Reggae Sumfest Celebrates Jamaica at 50

At the Olympics opening ceremonies, commentators repeatedly pointed out all the competing countries that belonged to the British Commonwealth once upon a time. In fact, a photo of the stern-faced Queen, captioned with “Look at all these countries I used to own,” rapidly became a viral Internet meme.

August 6, 2012 marks 50 years of Jamaica’s independence from England, and the Caribbean nation has a slew of “Jamaica 50” events scheduled for the month. But an irie precursor to these upcoming emancipation celebrations began in late July with the 20th annual Reggae Sumfest, a series of spectacular all-night concerts at the Bob Marley Entertainment Centre in Montego Bay.

Billed as "the Greatest Reggae Show on Earth," the Reggae Sumfest brought together reggae, dancehall and American R&B greats for three nights of shows that all lasted 'till sunrise. Damian Marley, Lady Saw, Shabba Ranks, Bounty Killer, Trey Songz, Beenie Man, R. Kelly, Bunny Wailer and dozens of others performed scintillating extended sets like a string of headlining acts. The outdoor space teemed with thousands of reggae lovers dressed for the summertime Jamaican heat, lighting aerosol flamethrowers (and marijuana cigarettes), blowing air horns and shooting off firecrackers. Bikini-clad promoters for Digicel—the Caribbean cellular network and Reggae Sumfest sponsor—sashayed through the grounds, which included plenty of booths for other sponsors, like Bad 25 (the 25th anniversary re-release of Michael Jackson’s popular album), Pepsi and Jamaica’s The Gleaner newspaper.

Summerfest Productions, promoters of Reggae Sumfest, honored Grammy-winning dancehall legend Lady Saw with two Ten Commandments-sized plaques and a crown for her title as "the Queen of Dancehall" during the opening Dancehall Night. The coronation followed her sanitized, abbreviated performances of raunchy hits like “Stab Up de Meat.” Profanity from any performer, even Lady Saw, would result in expensive fines from the Jamaican authorities.

Spice, Konshens, Sham, Popcaan and more took the stage on Dancehall Night and burned it down one after the other. Bounty Killer closed the night at close to six in the morning without a hitch. (He’s been arrested twice at prior performances.) The following Friday night, Shabba Ranks returned to the Reggae Sumfest stage for the first time since 2001. Though his last studio album, Get Up Stand Up, dropped 14 years ago, Shabba remains the world’s most popular dancehall star from international hits like “Mr. Loverman,” “Telephone Love” and “Twice My Age.” The Sumfest crowd rejoiced in his return with plenty of fireworks and slow-winding hips.

“Being independent is one of the most substantial tings any human being in this world could have,” said Shabba backstage, discussing Jamaica 50. “Marcus Garvey tell I-and-I about self-reliance. When you be independent, it’s like you be utterly in ambition, focus [and] progressive elements.”

Trey Songz brought some modern rhythm and blues to the Sumfest, riffing on Marvin Gaye and Bob Marley classics amidst his own hits like “Bottoms Up.” Billed as the Rihanna of dancehall, 14-year-old Bahamian pop newbie Angelique Sabrina stormed the stage lip-synching with a bevy of backup dancers. But her appearance underwhelmed when compared to more seasoned contemporary reggae singers like Tessanne Chin and Tarrus Riley. A Jamaica 50 tribute including vets King Yellowman and U-Roy closed the night five-something in the a.m.

R. Kelly, followed by Damian Marley, killed the final night of Reggae Sumfest with song catalogs everyone present knew and loved. Marley, dreadlocks grown down to his ankles, commanded the stage with girlfriend Cristal Chaitram and their two-year-old, Elijah, looking on from the wings.

Other official Jamaica 50 events include a freedom festival, a world reggae dance festival, an independence exposition, and much more. For everything scheduled, check out the www.jamaica50.com calendar of celebratory events.