Reggae Sumfest Gave One Jamaican-American More Than The Intended Irie Riddim
Montego Bay’s Catherine Hall Event Centre began to buzz at a quarter to midnight. The sun had long retired, with the moon taking up residence in the pitch-black sky, yet most attendees were awake with anticipation for Reggae Sumfest 2019’s major headliner. All, however, but one.
“Mi nuh like ow Buju perform,” one man defiantly said in patois. Donning a blue-and-white plaid shirt, the freckle-faced concertgoer sat on a hot pink couch inside the Jamaican Tourism Board’s VIP lounge and audaciously critiqued the entertainer.
A playful quarrel ensued between the two as their argument was quickly drowned out by the blaring music.
Buju Banton’s return to the stage has been met with overwhelming praise. After serving seven years inside a federal prison for drug and gun charges, the 47-year-old Grammy Award winner has made up for lost time with his Long Walk To Freedom tour while performing throughout the Caribbean. It would be another five hours before the lanky 6’2” dreddy would hit the stage, so for now, Mr. Freckles’ blasphemy would go unchecked.
For 27 years, Montego Bay has been home to the reggae music festival, which willingly opens its arms to all who enjoy the music, so it’s not surprising to bump into travelers from Holland, Japan, and the States. However, if you want to partake in the glory of the chunes dem, you must journey to MoBay.
“Reggae is our ownable asset. No one else can own reggae,” Donovan White, JTB’s director of tourism said. “Jamaica is the heartbeat of the world and Sumfest is a manifestation of our musical heritage. We are so proud of who we are and our contributions through music. When the rest of the world is looking for something that makes their heart throb, they look to Jamaica.”
However, looking away from Jamaica, ironically, was a lot of what my own childhood consisted of. Like most immigrant parents, my mother traveled to America in hopes to earn her piece of the American dream. She wanted her daughter to have a different life than the one she fled from, and in the process assimilated, only speaking patois in the home and perfecting her best New York accent out and about.
Kingston 13’s Bartley Lane (my mother’s childhood stomping grounds) was never spoken of in high regard. Montego Bay was always viewed as the country from her city girl vantage point, and Jamaica was a place she was born, but not home. So for me, venturing to Montego Bay was just supposed to be an escape from the rat race and constant crescendo of New York City life. Instead, it ignited questions about the island I never had before.
What’s wrong with Kingston?
Why don’t I know more about Jamaica?
What did Jamaica do to not earn my mother’s outward love and pride?
The first time I went to Jamaica I was four years old and made the journey with my aunt Lavern, who for all intents and purposes is my surrogate father. (Rumor has it when I was just days old, I threw up in the car ride home from the hospital. I cannot confirm or deny such scathing allegations.)
Visiting Jamaica didn’t have any effect on me as a kid. I wasn’t astute enough to pick up on the lifestyle or economic differences between the island and America. I would only realize just how polar opposite my life was compared to the life distant family members lived when I returned as a teen to visit my grandfather.
I saw the unfinished roads and the shanty house my mother grew up in, and just a few miles away from the dilapidated Bartley Lane, stood the luxury and beauty of the Pegasus Hotel. The grass was green, manicured and plush. The roads paved. Kingston’s visitors were treated better than the city’s inhabitants, but I was an adolescent who didn’t grasp the blatant disregard. It would be a year later when I returned for my grandfather’s funeral that I was taken aback by how much I had compared to what little many in Kingston had to make do with.
I never thought too much about Jamaica after that, nor did I have a pressing desire to reconnect with the island. So when the Jamaica Tourism Board invited myself along with several other scribes to write about the festival and the country, I found the task odd, as if I have to convince people to visit and partake in the almost 30-year-old festivities. But alas, I will remind readers that to smell like the Jamaican sun is an honor, that the culture and curry are unmatched, and that Jamaicans were the sole proprietor of the word “ting” long before Drake was born or made it mainstream.
Being in Montego Bay for Sumfest was a rooted experience. It felt good to walk throughout the center and see oceans of black and brown people who grew up not eating Wheaties for breakfast but instead ackee and saltfish with fried dumplings, plantain, and steamed banana. The week-long festival with non-stop parties (or bear bashment, as we Jamaicans often say) that culminated in two days of performances from the world’s brightest reggae entertainers was a mere backdrop to what became an unintended connection to my mother’s home.
Blackness is universal and while black people were stolen mostly from the shores of West Africa and settled all over the world, we’re more similar than different. Jamaicans are an especially colorful crop of people who’ve only been free from British rule for little more than half a century, (Aug. 6, 2019, will mark 57 years of independence) and despite the island’s issues, we’re a loving and intentional community energized by the sun and the homegrown Blue Mountain coffee.
The pride and sheer will of fellow yardies can be seen in the details like the crow’s feet accessorizing the corner of a woman’s eye as she balances a bowl of bananas on her head and leisurely goes about her day. Nothing will stop her from reaching her destination, bananas and all.
And while Jamaica is one of many islands within the Caribbean, there is no other that is as rightfully boasty. We know our culture has had a global impact and we intentionally used reggae as a vehicle. You can try to convince a yahd man there’s a better island than Jamaica, but it would just be that, a fool’s try.
While Beenie Man, Bounty Killa, Spice, Chronixx, Koffee and others performed, I felt at ease in a place I only last visited when laying my grandfather to rest. Jamaica, unlike the many times before, became an opportunity to feel connected to a home I didn’t know I had. Contrary to what some political leaders will have you believe, I was eager to “go back” to where my family came from because at least there I could learn and build upon a legacy.
Mr. Freckles never returned to the VIP section. His sacrilegious comment about Buju may have tired him out, and who can blame him? Protoge took the stage at about 1 a.m. and by the time Mr. Mark Anthony Myrie skanked across the stage, the night sky had been replaced by a strawberry and mango sunrise.
“Me want to walk like a champion/Talk like a champion/ What a piece of body gal/ Tell me where you get it from/Knock ‘pon your entrance/Ram pa pa pam pam/Gal let me in/ Me have a thing that you are waiting.”
Buju’s endurance, energy, and charisma was met with a gracious, welcoming crowd equally eager to hear his beloved rusty growl reverberate throughout the center. There was no need to explain, defend or dissect the feeling of his performance, or the festival or MoBay. It felt right. It felt safe.
It felt like home.