About This Festival
It’s hard to overstate the impact that the small Caribbean country of Jamaica (population: about 3 million) has had on music and pop culture worldwide. And Reggae Sumfest has been no small part of that legacy. Founded in 1993 by a production company called Summerfest Productions, Reggae Sumfest was a reaction to the fact that Reggae Sunsplash was to be no more—and though that legendary festival was resurrected in 2006, Sumfest continues on.
Its organizers intended for Reggae Sumfest to be a testament to Jamaica’s indelible impact on music in international genres like R&B, hip-hop, ska, and reggaeton. Today, the event has no problem attracting elite performers and tens of thousands of attendees and from all over the world.
Sumfest bills itself as the greatest reggae show on earth, and that’s hard to argue with. It is indeed known as the world’s premiere reggae festival, and it doesn’t hurt that it happens right in the home of the genre.
Sumfest reels in an impressive array of homegrown and global talent. Though it’s not the biggest reggae festival that exists, it certainly is held in the highest esteem by Jamaicans (and is the biggest concert in Jamaica). It’s where local artists are “seen and heard at their best—before thousands of their very demanding countrymen and women,” according to Sumfest’s executive director Johnny Gourzong. He adds: "Every artist works hard designing something special for Sumfest."
In keeping with its billing as a borderless festival, Reggae Sumfest’s media launch is a widely spread affair. Each year, organizers host launch events in Kingston, Montego Bay, New York City, and Miami.
What a Lineup
While its reggae lineup is extensive, Sumfest also heavily features an offshoot genre known as “dance-hall”—to the extent that an entire night of the four-night festival is devoted to it.
Two other nights are all about international acts, which may not be strictly reggae but serve as “a celebration of all the musical forms this culture has influenced.”
Over the years, the huge names who’ve played Sumfest on these nights include Beyonce, Jay-Z, Alicia Keys, Usher, Chris Brown, R. Kelly, Ne-Yo, Mary J. Blige, Kanye West, Lil Wayne, T-Pain, LL Cool J, Ludacris, Lionel Richie, Missy Elliott, 50 Cent, and Akon. Tickets for these days of the festival tend to be pricier.
Dancing in the Halls
While the international nights’ headliners might be the most popular acts with the broadest appeal, the festival’s dance-hall night is more unique and a spectacle not to be missed (as a plus, it’s also much less expensive than the other nights).
Dance-hall, a subgenre of reggae, started literally in the dance halls of Kingston and Trench Town, where young locals go to groove to tracks blasted on home stereos. The music has more digital influence than reggae does, but the main feature is the dancing itself. You’ll have a hard time pulling off the moves if you’re not Jamaican, but it's fun to watch nonetheless. Attendees of the dance-hall night have to be age 16 or older; once you see some these moves, you’ll know why.
Good Times Await
As is to be expected by anyone who’s even remotely familiar with reggae, this festival is awash with things that promise good times—ganja, dancing, and libations are in abundant supply, and an essential part of the fun. You’ll also get a healthy dose of Rastafarian unity and political awareness.
The event has two primary venues: the beach and the Catherine Hall Entertainment Complex. If you’ve got an easily packable lawn chair, bring it. If you don’t, buy one when you get into Catherine Hall so that you’ll have a dry place to sit while enjoying the show, and somewhere to put your stuff while you’re up to dance.
Get ready to stay up all night: It’s not uncommon for Sumfest’s crowds to be swaying and singing from sunset to sunrise.
Regardless of what time of day it is, just let yourself relax and embrace reggae’s laid-back spirit and you’re guaranteed to discover something new.