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The temperature will climb from a simmer to a boil at the inaugural Memorial Fest, a reggae concert that boasts so many topnotch performers it's difficult to determine exactly who the headliner ought to be. The festival comes on a weekend that has become infamous for bringing dense crowds of visiting hip-hop culture lovers to our already sticky and overcrowded city.
Reggae fans can't wait to see "Mr. Loverman" himself, Rexton Rawlston Fernando Gordon, the Jamaican legend better known as Shabba Ranks. In the Eighties, his gruff sexual come-ons were inescapable. "Twice My Age," "X Rated," and "Wicked in Bed" are certified dancehall classics. Shabba hasn't performed locally in almost a decade. Buju Banton has successfully straddled the line between conscious reggae and rough 'n' ready dancehall. Hits such as "Murderer," "Deportees," and "Love Sponge" underscore his creative development. "Who Am I?" "Romie," and "King of the Dancehall" bolstered Beenie Man's image as a braggadocious bad boy. Bounty Killer began the trend of chanting over hip-hop-influenced rhythms with aggressive songs like "Can't Believe Mi Eyes," and "Benz and the Bimma." He softened his threatening persona by collaborating with No Doubt on "Hey Baby." What do these four talented Jamaican artists have in common? Although they have found crossover success, the unrepentant homophobia expressed in their lyrics has brought them richly deserved criticism, cost them lucrative marketing deals, and effectively diminished their radio and television airplay. Their performances have been met with vociferous protests by organizations including Amnesty International.
Protesters just might want to lay down their picket signs for at least part of this fest. The lineup features two reggae legends with progressive attitudes. Both Cocoa Tea and Lady Saw will offer a fresh spin on the reggae scene minus the venom, and their performances alone will be worth the cost of admission.
Calvin "Cocoa Tea" Scott has been singing reggae music for 30 years, but his big break came in 1984 with a hit called "Lost My Sonia." He hopes to perform his beloved duets "Who She Love" and "Pirates Anthem" with Shabba, or croon "Eighteen and Over" alongside Buju. But the man whose sobriquet reflects his love for warm chocolate drinks already has a greatest-hits session to perform. "It would be a pleasure to show the people what they want to see. Cocoa Tea and Shabba Ranks in combination will pull the house apart! And I must perform songs like 'Good Life,' 'She Loves Me Now,' 'Rikers Island,' 'Israel's King,' 'Holy Mount Zion,' 'Rocking Dolly'.... There are so many hits to talk about," the reggae legend muses.
In Jamaican culture, many singers who used their lyrics to tackle society's ills have been regarded as prophets. Along with Bob Marley, Burning Spear, and Garnett Silk, Cocoa Tea deserves that title. He has expressed fierce, farsighted political sentiments in "The New Immigration Law" and 1992's "No Blood for Oil." These songs never received radio airplay. "I did those tunes and I didn't mean to be cute. No blood for oil; look how long me a say that. This thing that is happening right now is something called the New World Order, and no joke about it," he thunders in almost indecipherable dialect.
Cocoa Tea even has a formula and a dark theory.
"You know what is the 666, the mark of the beast? The numerical value of c-o-m-p-u-t-e-r. Add that up and tell me if is lie me a tell," he dares. (For the record, if you assign a number to each letter in the word computer and then add the numerical values together, they total 111. Multiply that by 6, and Cocoa Tea seems ominously correct.) "I and I know them things as a Rasta. That is the thing sent to wreck the world right now," he explains. As one would expect, Cocoa Tea prefers to keep his Internet use to a bare minimum. "You only can use the beast to fight the beast. If Babylon a use it fe get them propaganda across, we must get our truth across," he rationalizes.
Unlike many of the other artists in this Memorial Day festival lineup, sweet, sweet Cocoa Tea won't deliver homophobic diatribes.
"All human beings have faults and weaknesses. People want to talk about righteousness and bring judgment down pon each other. If you say you are righteous, then you are a liar and the truth is not within you. Nobody can say they are righteous. All we can do is live the best life we can," he says. He plans to perform his most recent hit on VP Records, a plea called "Save Us Oh Jah."
"If we don't unite and try to resolve our differences, we will be defeated. I'm gonna sing that at the show and ask Jah to save all of us." Amen to that.
Lady Saw is as profane as Cocoa Tea is pious. When Marion Hall adopted the alias, she created a hypersexualized persona that has changed the face of Jamaican music altogether. She is the first lady of dancehall, the mother to the current crop of overtly horny, patois-spitting DJ divas. Saw has been chanting for the better part of what, a decade now?
"Oh, it's been longer than that. I won't say for them guys to check pon the age. But I've been in the business for a long time, and I've been standing up strong. It doesn't even matter if I have a hit; my name is known worldwide," she purrs.
Saw's star hasn't faded, because she keeps it real with her fans and has worked with an enviable list of musical innovators, including Missy Elliott and Pharrell Williams. Saw won a Grammy for her verse on No Doubt's "Underneath It All." When asked who her dream collaboration would be, she gives a surprising yet unsurprising answer: "I'd love to work with R. Kelly! I know he loves dancehall music because he has this new one called 'Wine for Me.' I'd love to wine for that man on some riddim, yo," she laughs throatily. "We could do a wicked remix of that one."
Saw still lives up to her reputation as dancehall's baddest chick, and she still invites lucky studs up onstage to perform suggestive acts that barely pass the muster of public decency. But maybe not at this particular show. "When my man is around, I tend to hold back. Let's hope he's not there, but I think he will be. Sometimes I go overboard because I love this music and I love my fans," she says.
Lady Saw's antics have earned her protests of her own, so she can relate to the plight of her fellow headliners. But she is too careful to stumble into any discussion of potentially thorny issues. "I don't even know anything about politics," she quips dismissively. "I think we should all have our freedom of speech. I don't study people who fight against my music. They're not paying me, so I couldn't care less."
Saw knows the audience will clamor for one particular hit.
"I have to perform 'I Got Your Man.' Yeah, that's the new bad-ass female anthem! Look for a very energized performance. I am a crazy gal onstage," she warns.