamaica within this environment,” notes Marley, who will perform a full set with his band, in addition to the Marley brothers’ set. “All of the artists involved are proud to see reggae presented on this platform and that shows in the caliber of their performances. From the participation of the fans, to the production to the people who run the boat, you can feel reggae’s positive vibrations.”
Here’s the complete lineup for the Welcome to Jamrock 5th Anniversary cruise:
Marley Brothers (Ziggy, Stephen, Julian, Ky-Mani, Damian)
Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley
Mykal Rose with Sly & Robbie
Jo Mersa Marley
Kingston 12 Hi-Fi
Selectors / Hosts