Entering its 22nd year, Reggae Sumfest has emerged from an upstart concert showcasing Reggae’s elite into a multi-genre mega-event, drumming up international interest and diverse crowds, becoming the biggest festival in Jamaica.
Offering the best entertainers from Jamaica and overseas, Sumfest has become Jamaican music’s most defining and anticipated event; this year promising to be no different with acts such as Damian Marley, Busy Signal, Wiz Khalifa, Chronixx and Tessanne Chin on the bill. With the 2014 edition of the ‘Greatest Reggae show on Earth’ being just over a week away, here’s a look at the 10 best moments in Sumfest’s decorated history.
Reggae Sumfest is born (1993): Back in 1993, Sumfest was introduced in an era where other, more revered stage shows such as Reggae Sunsplash and STING took hold of Jamaican’s musical consciousness. With Sunsplash facing extinction due to lack of sponsorship and government assistance, a group of business persons in Montego Bay, branding themselves as Summerfest Productions, came up with the idea and held the then four-day show from August 11-14 that year.
The experiment worked well as the show featured the best Dancehall and Reggae had to offer with performances from Beenie Man, Burning Spear, Supercat, Frankie Paul, Gregory Isaacs, Lady Saw and many more. The thousands in attendance at the Catherine Hall Entertainment Complex left generally pleased, and from there, a phenomenon was born.
Once Sunsplash faded away in 1998, Sumfest became the premiere Reggae event in Jamaica, committing to promoting the roots of the island’s music while introducing new stars to the fold, adding legitimacy to the show over time.
Boyz II Men, Kci- and Jojo bring some foreign flavor (1998): The early years of Sumfest were a struggle for organizers, as production costs rose and revenues lowered, with the show failing to distinguish itself from Sunsplash and other rival shows given its all-Reggae/Dancehall theme.
So, in 1998, Summerfest Productions took the initiative to add international acts to the show as Boyz II Men and Kci & Jojo graced the Sumfest stage. Boyz II Men in particular, dazzled, with their hour-long set regarded to this day as one of the greatest performances in Sumfest history, reeling in one of the show’s largest crowds and giving organizers the boost that they needed to carry on.
Of course, this move was met with some criticism at home given the addition of other genres to a predominantly Reggae-enthused show. However, the move was rather shrewd on Summerfest’s part, considering the festival was being held in a tourist haven among a very diverse population that craved all genres. This allowed for Sumfest to gain mainstream attention overseas, attracting more patrons and bringing in a bigger revenue stream.
Dennis Brown Tribute (1999): Just over a month before the seventh installment of Reggae Sumfest, the Jamaican music fraternity lost one of its true icons as Dennis Emmanuel Brown at the tender age of 42, dying as a result of a collapsed lung.
The loss of Brown was a tough blow and at Reggae Sumfest 1999, industry stalwarts, Gregory Isaacs, George Nooks and John Holt paid tribute to Brown with a ‘three the hard way’ performance in which they reeled off a number of hits by the ‘Crown Prince of Reggae,’ including How Could I Be, Get Myself Together and more.
Fans were rocking and singing along as they paid tribute to one of Reggae music’s jewels, who undoubtedly left an indelible mark on pop culture, which is still evident to this day. This performance showed how much Brown meant to the music fraternity.
Sumfest gets ‘Bootylicious’ (2003): After Beyoncé landed one of her biggest hits to date alongside Dancehall superstar, Sean Paul with the chart-topping classic, Baby Boy, Sumfest organizers felt it was only natural decided to bring her group, Destiny’s Child to Jamaica at a time when she, the group and the song were at their peak.
Beyoncé, Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams dazzled with hits such as Bootylicious, Say My Name and more while Beyoncé performed Baby Boy, to raptures from a captivated audience.
They were the only international act billed in 2003, but their sultry lyrics and well-choreographed movements made their performance stand out as one of the great sets in Sumfest history.
Akon hangs ten with the crowd (2008): When he came to Sumfest in July 2008, Akon wanted to do something that would embed him in the minds of music lovers when they came to the 16th edition of the show.
So when the Senegalese-born star graced the stage on International Night 1, Akon decided to get involved with the crowd, literally, as the shirtless singer climbed over security posts and hung out with members of the audience while performing, before doing a crowd surf like your typical rock star through a mosh pit.
You rarely see this kind of risk being taken in Jamaica, but it surely paid off and had fans talking about his performance for years to come.
