Rebel Salute 2023 - A Reflection on Reggae Music & Communicating Brand Jamaica

I truly believe that Jamaica is the most powerful, deliberate, and infectious national 'brand' on the planet. Yes, I am 100% biased. For the thousands gathered at Rebel Salute this past weekend (many of whom were visitors) at the Grizzly's Plantation Cove in Priory, St. Ann, they would probably agree: Jamaica is in fact a "real place," and a wonderful one at that. Artist Jahsii during his Friday night performance said that no matter how much he travels the world and experiences other locales, that nowhere else is sweet like Jamaica. Incomparable vibes, one might say.

Cultural impressions and perceptions of Jamaica tend to be associated with the impeccable cuisine, infectious rhythms, hypnotic lyrics both in music (and in conversation), confident style, and an overall unforgettable presence. Bob Marley and the kaya, too, of course.

For those who don't live on the island, word of mouth, traditional media, and social media are go-to tools for experiencing the daily occurrences and advances (unfortunately, a few setbacks, too) that keep the country in constant movement.

The Rebel Salute reggae festival is rooted in "The Preservation of Culture" and has been named "The People's Show" for many reasons, but the strongest of all is the way the event adheres to honouring and sustaining the culture's purest traditions.

Completing their third decade of production, Tony Rebel and his team led the twenty-ninth staging of the Rebel Salute reggae music festival featuring an extensive gathering of musical masterminds ranging from those with decades of experience, to those touching a stage of that caliber for the first time. From the older to the young, one thing was consistent: reggae music is a beautiful and powerful force that drives the heart of this alluring island.

You don't have to be a Jamaican native, descendant, or even a visitor to appreciate the impact of this Caribbean paradise. Even without ever knowing a Jamaican or travelling there, most are familiar with the impact Jamaica has had on the world. And while you study those particularly influential elements of the culture, there is most likely a driving reggae song or two tied to the moment. It could be Bob Marley. Could be I-Wayne. Could be Kabaka Pyramid. Nation Boss. Luciano. George Nooks. The commonality is that true reggae music practitioners and listeners are driven by the same forces: love, unity, spirituality, and social progress. Historical appreciation. Righteousness, without apology. And a confidently rebellious spirit beneath it all.

What stood out to me throughout the Rebel Salute weekend was the deliberate passing of the musical torch and culture, in a time when Jamaican dialogue and rhetoric is heavy about the future of reggae music, the nature of Jamaica's current cultural climate (or lack thereof), and the pervasive (and profitable) influence of other musical genres on the island and worldwide.

The heart of reggae music has always been a powerful force not only for its listening pleasure, but particularly for its power to incite political, cultural, and social ideas. There has been a constant undercurrent with reggae music that has motivated listeners to appreciate and revere the truth, Black/African values and practices, and a respect for nature's purest elements. Along with Rastafarian beliefs and culture, it is a force that permeates the world very strongly. We have known this since the 60s.

The artists carefully selected to grace the Rebel Salute stage embody the elements of the culture that complement the international profile and the essence of Jamaican celebration that locals can appreciate and enjoy as well. It is an ideal pilgrimage for reggae music lovers, and cultural aficionados alike, with features to fulfill all reggae-related desires.

With the recent passing of Jo Mersa Marley (rest peacefully, king), son of Stephen Marley, the musical torch is something on the minds of many. The descendants of the original reggae musicians like Jo Mersa, as well as the children of event organizer Tony Rebel (Abatau and Davianah) and Queen Ifrica (Imeru and Tanzie)--raised in the essence of Rebel Salute--were well represented at the festival. Sons of John Holt (Junior), Alton Ellis (Christopher), and Papa Michigan and his son Ramesh also represented at the show.

Like the Marleys, the legacy has already been solidified, and the natural progression is to carry the light and message forth in the same spirit and with the same intention as their predecessor.

