The flaring up of a controversy on the eve of the event followed by a relatively trouble-free four days more or less sums up the 32nd edition of Reggae on the River.
As usual, the enduringly popular music festival, held at French’s Camp from Aug. 4-7, was packed. “We were a little shy of sold out,” Justin Crellin, general manager of the Mateel Community Center, said last week, explaining that Saturday was the biggest day crowd-wise. “It was lighter on Friday and Sunday, which is typical.”
“It was the biggest Thursday we’ve ever had,” he added, attributing that to “the talent we had that day and to a desire by people to get [to the festival] early.”
While he didn’t cite precise attendance figures, Crellin said the crowds were about the same as last year. “We’ve been pretty much on a static track of being consistent with our numbers annually. It’s a smaller show than years ago. But we’ve maintained a pretty standard attendance level in recent years,” he remarked.
When asked how much money Reggae generates for the Mateel, Crellin declined to be specific. But he did say this: “It’s our largest annual fund-raiser. It covers the bulk of our operating expenses for the year [along] with [the] Summer Arts [& Music Festival].”
As for the controversy, it had to do the man who headlined Saturday night’s show: Sizzla Kalonji, a major reggae star known for his commercial success as well as his productivity—he has released more than 70 solo albums.
Unfortunately, the 40-year-old Sizzla is known for something else — some of his recordings contain anti-gay lyrics. That fact has led to protests and even the cancellation of some of his concerts.
When the Mateel announced its lineup for Reggae earlier this year, there was no stir locally about Sizzla, at least not in a negative sense.
“Everything was all positive. Sizzla is a big name, someone famous. We were super-excited about [getting him],” recalled Crellin, who added that because Sizzla hadn’t performed in the U.S. in close to nine years, landing him seemed even more of a coup.
“The fact that he hadn’t been in the States for a while was a factor in the excitement,” Crellin explained.
The excitement turned a bit sour when, just one day before Reggae, news of Sizzla’s controversial past hit the local media. The dust-up, which included calls from the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender group Humboldt Pride to cancel Sizzla’s performance, caught the Mateel off-guard.
“We went public with the lineup five months before, so we were surprised by it,” Crellin commented.
It also caught event organizers at an awkward time. “It hit a fever pitch on Wednesday when we were on-site and in full production mode. So there were not a lot of options,” Crellin said.
A statement was issued indicating that the plug would literally be pulled on Sizzla’s performance if anything untoward occurred. “We notified Sizzla’s management that under no circumstances would we tolerate derogatory speech from the stage,” related Crellin.
In response, his handlers provided assurances. And when the big moment came on Saturday and Sizzla was in the spotlight, Crellin said all went well. “No derogatory language was spoken from the stage,” he said.
“This event is about peace and love and global unity,” Crellin went on, referring to Reggae on the River. “That was the message from the stage [throughout the festival], including the Sizzla set.”
To stem the damage, the Mateel posted a “values statement” at the artist’s merchandise booth that attendees were encouraged to sign. Crellin said it described “what our values are and what we expect from our artists,” and was aimed at “trying to further tolerance.”
It also announced that funds from the 2016 Ambassador Program, which funnels 10 percent of funds from Ambassador ticket sales to global charities related to reggae culture, would go toward supporting the work of a nonprofit in Jamaica that is working on behalf of the LGBTQ community.
Even though Sizzla has now come and gone, “more dialogue,” as Crellin put it, is on the horizon. In particular, this Thursday Crellin will be taking part in a discussion with members of Queer Humboldt on KMUD radio. The program, hosted by Eric Kirk, begins at 7 p.m.
Looking back on it, Crellin said that booking Sizzla “was a decision we wouldn’t have made if we had been aware there would be this feedback.”
“We’re a community entity. We need to be responsive to these concerns,” he added.
In terms of booking artists for Reggae in the future, Crellin said: “We need to be hypervigilant. We’re not looking to alienate anyone in the community.”
“It’s about global unity, peace and love,” he said, referring to Reggae. “That’s at the heart of why we’re doing this event. It’s not about being a platform for someone’s hate speech.”
Aside from the Sizzla episode, Crellin said things went smoothly. “Operationally, it was our strongest event since being back at French’s Camp.”
About the only thing that created problems was the river, which was higher than in recent years and had changed course in a couple of places.
“In South Beach, the river moved toward the venue considerably so we lost some real estate. It encroached more toward the festival venue,” Crellin said, explaining that that had an impact on parking.
“We used auxiliary parking lots more than in the past,” he said.