Josh David Barrett of The Wailers
It’s hard to pinpoint another touring musician who has bigger shoes to fill right now than Josh David Barrett.
For the past three years, Barrett has been singing lead vocals for The Wailers, the legendary reggae band that backed Bob Marley from 1974 until his untimely death in 1981, and whose mastery of laid-back island grooves helped sell more than 100 million recordings worldwide.
It’s hardly lost on Barrett that, as a musician, he is in an extraordinarily esteemed and yet possibly precarious situation: performing with the world’s most recognized reggae band where once stood an artist that The New York Times suggested “may the most influential musician in the second half of the [20th] century” —the same artist who wrote all but one-half of a song on Exodus, a reggae masterpiece that Time Magazine declared “Best Album of the Century.”
At the same time, it’s not like Barrett was simply a name randomly picked from a hat-full of possible Bob Marley replacements. Sure, it helped that Barrett is a distant cousin of longtime Wailers bandleader Aston “Familyman” Barrett and that two previous additions to the band were descendants of original members. But of equal importance, Josh David Barrett already had made a name for himself as a multi-instrumentalist, recording and performing with other multi-talents such as Kanye, Stevie Wonder and Quincy Jones.
“My musical journey has been a long and blessed one,” Barrett says. “I’m grateful to have all those experiences to add to this current one.”
Barrett is looking forward to The Wailers’ new release on Feb. 6—Bob Marley’s birthday and just two days before the band’s much-anticipated performance at The Queen in Wilmington, a town Marley once called home.
We spoke to Barrett by phone last month, and here is what he had to say—in his Jamaican accent—about his upbringing, his outlook with The Wailers, and his Rastafari faith.
O&A: You were really on your way before you joined The Wailers. As a competent and up-and-coming musician you played with artists like Common, Mary J. Blige, Q-Tip and Solange. Which musical experience was the most important to you before joining The Wailers?
Barrett: I would have to say growing up and playing in church because I feel spiritual music is the essence of Rasta music as a brand of reggae. When one says reggae music, I want to think Rasta. It’s the spiritual “one love, one God, one aim, one destiny.” That is what we inspire and aspire to bring to the people. I think that is the most important part of my upbringing: that togetherness, that oneness, that making one sound giving glory to the Most High, Jah Rastafari.
O&A: You make a direct connection between [your upbringing] and what you are doing now. What does that connection mean to you? What does singing in The Wailers mean to you?
Barrett: Well, it means a lot because reggae music has three elements where we speak of as Rasta: word, song and power. The word is the message; the sound is the music; and the power is when we come together and sing and dance, as Bob Marley said, jammin’ in the name of the Lord.
That is what I find most valuable, that unity, how it brings people together throughout the four corners of the world. Seeing how it inspires people and liberates people—to be a messenger of that is a joy. To me, that is the greatest job me could ever have.
O&A: I know there are a lot of other reggae artists, and I’m not trying to diminish any of their roles. But Bob Marley is the king of reggae. How did you feel about trying to step into that role at first?
Barrett: I hold a great deal of respect for the legacy of Bob Marley and The Wailers. For years I felt the best way I could express my appreciation was through music—my own music—with which I’d formed a band called Judah Tribe with [other musicians]. Through that, we were able to express our joys, our woes and our great appreciation for this great work, the great message, Rastafari. So it was a natural progression.
Learning and understanding every day the magnitude of [Bob Marley] being the first one to do this great work, to make it reach where it did reach, is very important. And I understand, just a little bit, about the pressure that Bob Marley and the Wailers had to go through. I mean they were shot at for this music, for this struggle.
And I understand not everybody love reggae music or love Rastas when you are out there saying “one love.” So we’re out there to encourage those who love justice and hate aggression and counteract all the works of evil that seek to divide humanity.
O&A: How do you see the music you are performing fitting in with what’s going on in our country and throughout the world?
Barrett: As much as we love this music, this music and this struggle was born out of protest. While there is a joy to singing these songs, ina myself, I wish we didn’t have to sing these songs. But this message is still needed. Not all of it—some of it is more joyous. But when you sing “Them Belly Full” or “Heathen,” those are things we have to sing because we still see it prevalent on Earth. So the music is needed, and the message is needed.
The world I don’t feel is balanced. And if we are not wise, we’ll end up going backwards. All of us must take it upon ourselves to be a living example, be a Bob Marley, wherever you are in your sphere, in your work. It’s gonna take that to win this struggle.
O&A: Where would you like to see this go, playing with The Wailers? Do you have any long-term goals?
Barrett: Wow… I have a dream that one day The Wailers will play in Ethiopia when the royal dynasty of Emperor Haile Selassie and Empress Menen is restored. That would be a glorious day, and I would love to be there as a participant in this great affair and blessing being that, for Rasta, Ethiopian history is crucial. We don’t want to convert anyone, but correct the abuse. We want to see that world power, that knowledge, that grace, restored in Ethiopia with we, the singers and players of instruments to celebrate this great occasion.
Catch Josh David Barrett and The Wailers at The Queen on Thursday, Feb. 8, for what will surely be a memorable performance. For details, go to TheQueenWilmington.com.