Reggae SumFest Thrives Despite Violence In Jamaica The three-night festival, held in Jamaica's Montego Bay this past July, is the world's premier event for reggae music. It attracts thousands of fans each summer and features both big names and up-and-coming performers.
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Reggae SumFest Thrives Despite Violence In Jamaica

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Reggae SumFest Thrives Despite Violence In Jamaica

Reggae SumFest Thrives Despite Violence In Jamaica

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ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

That was certainly the case earlier this summer at Reggae SumFest, the world's premier reggae festival. Baz Dreisinger was there and has this report.

BAZ DREISINGER: It's 4 in the morning, but at Reggae SumFest, the night is still young.

U: SumFest, make some noise!

DREISINGER: The setting is a giant field surrounded by booths, and vendors selling everything from Red Stripe beer and jerk chicken to local art and reggae CDs.

U: Now put your hands on your heart. Now put your hands to the sky.

DREISINGER: Some 73 people were killed in Kingston prior to Coke's arrest in June. Reggae artist Queen Ifrica says that in the wake of the government-declared state of emergency, eyes were on SumFest.

M: Lots of people were looking to see what the turnout of the audiences would be like. It's a good sign to see that people still wanted to come out and to take a break from, you know, just watching the news and being sad.

DREISINGER: The troubles in Kingston hit Jamaicans hard; many depend on tourism for their income. Jason Hall, a deputy director at the Jamaica Tourist Board, says the industry was deeply affected.

M: We've had a challenge with dealing with our image, our public image overseas. And what an event such as SumFest does is it really reinforces the message to people: This is really what Jamaica is.

DREISINGER: From the looks of the packed venue, SumFest seems to have pulled this off. But people were also watching the festival this year because many of its headliners now can't be seen stateside; they lack U.S. visas.

SIEGEL: dancehall.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DREISINGER: Like its cousin hip-hop, dancehall details the struggles of ghetto life with often harsh, violent lyrics.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

U: (Singing) Well, in this part of town, survival is my will. For you to stay alive, you've got to rap and kill.

DREISINGER: Veteran Jamaican artist Bounty Killer, who performed at the very first SumFest, was one of the five artists who lost visas.

M: My music is a no-nonsense music. My style is rebel music. It can be harsh at times, but it means something. And sometimes, coming across harsh, that's how you get to our type of people.

DREISINGER: 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.

M: One of my most powerful songs is "Poor People Fed Up" because it never said anything negative or violent. It said poor people fed up, and they banned it. So, sometime they just ban the truth.

DREISINGER: On the other side of the Jamaican musical spectrum is roots, or conscious reggae, which dominates the second and third nights of SumFest every year. Musically, it's more in line with the Bob Marley school of sound that international audiences know well.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DREISINGER: Montego Bay native Queen Ifrica released her acclaimed debut last year.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

M: (Singing) When the road is hollow, I'll be standing taller to face the darkest and the hardest of times.

DREISINGER: Ifrica got her start at SumFest when she entered an amateur contest that landed her on stage in 1995.

M: I was pleased. That was it, to be onstage. That was like heaven.

DREISINGER: Ifrica takes on serious subject matter like sexual abuse and Jamaica's high murder rate.

M: I choose these topics because if we're saying that we want to have a better society, then we have to look at the ills of society.

DREISINGER: So in Jamaica, music is about more than just music. Reggae artists are entertainers but they're also teachers, leaders, news commentators. And SumFest is their biggest annual caucus.

M: It's not just about entertainment for a lot of people. 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.

DREISINGER: For NPR News, I'm Baz Dreisinger.

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