But now the work of young Jamaican artists is increasingly influenced by genres like afrobeats, drill, rap and pop, and the themes of the music are changing. Sometimes that means the lyrics are less “Do not worry about anything”more “All guns, all killa masks”, according to Skeng Gvnman shift, painting a much grittier picture of city life than revolution and liberation-focused roots reggae. As with the exercise in the UK and US, criticism of these changes inevitably leads to a conversation about censorship. In 2020, roots reggae artist Alpha Rowen even released an entire album that called for “leaders’ action to put manners back in the dancehall – aptly titled dancehall manners book.
This mentality is evident even before anyone steps onto the main stage at Sumfest. At Thursday night’s Sumfest Global Sound Clash pre-party, where sound systems around the world spun their best dubplates to compete for $250,000, contestants were ordered to abide by a strict ban on profanity at the behest of event sponsors, ultimately resulting in certain acts being disqualified. Even the defending champion of the clash and favorite to win, Germany’s Warrior Sound, was sent off after the second round. But The Tokens solo sound system opening dubplate In the jungle the mighty junglereturned to replace “uyimbube” with “a bumbaclaart”, had already instantly won over the crowd. After a strong protest, he was finally put back into the competition.
This wasn’t the first time censorship had disrupted Sumfest. In 2019, the police pulled the plug on the festival’s opening night, due to profanity in dancehall artist Jahvillani’s set. But for every person who opposes this new era of Jamaican music, there are young fans who wholeheartedly embrace it. “You have to let the artists find their own thing,” says Kacey, 25. “Some might think some lyrics are depraved, but artists should be allowed to speak out.
And for those who aren’t so keen on the new wave of the industry, there are still plenty of artists who, as Gabrielle says, “can carry on the spirit of Jamaican music and culture. She cites Koffee and Chronixx (“obviously”) as best placed to carry forward the legacy of reggae. Logical, since Koffee herself has already spoken how growing up she didn’t find mainstream dancehall and pop “feed the soul”. True to form, her set at Sumfest was an uplifting rush of roots-reggae-meets-afrobeats serotonin, as cheering fans young and old sang along with every word.
In the end, whether you want to shake your ass with Spice or get spiritual with roots reggae, that’s what Sumfest is all about. Dancehall performers may take on the government, but in the crowd, the vibe speaks for itself. Kids dance until the wee hours of the morning, teens and young adults whine until sunrise, and the older crowd goes just as loud. Despite naysayers’ concerns about profanity and vulgar language, the spirit of reggae lives on in the community. Peace, love, unity and a good knee in the air.