Reggae SumFest is the world's premier annual event for reggae music. The three-night festival, which took place in Jamaica's Montego Bay in July, attracts thousands of fans each summer. It's a who's who of reggae music: established names, up-and-coming acts and one or two American performers from the hip-hop and R&B worlds.
SumFest was launched in 1993 shortly after Sunsplash, Jamaica's famous long-running music festival, went belly up. The event has been a hit ever since, but it took on added meaning this year because of the violence surrounding the recent search for alleged Jamaican drug lord Christopher "Dudus" Coke. Some 73 people were killed in Kingston prior to Coke's apprehension in June. Reggae artist Queen Ifrica says that, in the wake of the government-declared state of emergency, all eyes were on SumFest.
"A lot of people were looking to see what the turnout of the audience was going to be, in terms of everybody being so tense over the past couple of months with the activities that went on," the singer says. "It's a good sign to see that people still wanted to come out and to enjoy themselves, and to take a break from watching the news and being sad."
The troubles in Kingston hit Jamaicans hard, as many depend on tourism for their income. Jason Hall, a deputy director at the Jamaica Tourist Board, says the industry was deeply affected.
"We, over the past two months, have had a challenge dealing with our public image overseas," Hall says. "And what an event such as SumFest does is it reinforces the message to people that this is really what Jamaica is."
Success At SumFest
Turnout for Reggae SumFest was high this year, with many traveling to see festival headliners who are otherwise unable to tour stateside because they lack U.S. visas. Sometimes it's because of a criminal record, but there are also more ambiguous reasons. In May, five high-profile Jamaican artists had their visas revoked by the U.S. embassy, reportedly with no explanation.
Some speculated it was a means of pressuring the Jamaican government to cooperate with the Coke extradition. Others blamed it on the lyrical content of the music many of them sing: dancehall. Like its cousin, hip-hop, dancehall details the struggles of ghetto life with often harsh and violent lyrics.
Veteran Jamaican artist Bounty Killer, who performed at the first SumFest, was one of the five artists who lost visas.
"My music is rebel music," he says. "It's a no-nonsense music; it's saying something. It can be harsh at times, but it means something. And sometimes, coming across harsh -- that's how you get through to our type of people."
Dancehall's roots trace back to the Kingston street dances of the 1950s, when MCs chatted bombastically over songs, imitating American radio disc jockeys. The genre is now characterized by studio-produced beats over which toasters or DJs chat, usually in thick patois, about subjects ranging from girls and guns to politics and poverty.
"One of my most powerful songs is 'Poor People Fed Up,' because it never said anything negative or violent," Bounty Killer says. "[T]hey banned it, because it was so real to what the country was going through in 1995 that the government [found] it as an offense ... so sometimes they just ban the truth."
The government didn't need to ban the song, though. Bounty says his audiences sometimes grew tired of social messages.
"It was a time when I was singing about social issues, and people were acting like it's boring," he says. " 'I don't want to hear about my struggle. I don't want to hear about my problems.' So I was saying, 'Okay.' I'm going to leave the people to do themselves, and I'm going to do me and be done with that."
Socially Conscious Reggae
On the other side of the Jamaican musical spectrum is roots, or conscious, reggae, which annually dominates the second and third nights of SumFest. Musically, it's more in line with the Bob Marley school of sound with which international audiences are familiar. Many roots artists are Rastafarian, as Marley was.
Montego Bay native Queen Ifrica got her start at SumFest, when she entered an amateur contest that landed her onstage in 1995. She released her acclaimed debut last year. Ifrica takes on serious subject matter, such as sexual abuse and Jamaica's high murder rate.
"I choose to talk about subjects and topics that are relevant to everyday life," she says. "Like, for instance, bleaching is a very serious problem here in Jamaica -- and in the Caribbean, but Jamaica to a larger extent -- where you have women and also men who are working overtime at bleaching away their complexions. I will sing about that topic in detail."
Reggae artists may be entertainers, but they're also teachers, leaders and news commentators. SumFest is their biggest annual caucus.
"[SumFest] is not just about entertainment for a lot of people," Ifrica says. "I can testify to that, because when I come offstage, the things they say to me -- they hear everything you say onstage and they take it with them when they leave. So I don't take stuff like that for granted."