The lead up to New York’s Labor Day Parade got a boost when the 9th Annual Grace Jamaican Jerk Festival sizzled on Sunday, August 25th at Roy Wilkins Park in Jamaica Queens, the site of many major Caribbean cultural events.
The mainstage concert covered four corners of Caribbean music with Christopher Martin’s Lovers Rock, the Dancehall of Shenseea, Bunji Garlin and Fay-Ann Lyons getting down for their Soca crowns and Capleton captivating the crowd with Culture.
Naomi Cowan, daughter of reggae and gospel singers Tommy Cowan and Carlene Davis, came into her own earlier this year with a Reggae Sumfest appearance and a big ‘chune’ on Reggae Gold, “Paradise Plum.” Cowan set the show off and put her mack down—almost literally—on the festival stage.
“I almost fell and busted my a–! It was hilarious for me,” said Cowan. “A lot of people know when you’re on my social media I’m very groovy and jovial but I’ve never had that happen to me performing, so I’m actually kind of happy. It was like my Beyoncé moment when she almost fell at the Super Bowl.”
Martin, who flew all the way from Africa the night prior to perform, took to the mic and had them hooked on his “Magic” with solid songs such as “Look on My Face,” “Don’t Love Me Later” and the signature “Cheaters Prayer.”
Martin bought out surprise guests Romaine Virgo and D-Major and crooned with his cronies through not only their hits, but a medley of classic soul songs and staple Reggae covers. “I love being on stage with them,” said Martin of the cameos. “I love sharing my energy, sharing my vibe and sharing my stage. And those are my friends, so there’s no better way to go about it.”
Cowan wasn’t the only legacy to perform. Lyons, daughter of the legendary SuperBlue, brought carnival to the Jerk Festival with husband Garlin. Both Soca monarchs had the crowd jumping and flags waving. “I saw a baby in the air!” said Lyons. “So when I saw a baby in the air, I was like, this is the type of energy that the Caribbean people just radiate.”
Garlin and Lyons came with “Differentology” and were ‘ready fi di road.’ It was not the place to post up, ‘profile’ or ‘rent a tile.’ It was ‘bacchanal,’ time to “Ground Pound” with “Hand in the Air” like there was a “Truck on the Road.”
The Lyon Empress ‘bigged up’ the festivities for the ‘i-nity.’ “We had different people in the crowd, different cultural backgrounds, different mindsets and they’re all enjoying the music at the same time,” said Lyons.
Shenseea raised flags with her “ShenYeng Anthem” and a set that included a gravity-defying dance-off. Giving it up to ‘Gaza’ and calling to “Free World Boss,” she exploded with her dancehall dynamite.
The night was capped off with Capleton. The prophet brought more ‘fyah’ than all of the grill pits combined with a dynamic set that included boomshots from his illustrious career. “We do it for the music,” said Capleton. “Because you know music is love, music is life. Music alone shall live and never die. Music is what brings the message.”
And what a message it is. No matter “Who Dem” Capleton showed all “Who I Am” as he took a “Tour” through his tunes. Touching down with “Wings of the Morning,” prowling “Or Wah” with “Hunt Yuh” while warning “Jah Jah City” with blazin’ fire vocals that “That Day Will Come.”
“They know when time the fyah man come them have to go work out because them have to go jump and have to go wave and them have to go sing,” said Capleton.
At points, “The Fyahman” took time out to directly address the crowd, calling condemnation on a long laundry list of evils that poetically demonstrated how “The Prophet” lays down and blazes down the law. “We love to engage the audience to let people know and see where you’re coming from,” said Capleton.
Although there were folk artists and big-name acts such as headliners Martin, Garlin and Lyons, Shenseea and concert closer Capleton; jerk, a style of cooking and seasoning with historical roots dating back to the Pre-Colombian era, is the real star of this star-studded event.
“Jerk is not just “heat,” said Chef Sam, co-owner of Field Trip in Harlem and one of Essence’s “7 Dope Black Female Chefs You Oughta Know. “It’s an ancient cooking style… The Arawak Indians, the Maroons, the slaves of Jamaica, they pretty much came up with this cooking style of preserving meat, cooking it underground using the ingredients they had access to,” she continues.
“One of the mandates of the whole jerk festival concept was to make sure that first-generation Jamaican Americans and by extension, Caribbean Americans don’t forget what it’s like being back home,” said Richard Lue, the festival’s executive producer and director of business development for VP Records. This included a cultural segment dedicated to the memory of Jamaican cultural icon, Louise Bennett-Coverly, revered as “Miss Lou.”
Aside from getting to showcase culinary chops; chefs see other values in the fest. “You also get to see family,” said Chef Sam. “It feels like a big family reunion.” Chef Darlene, the lead presenter in the cook-off pavilion area found this especially true. “My greatest moment is not only having my cousin here, but my father… who is from Jamaica and raised me using Grace products,” she said. “I enjoyed being able to bring him and to be a part of it.”
In the end, Chef Sam had the recipe that captured the essence of it all. “It’s just beautiful to see a sea of Black Families and Black people just enjoying themselves,” said Chef Sam. “And there’s nothing better than family and food. You put those two together and have some music in the background; you know it’s going to be a good time.”