Diversifying Reggae on the River
Article by Jay Steinberg
Photos by Lee Abel Photography
Approaching Reggae on the River from Highway 101, I could feel the intense vibes radiating from the bank of the Eel River. It was my first year attending what the veterans of this festival call “Reggae” after years of hearing about it at other, smaller California reggae festivals. Attendees of Reggae would describe it to me as the ultimate roots and culture reggae show. Even Justin Crellin, the general manager and talent coordinator of the event, described Reggae as, “at one point, one of the larger music festivals around, certainly the largest reggae music festival.” With 33 years of history and popularity, this festival has a huge influence on the direction of reggae music.
That said, it appeared that this year the organizers were choosing to highlight more of the west coast reggae sound, with their choice of Stick Figure as one of Friday’s headliners and Slightly Stoopid as Saturday night’s headlining act. With festival culture proliferating, when does including what is considered popular in reggae music hinder the very origins of Reggae that the veteran attendees cherish?
When speaking with Crellin, the word “diversity” kept coming up in our conversation. Typically, diversity is considered a positive trait, and something that many, including the organizers of Reggae, strive for. But for a festival that has been predominantly featuring roots artists and international performers, diversifying the lineup by including more west coast artists is being seen as an unwelcome change by many Reggae veterans. Being that this festival is a fundraiser for the Mateel Community Center, it makes sense that the organizers are focusing their attention on what is popular in reggae music, particularly with the younger generation of fans. “You need to be appealing to that younger generation in order to stay relevant,” Crellin explained. “It’s not the same people that are attending now that were thirty-three years ago. We have probably gone through several generations of fans.” This change in the audience was very evident Saturday.
Saturday afternoon, Nkulee Dube took to the stage with both original work and tributes to her father, late South African reggae legend Lucky Dube. There were moments during her set where her stage presence matched that of her father’s perfectly, bringing back memories of her father’s performances. However, not many people were in the audience to witness the magic happening during Nkulee’s set. She was not the only artist on Saturday not getting the attention deserved.
Culture alongside Kenyatta Hill, son of the late singer Joseph Hill, performed to a sparse crowd. The heat of the afternoon was partially to blame for the lack of an audience during these captivating sets, but I also observed that many of the younger attendees of Reggae were more interested in the parties happening along the river rather than the performances on the stage. Some groups were even playing their own music off loud speakers, drowning out the music coming from the stage with a selection of west coast reggae sounding tunes. It wasn’t until Slightly Stoopid came on later that evening that these groups along the river turned their speakers off and migrated to the main stage. Many fans of west coast reggae attending the festival seem to be unaware of the history behind the other artists who performed that weekend. Crellin believes that “in order to turn the younger fans on to some of the more traditional roots reggae music, it’s important to feature some of the west coast talent as a way to not only honor their contribution to where reggae music is today but also turn those younger fans on to the real roots that created reggae music as we know it today.” But how are they supposed to gain an appreciation for roots reggae if they aren’t even listening to the artists perform? It seems like this attempt to diversify the lineup is taking the attention away from the very artists that these west coast performers are influenced by.
Another factor that is affecting the lineup choices for Reggae is the increased travel restrictions occurring in America. The audience witnessed this complication when Kabaka Pyramid was unable to perform with his band, the Bebble Rockers over the weekend, and instead performed with Walshy Fire Thursday and Yaadcore on Friday. Crellin remained positive with what came out of the unfortunate issue with Bebble Rockers’ Visas, stating, “that was an attempt for us to showcase a little bit more of, I hesitate to say, EDM side of Reggae music. Walshy Fire’s connection with Major lazer and him being a DJ producer represents a different side of reggae music and we were really excited to include that on the bill because it is an important factor in reggae music.” With electronic reggae music gaining popularity within the younger generations of reggae fans, I understand why the organizers would want to include more DJ acts on the bill. But is this shift causing Reggae to lose its fundamentals?
In a genre that is predominantly male, Reggae did an astounding job this year in featuring female artists on the bill.
On Friday, Australian artist Nattali Rize blessed the stage with songs of political awareness.
Saturday featured Ibibio Sound Machine, a West African Highlife fusion band fronted by Eno Williams. Having a Highlife band with a female lead used to be considered controversial in West Africa, so including Ibibio Sound Machine on the bill was a way for the organizers to showcase how reggae music is overcoming sexism.
Marla Brown, daughter of late reggae icon Dennis Brown, brought feminine spirit to the stage with her high-energy dancing and melodies on Sunday. Her performance of Here Comes the King, not only paid tribute to her father, but also gave the audience a taste of the future generations of reggae artists. Following Marla,
Dezarie from St Croix brought the audience back to the roots sound of reggae music with her powerful and socially conscious performance. Speaking out about racism, Dezarie stated that “racism is destroying the earth,” a message that rings too much truth in these current times in America. It was inspiring seeing these female performers own the stage and bring messages of political importance throughout the weekend.
Having grown up listening to the work of Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, I was excited for their Sunday night performance featuring two of the I-Threes, Marcia Griffith and Judy Mowatt. I was also looking forward to Cherine Anderson, who would be representing the next generation of female reggae artists. When speaking with others at the festival, it was clear that this act was the most anticipated. Their set was a compilation of reggae hits from a variety of artists, and moved me to tears multiple times.
Cherine Anderson’s mesmerizing performance stole the show that night, putting her heart and soul into every note she sang. Choosing to have three strong female icons close the show on Sunday was a great way for the organizers of Reggae to show the diversity they were striving for. Being that this show is one of the most iconic festivals in the global reggae culture, it is important that the performers not only represent where reggae music is at now, but where the scene is moving towards. While it appears that Reggae on the River is shifting towards a more west coast sound to stay relevant with the younger generations, there was still an overpowering feeling of community and history that I have not experienced at any other reggae festival in America.