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Ky-Mani Marley headlines return of Reggae in the Desert

His career began with a letter to God, written in song, addressed to his deceased father.

The song in question: “Dear Dad,” one of the first tunes Ky-Mani Marley ever wrote.

“Dear Dad, I really didn’t get to know you / Sometimes I sit and wonder and it makes me blue,” Marley sings in a voice more searching than sad. “But there is one memory that stays on the back of my mind / And this memory got me thinking ’bout you all the time.”

Dad, of course, is reggae legend Bob Marley, a titan of song and a jukebox staple wherever a jukebox can be found.

Ky-Mani, the 10th of 11 children acknowledged on Bob Marley’s official website, was but 5 years old when his father died in 1981 from cancer at age 36.

“I have one memory of my father,” the 46-year-old recalls in a recent phone interview, “just being in the countryside, with him and my older brother Stephen. I keep that memory very dear to my heart.”

That memory continues to inform the artist that Ky-Mani has become.

This weekend, he headlines Reggae in the Desert, the all-day, everything-Caribbean festival that returns to the Clark County Amphitheater after a two-year pandemic hiatus.

Marley will top a deep lineup that also includes “Electric Boogie” queen Marcia Griffiths, perhaps reggae’s most influential female performer, former Black Uhuru singer Don Carlos, dancehall singjay Mr. Vegas, roots reggae lifers The Wailing Souls and more.

For Marley, it can all be traced back to a single song, really.

“When I wrote ‘Dear Dad’ and saw the reaction I got from people and how much it touched them, me telling a part of my personal story,” he recalls, “I knew there was some magic in the music.”

A reluctant musician

Bob Marley used to say that if you really wanted to get to know him, you had a play a game of football — or soccer, as we call it on these shores — with him and his band.

Growing up, Ky-Mani was equally sports obsessed.

Yes, music was in his blood.

No, that wasn’t what he thought he’d do with his life.

He wanted to be an athlete.

“Music was always in me, but it wasn’t my focus,” he explains. “As a kid, junior high school and high school, I played the trumpet in the school band; I took piano lessons here and there.

“I was always attached to music somehow,” he continues, “but being an artist wasn’t my focus. I was more about playing football — American football — and football as the world knows it.”

But then one day a buddy of his who owned a sound system in Marley’s native Jamaica came to him with an out-of-the-blue request.

“With sound systems, they tend to get what they call ‘dub plates’ or ‘specials’ from artists, which is a song tailored to your sound,” Marley says. “So a friend of mine said that he wanted me to give him a dub plate, and I said to him, ‘I don’t sing. It’s not what I do.’ And he says, ‘It doesn’t matter; you’re Bob’s son, so give me one anyway.’”

During the recording session, Marley caught the ear of a producer who happened to work with his father back in the day.

“He says, ‘Oh man, you’ve got a nice tone. You should come to the studio some time,’” Marley remembers.

About three weeks later, he did just that.

An artist was born.

All the feels

When he was 9 years old, Ky-Mani moved to Miami with his mother, Anita Belnavis, a Jamaican table tennis champion.

One of his first culture shocks?

The breadth of the American airwaves.

“I remember at that time in Jamaica, we only had one radio station,” Marley says. “When I got here, my mom bought me a boombox. I plugged it in, and I tuned in to the first radio station I found. I thought that this was the only radio station in America as well — not knowing there were maybe hundreds more. I thought, ‘This is the only radio station, since we only had one in Jamaica.’”

The format of said station: soft rock.

That’s right, the future reggae headliner cut his teeth in the realm of Air Supply and Peter Cetera.

Then Mom bought him his first album, a Run-DMC record.

“I fell in love with hip-hop,” Marley says. “For me, just being in love with music and a student of music, I gravitated to all these different feels.”

You can hear as much in Marley’s discography, which spans seven studio albums beginning with 1996’s “Like Father Like Son.”

Marley’s vocals range from buttery to bombastic, his catalog initially rooted in traditional reggae but expanding to encompass hip-hop, especially on 2007’s “Radio,” as well as R&B, pop rock and more.

Though it’s been six years since he last dropped an album, Marley notes that he’s sitting on abundance of material that reflects this range — some of which he intends to air at Reggae in the Desert.

“I have so much music recorded that’s not been released yet,” he says. “I have so much singer-songwriter, guitar, folk, soft rock vibes that the world hasn’t heard yet. That’s coming shortly.

“As a matter of fact,” he continues, “on the show coming up, we’re going to touch on a few different feels and see what the crowd thinks about it.”

Reggae in the Desert is posited on good vibes — after a two-year layoff, expect those vibes to be amplified in unison with the instruments on stage.

“I’m just glad we’re going again and live music is back out, people are gathering again and just sharing that experience and that vibration,” Marley says. “I think over the years, we had (shows) so often that we kind of took that for granted. And losing that for, like, two years and being able just to come back and be around good music and good people, you definitely see the appreciation.

“You can feel that energy,” he adds, “and the love in the air.”

Contact Jason Bracelin at jbracelin@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0476. Follow @jbracelin76 on Instagram

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