In one of the weekend's most significant appearances, 24-year-old artist Jahsii (Mluleki Tafari Clarke) was praised by Jamaican radio personality, poet, and community elder Mutabaruka, who encouraged the artist to keep his spirit of love and bring it forth continually into his community, and with his interactions with his peers. The moment signified all that is great and intentional about the festival: preserving the culture, as well as nurturing the minds of those responsible for its keep.

Throughout the night, despite the high energy, vocals singing across the plantation, horns buzzing, and the peaceful attendee camaraderie, there was a tangible frustration expressed by some artists and co-signed in sound. Violence in Jamaica. Fear of the next generation's influences and bad habits. Worry about the future of Jamaica, its political leadership, and foreign ownership.

Despite worldwide uncertainty (that now defines the times), there was concern for the island in particular. To see the loving hug from Muta to Jahsii, the crowd's response, and the words spoken between songs to encourage those on site and those watching from was evident that the music was--and continues to be--one of the strongest methods of communicating to the Jamaican people. Across generations, there was an unspoken agreement that this was an effective way to share messaging and encourage progress.

Performers like Capleton, I-Octane, Sanchez, and Richie Stephens provided the audience with familiar hits and even a few new songs, like "Dream Girl" performed by Tony Rebel. With many of the audience members having witnessed the full career arcs and subsequent growth of the above-mentioned artists, it was comforting to see them continue to perform at the highest quality, with their voices still pure and strong, and that their words have impacted the lives of all who travelled (whether to St. Ann, or to Jamaica in general) to hear them projected through the beach-side outdoor venue.

Reggae is more than a musical genre--it's a lifestyle, and one that is rooted in principle. Connected so closely to the cultural fabric of Jamaica, it's important to see the artists continue to do well, perform, and recite the lyrics that have raised and nurtured many through life. To see Capleton still jumping, and Sanchez still crooning is confirmation that not only is the music still as powerful now as it was when these particular artists first emerged, but also that they still have the power to draw audiences and move feet and hearts.

In the tradition of the music of their predecessors, they prove to still be worthy of emulation and adoration. With the instant information era allowing folks to know and follow the artists closely, many supporters are not only familiar with the music, but also genuinely connected to the artists' words...and wish them well.

Attending stage shows and festivals, while supporting the artists and accompanying vendors, are therefore important acts that the audience is expected to perform, where possible. While they play their role in creating, developing, and showcasing their music (and opening up their lives to reggae music lovers) …the other end of the agreement is the support, the travel, and listening to/purchasing/streaming tracks over the years. The tradition evolves technologically, and it continues.

A few (of many) moments during Rebel Salute that delivered, and resonated:

1) The sound clash featuring South Sudanese selector/artist Dynamq, and Jamaican selector DJ Naz "Gurl Power." Entertaining, clever, and vibrant, it was a peak in the show and a break in the performance schedule that was welcomed by all. Dynamq was just as skilled and entertaining as when he was in Toronto at the 2018 World Clash; DJ Naz represented for the ladies and held her own on stage without hesitation or fear. It was a nice balance.

2) Reference and words of support for Usain Bolt, which was likely on everyone's mind during the previous week when the news of his unfortunate financial situation broke. While the subject was used in jest during the clash, there were moments (particularly from Bounty and Beenie) of support and hope that the situation would soon resolve itself. Having Bolt as a noticeable presence of thought during the festival spoke volumes about the connection of the Jamaican community and culture, whether music or sport: all were affected, with the same sentiments. Disappointment, but hope that the situation would be resolved.

3) Queen Ifrica, in the midst of a great performance, will always throw in some food for thought, a message with meaning, and a strong word in support of Jamaica's highest morals, values, and expectations. She also led a chorus of her new song "Proud of Myself," and solidified the music's role in not only enjoyment, but also building of esteem and consciousness amongst listeners. It would be awesome to see more female performers, in future stagings of the festival.

