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Beyond Reggae Sumfest: The 'festivalisation' of Jamaica's music and cities

Donovan Watkis

Sunday, July 30, 2017

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Jamaican popular music has a rich history of performance-based competitions and shows that have produced many stars. The Jamaica Cultural Development Commission's (JCDC) slate of competitions, the Tastee Talent Trail, Magnum Kings and Queens of Dancehall, and Digicel's Rising Stars have all produced some of the top Grammy winners and entertainers out of Jamaica. Jamaica's most renowned musician, Bob Marley, first performed on Darling Street's 'Testing' competition and received one pound sterling as the winner, which was how his musical career started. In recent times, however, there has been much dialogue on the dollar value of a Jamaican recording artiste to major record labels and the music industry.

Of note, the JCDC omitted its popular song competition as part of its national cultural celebrations this year, citing weak entries and shifting the budget towards a “tribute album”. The statistics will also show that the Jamaican brand of reggae and dancehall is not close to a competitive level on the charts when sung by the Jamaican artistes.

All this while, many veteran and new Jamaican artistes headline sold-out concerts, multi-day festivals, and other events here in Jamaica and all over the world. Chronixx recently said during his interview on Hot97 of his sold-out events in the USA while on tour that 9,000 people came to see him at one of his events. But, according to Billboard's chart, Chronixx's album Chronology only managed to sell just above 2,000 records in its first week of release. This was after he got numerous promotional spots on Jimmy Fallon and other popular media outlets to bring attention to his music.

Why are the people who attend the shows not willing to dip into their pockets and purchase the records released by the Jamaican artistes?

One may argue that the audience who loves reggae music and dancehall music has not become sophisticated enough with the latest streaming or downloading options such as Spotify or Tidal, and so they do not care to consume the music on those platforms. We may also blame the local copyright governing bodies for not signing on to the Madrid protocol — which is an international copyrighters' agreement that allows artistes to earn royalties in the Caribbean from digital sales among other channels. Currently, Jamaican artistes are unable to collect digital royalties from iTunes in the Caribbean because iTunes radio and playlists are not available in the region. Of note, Canada is also yet to sign the same agreement, but Drake, who is a Canadian, is the top-selling hip hop act in the world.

Despite all of these setbacks and cultural nuances, Jamaican artistes still manage to deliver the best shows and make some of the most inspiring music for the world. Recently I saw Beenie Man, Sizzla and Jah Cure entertain the crowd at a world-class level at the Reggae Sumfest 2017, for over an hour each. Their sets didn't require any lights or backdrop fanfare because they performed in the early morning sunlight. It was more than spectacular to watch them with just a band, a stage, the audience, and a mic.

This undisputed vocal control, presence and performance quality possessed by many Jamaican artistes have made many people want to experience a Jamaican festival in person. It is a quality that is not fully transferable to the studio audio recording. As a result, reggae music consumers are willing to find the free version of an album that costs US$10, but less willing to forgo the spend of US$70 for an event that is also available online for free.

Producing a Jamaican reggae festival then becomes much easier than anywhere else in the world if there is a demand for high-level performances on the island. If people are willing to attend a reggae festival that is also live-streamed, there is no reason Jamaica's cities and major cultural should not have more festivals at different times of the year. The music festivals that currently happen in Jamaica are Rebel Salute and Reggae Sumfest — both bringing their own energies and problems to the cities and towns they inhabit, such as traffic, crime, and drugs.

They also bring tangible solutions that can bring pride and economic benefit to the communities in which they exist that would not be possible without the festivals. Festivals are attractive to visitors, and visitors spend money which goes beyond the walls of the festival venue. Hometown pride is important for building any community and will make locals and visitors speak well of their experience in the particular city or town.

Jamaica's recording music industry is terribly lacking in organisation for international competitiveness, but as long as the artistes are performing, people are always willing to attend. The development of music in this festive fashion is capable of revitalising the dormant and detached communities in Jamaica. Some may argue that the immediate need is for more concrete structures, hospitals and schools, and not some random investment in a one-night or a one-week intangible event. My answer to this is to go deeper, and if you assess the impact of festivals that respond to the needs of the community we will come to appreciate the long-lasting effects on the adjoining industries with a much lesser initial capital spend.

Culturally, the Jamaican people generally have a need to connect with others in their community, and with visitors alike. We have a history of gathering for celebrations with family and friends. When a reggae festival brings the opportunity for a shared experience, the unity more often than not makes people less likely to kill one another over petty disputes. Deals are made and relationships developed. People feel like family when they have common interests.

We Jamaicans also love to have a “sense of occasion”. The euphoric nature of a major occasion makes us feel a sense of ritualistic order just to be at the event. That sense of ritual created with festivals give lasting memories, and good memories develop our self-esteem which will make Jamaicans and visitors alike become better versions of themselves.

Naming or theming the festival can also create experimental learning parallels in our social classroom. Experiences that provide education encourage greater connection to the location and help people from outside the community to develop greater empathy towards those living in the communities.

If the success of Reggae Sumfest is any example to go by, the artistes, Government, and other festival producers should look towards liberalising the development of Jamaica's music industry one community at a time. With weekly or monthly live festivals that are unique to each community, new life could be injected into the whole country. The artistes would have more spaces to rehearse, and there would be an improvement in the quality of artistic output from their recordings and performances. It is in our nature to sing, to dance, and to celebrate. So why not make community building a more holistic experience, where people will be genuinely interested in their development through regular festivals for the benefit of all — beyond the overarching Reggae Sumfest?

Donovan Watkis is an author. His latest book is Coloring Culture: A Kaleidoscopic Anthology Of Essays. Send comments to the Observer or coloringculture@gmail.com.

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