JAMAICA/USA: Nas & Damian Marley - Distant Relatives
Updated: Jan 20
Jam-packed with catchy and memorable songs, this hip hop reggae fusion album has a lot to offer both lyrically and musically
Sometimes an album can surprise you. Full disclosure here, I don’t like rap music very much, though there’s some I do like a lot, and, aside from a few Bob Marley songs, I really don’t like reggae. As much as it is unfair to write off a genre, that is what I had effectively done. So, it was a rather nice shock to discover that I liked this album quite a bit. I have my reservations regarding a few aspects, but overall Distant Relatives is pretty good.
"The lyrics don’t just speak about the glory of the past and the dire problems of the present, it also looks to the African diaspora as a way to bring about the better tomorrow it seeks."
Distant Relatives has a distinct through-line as an album, with plenty of food for thought, but let’s get the stuff I didn’t like out of the way first. Tribes at War and Strong Will Continue are tracks that I don’t particularly like, but they do have some interesting points. Tribes at War has interesting themes lyrically, but musically it’s a bit of a bore. It’s a song about the effects of colonisation, about the degradation that black people suffered, and the lyrics make it clear that the tribes in question could be either white people and black people, or it could be a reference to a lack of black or African unity.
Man what happened to us Geographically they moved us from Africa We was once happiness-pursuers Now we back stabbing, combative and abusive
This series of lyrics seems to direct the ‘tribal war’ at colonialism, which took black people out of Africa against their will, but Nas and Damian Marley go further in their analysis.
One: It's me and my nation against the world Two: Then me and my clan against the nation Three: Then me and my fam' against the clan Four: Then me and my brother we no hesitation, uh Go against the fam' until they cave in Five: Now who's left in this deadly equation? That's right, it's me against my brother Then we point a Kalashnikov And kill one another
This section of the song refers to the state of the current world we live in, and how institutionalised racism has been keeping black people divided, but also about how gangs have caused much bloodshed and tragedy too. As I say, an interesting but overly didactic song, and not one I like to listen to. Strong Will Continue is less interesting on both counts. It’s pretty much exactly what it says on the tin, and at six minutes long, it’s about three minutes too long. The first song, As We Enter, is fine, with interesting lyrics and a nice music sample from Mulatu Astatke, the Ethiopian jazz king, which is an indication of one of the major themes of the album, Pan-Africanism. That said, it’s nothing hugely special. Leaders is a slightly on-the-nose plea for leaders to change the world, whilst simultaneously bemoaning how hard it is to achieve real change. Musically it’s nice, though. This is my main issue with aspects of the album – the music seems to have been occasionally neglected on these tracks in favour of overly didactic lyrics about the themes of the album. However, from here on in, it’s plain sailing.
My favourite song on the album is by far Count Your Blessings. It may neither be the most profound song on the album, nor the one with the most interesting lyrics, but it is incredibly catchy. It also has a rather lovely message which can often be taken as a platitude. Even if that’s the case, in these times of heightened tension and fear, it’s a reassuring message to listen to. It’s exactly the kind of upbeat song I need right now. In His Own Words is another great song, where the music and lyrics combine together perfectly, and it is a synthesis of Marley’s more Rastafarian reggae stylings and Nas’s rapping about pertinent issues, ultimately coming together to make a rather spiritual song about acceptance in a higher power. Nas’s stark verses contrast with the Marley-sung choruses, where he sings the following:
Jah told you in his own words And I'll see you through To guide you through this cold world And I'll see you through
It gives the impression of a harsh, uncaring world, but of a faith in God that goes beyond the depravity ones sees in reality, which is a rather touching message and a good use of their disparate styles coming together in one song.
For me, however, the album reaches its zenith, thematically and musically in the last two songs, My Generation (not that one) and Africa Must Wake Up. The children’s choir in My Generation lends the song an extremely hopeful air that things will be better in the future, effectively hoping to consign the bleak realities that Nas sings about to the past. The song acknowledges the difficulties in change:
Because the elders sew the seed and it a germinate So anytime dem see the progress dem a celebrate Because we rising up despite of the economy And then a we a star the show like the astronomy And how we keep on breaking through is an anomaly
These few verses make it abundantly clear – real, positive change is hard fought and hard earned, but every victory is worth it for the young people it will continue to inspire to fight for even more progress in society.
Then, Africa Must Wake Up is the culmination of the other prevalent theme of the album, Pan-Africanism. It is a collaboration with a third artist, K’naan, a Somali-born American rapper who raps in his native language on the song. Once again, the spectre of colonialism is referenced, but the song is once again a mostly hopeful song, that in the future Africa will be able to break off the shackles of its past and relive its former glory, and the lyrics reflect that:
Ancient Africa the sacred Awaken the sleeping giant Science, Art is your creation I dreamt that we could visit Old Kemet Your history is too complex and rigid For some western critics They want the whole subject diminished But Africa's the origin of all the world's religions
Again, the suffering of Africa is put into its necessary context, but the achievements of the continent are praised. The Kemet referenced there is the ancient name of the Egyptian civilisation, one of the most advanced in the ancient world, and thus another reference to Africa’s past. However, the lyrics don’t just speak about the glory of the past and the dire problems of the present, it also looks to the African diaspora as a way to bring about the better tomorrow it seeks. It overall is a hopeful song, and the tone of much of the album is hopeful, but it’s the spoken word portion that makes this concrete. As Nas says, wherever we come from, we’re all originally from Africa, and thus all the distant relatives of the album title.
Overall, this is an album that is musically, lyrically and thematically ambitious, and it largely succeeds. There’s moments that lack subtlety or musical invention, but in general this isn’t the case, and the talents of the two artists work together sublimely to form an album that has so much to say about topics as wide-ranging as Pan-Africanism, colonialism, poverty, lack of opportunities, the struggle for change and the universality of the human condition.