4) The vendors and Herb Curb were fantastic, and a perfect complement to the two nights of entertainment. In keeping with the event's no-liquor-no-meat policy, the refreshments and wares were also in alignment with the root of reggae music's essence. The commitment made to keeping the event solid, purposeful, and genuinely Jamaican made it a comforting and rewarding experience for those at home, and those travelling to have a few moments of authentic culture and live reggae instrumentation.

5) One couldn't help but notice the media machine behind Brand Jamaica, in the television reporting, the social media posting, simultaneous interviews and connections taking place in the Media Village, and the consistency with which all of the documentation and dissemination took place. While the audience was able to feel the music's energy, the media practitioners were hustling in real time to be sure to convey every emotion, highlight, and move to audiences online, watching via broadcast and observing from around the world. Impressed with the fluidity of process, and widespread commitment to documenting the event, it confirmed just why Jamaica's brand is so tight, so well-loved, and so infectious: because of the Jamaican people who skillfully capture and communicate the details, intangibles, and vibration.


The musicians aren't the only element of Jamaican culture to experience at Rebel Salute. Communications practitioners and content creators can also take a look at the creative masterminds behind Jamaica's appeal, and learn from those examples as well. Just like the reggae artists have mastered the art of conceptualizing, developing, creating, and disseminating the soul of the island through sound, the communications professionals also represent an elite level of cultural production through visuals and interviews.

Jamaican content creators, bloggers, and social media influencers have a very strong presence and an important impact on the country's vibe. There are so many personalities and thought leaders surrounding the event that also help to "preserve the culture," as Rebel Salute practices. It's more than the music, it's an essential cultural export. A huge part of music that will not and can not be overshadowed, no matter what the current rhetoric surrounding dancehall or Afrobeats and the future of reggae is. The history and impact of reggae music is too powerful and Rebel Salute is designed to remind us of that at the beginning of each year.

Social media is pervasive enough that you don't have to be a communications professional to efficiently share personal messages and thoughts; the way that the Jamaican cultural media operates (from the outside looking in) is a phenomenon in itself. So while Rebel Salute is broadcasting for the two-day schedule, there are so many significant elements being captured and shared. 

The show was fantastic, needless to say. With so, so many legends, talents, and powerhouses on the roster, you really and truly couldn't go wrong. You know Rodney and Moses are going to electrify and entertain with decades of hits. You are prepared to sing along with the Abyssinians or Glen Washington. Viewers could expect excellence, because that is the standard in Jamaican entertainment. If you're not good, you'll know (or feel) …and there's no two ways about it. So to make it to that stage, you already know the quality of performance you're going to get. There were even moments of complete silence where the audience awaited another performance, or simply were not moved. With your eyes closed, you wouldn't even know you were surrounded by thousands of patrons: if there's one thing a Jamaican audience is going to give you, it's authenticity. That makes the cheers and forwards even sweeter, because you know they are well earned.

This is the culture that Tony Rebel and his team have been curating. Regardless of the artist lineup, potential controversy or industry politics that inevitably occur with any event or phenomenon of this size (in any country), one thing the show continuously provides is an outlet for dozens of performers at various stages in their careers, it promotes a pure and natural environment, and is uncompromising in its commitment to staying connected to the original essence of reggae music and culture.

Rebel Salute didn't disappoint, and it definitely reaffirmed the authentic power of the island, the hope for the future of reggae music, and also that when it comes to talented musicians, heavy basslines, sweet melodies, and overall positive vibrations, there is literally no where else on earth that can do what Jamaica does. Consistently.

I hope this weekend was a reminder to everyone that the music is rooted in the heart of the people, and despite all that feels gloomy or hopeless, that Jamaican people have throughout history managed to keep their heads high and spirits strong and continue to design and develop gold. Naturally.

Written by Stacey Robinson on behalf of Kya Publishing's @JamaicanCanadianZone, and "Reflection and Reason" blog. Stacey was born in Toronto; her parents are from Manchester, Jamaica, and moved to Canada in the 1970s.


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