Elephant Man, Chris Brown and Usher dance up a storm (2010): At the turn of the decade, Sumfest once again upped the ante with its international lineup, bringing R&B megastars, Chris Brown and Usher to Jamaica.
Usher was joined on stage by Brown and the ‘Energy God,’ Elephant Man, who previously collaborated with both singers, winding the crowd into a frenzy. The trio gave fans many memorable moments, with Ele teaching the two singers how to deejay in Jamaican patois while engaging the two in a dance-off.
The trio had ladies in the audience screaming for more as they gave us nearly two hours of raw energy that few have been able to match on Reggae’s greatest stage.
Nicki Minaj drops (F) bombs (2011): The following year, Sumfest looked to build on the success of its 2010 show by inviting one of the hottest names in music in 2011, Nicki Minaj, and got a bit of everything during her set.
The Trinidadian-American singer, who joined forces with Gyptian on his Hold Yuh remix several months prior, came to much fanfare and gave a scintillating set, as fans sang along to hits such as Your Love, Dungeon Dragon and more.
She even including spurts of Jamaican dialect during a high-energy set filled with booty-shaking, strong choreography and a couple of F bombs sprinkled in. The latter got her in trouble with Jamaican police after the show, as she was charged with using profanity. Minaj was later fined JA$1,000 for her troubles, or the equivalent of the cost of a candy bar States-side. Nevertheless, she made sure she left her mark in Sumfest history with a memorable set.
Damian Marley’s performances (Insert any year here): This one is less of a specific moment and more of a tribute to arguably the greatest pure performer to grace Sumfest’s stage, Damian Jr. Gong’ Marley.
Every year Sumfest has invited Marley to perform, not only did he fail to disappoint, but every time left the show taking away the unofficial honor of performer of the festival. In 2002, his rendition of his late father, Bob Marley’s Could You Be Loved along brothers Stephen Marley, Ky-Mani Marley and Julian Marley induced goose bumps throughout the crowd.
The last two years in particular only solidified this sentiment, taking International Night 2 by storm in 2012 and 2013 with hits such as Still Searching, Affairs of the Heart, Welcome to Jamrock and many other of his classics to raptures from the crowd, performing with undoubted electricity reminiscent of his father.
If you want to guarantee a satisfactory Sumfest, or any major stage show for that matter, book Damian Marley for it, and with the Grammy-winning singer on this year’s bill, that’s almost sure to be the case once more.
The Queen of Dancehall gets her crown (2012): For nearly two decades, Lady Saw announced herself as one of the greatest deejays ever, male or female, rightfully given the title of the ‘Queen of Dancehall’ for her many contributions to the genre, including a Grammy, several classics while stamping her authority on Jamaican music with her raunchy, take no prisoners approach.
However, until the 20th edition of Sumfest came about in 2012, that title was unofficial. That chance on Dancehall Night of the anniversary show when organizers officially crowned her the queen of Dancehall in a ceremony honoring her aforementioned contributions, with a throne and everything. It was a just reward for Lady Saw, who broke down several barriers so her female contemporaries could see greater opportunities locally and internationally.
Shabba’s homecoming (2012): Undoubtedly the greatest moment in the Sumfest history in this humble writer’s opinion has to be the return of Dancehall’s emperor, ‘big, dutty stinkin’ Shabba Ranks to home soil in 2012 as he gave arguably the show’s greatest performance ever.
For the show’s 20th anniversary, Johnny Gourzong knew he had to pull off something out of this world in order for the show to standout more than any other in history. So he went for one of Jamaica’s most celebrated international acts, who had not graced Jamaican shores since 2001, when he moved to the United States rather anonymously.
When he came back, it was a completely different story, receiving a hero’s welcome as large crowds gathered for him at the Norman Manley International Airport and in Olympic Gardens, the community he was raised in.
Knowing it must have cost an arm and a leg to convince Shabba to come back, you would think Sumfest organizers were hoping and praying Shabba would give patrons an all-time great performance, and that he did on International Night 1 that July, performing two-hour-long set full of classics such as Trailer Load, Bedroom Bully and many more; later collaborating with Reggae/Dancehall songstress, Cherine Anderson as they gyrated to lots of approval from the thousands in the crowd.
Shabba also received honors from the ministry of culture for his vast contributions to the music industry, which included two Grammys in the early 90s. It was the welcome back he thoroughly deserved and made his return the greatest moment in Reggae Sumfest history.