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Jamaica’s music festivals face limits imposed by climate change

As a tourist destination, a great deal of Jamaica’s pull is in its outdoor experience, something the local music industry’s events sector is struggling to capitalize on due to the crippling heat of an increasingly warmer climate and erratic weather.

Warmer climates, erratic weather and water scarcity are propogating the ails of Jamaica’s famous but underdeveloped entertainment industry

As a tourist destination, a great deal of Jamaica’s pull is in its outdoor experience, something the local music industry’s events sector is struggling to capitalize on due to the crippling heat of an increasingly warmer climate and erratic weather.

Perhaps the most insidious impact of climate change on modern life in the Caribbean is its understated tendency to amplify existing ailments and cripple our islands’ ability to develop. Adaptation and resilience financing are the key terms in discussions about the changing climate in our region. But even when our countries find harmony between meeting international standards for climate funding, and finding innovative solutions to the litany of emerging environmental problems, climate change still throws an irrefutable wrench in the developmental machinery of our countries. Sectors and industries that would have otherwise bloomed, especially amid the tech boom, are struggling to find that success. An unjust reality that developed countries, which contribute much more to the changing climate, will never experience.

music festivals
Photo credit: Gladstone Taylor

Between an increase in heat and the unpredictability of weather, the Jamaica entertainment stakeholders are not finding it as easy to nourish the underdeveloped space of daytime sessions.

Grammy-winning artist Chance The Rapper has indicated an interest in hosting the Blackstarline festival, which has roots in Accra, Ghana, right here in Jamaica. A prospect that could open the country to more outside interests of this kind. But the events sector might be ill-equipped to deal with the increasing warmth and unpredictable weather brought on by climate change. Traditionally, Jamaica is more famous for its nightlife when it comes to events. However, when compared to markets abroad where Jamaican music has strongholds, like Europe, daytime festivals abound. Festivals like Rototom Sunsplash, SummerJam, or even Uppsala Reggae Fest have a strong pull for fans of Jamaican music from all over the world. Similarly, large festivals in the United States like Coachella, or Burning Man attract a traveling audience that often turns out despite the heat during daytime sessions. 

Jamaica’s music industry is still in the developing stages, which means that when contrasted with large productions like Coachella, the island falls short. Already, the country’s cohort of burgeoning artists and performers are disadvantaged by the lack of performance venues. The sector’s stakeholders, like the promoters, have been creative and nimble in their approach to solving this lack, by hosting many successful and oversubscribed events in informal outdoor venues. Increasing temperatures, longer dry periods, and water shortages severely magnify the difficulty already experienced by developing countries and their industries, which are also in incubatory phases.  

music festivals
Photo credit: Gladstone Taylor

Still, despite the limitations, complaints, and refusal to show up early from some patrons, there are players in the music industry doing their best to make festivals a more regular part of the events calendar. Protoje’s Lost in Time Festival is the most recent example, with a 4 p.m. show time. Even with its evening kick-off, there were patrons complaining about the heat, and those who refused to show up until sunset. Popcaan’s Unruly Fest in 2019, which saw the appearance of megastar Drake, is another example of a festival with a later start time. 

This could be motivated by the unwillingness of some audiences to turn out in the heat, a decision Lauren Watkis, a production manager on Popcaan’s Unruly Fest team, says has socioeconomic roots as well. “You’ll find that towards the earlier part of the day it’s not entirely full. After the midday sun, you find more people coming out. Sometimes that’s also due to how daytime is set up for people, sometimes you’ll have your chores in the morning and errands during the day, so by the time you’re free it’s the evening.” Watkis was also a project manager onboard Chronixx’s team, working on many of his shows including the 2017 Capture Land Tour.

So Jamaica’s nightlife, when it comes to the events sector, is notoriously dominant for many reasons. More erratic weather and increased heat are certainly among many issues; but more often than not, it has shown the capacity to be the straw to break the camel’s back. To truly understand climate change’s multiplying factor in this industry, we must also take stock of its existing vulnerabilities. Jamaica still doesn’t have a proper indoor or outdoor venue. In fact, the list of proper things it lacks would be too exhausting, but the small island has done exceptionally well with informal structures.

COVID-19 came and took that entire sector by storm, and shook it to its core. The curfews meant everything had to be done during the day. “Put it this way, we’ve kind of had a little bit of a shift. Something that is very popular now is the breakfast brunch party. You’ll find that these events are full of people. The sun is blazing hot, and they are still finding people dressed in their best,” said Watkis. 

“What we have to remember is that for the past three years, we have been going through covid. Majority of Jamaica we’ve had lockdowns and curfews. Jamaica is a place where everybody goes out and parties, there is always something to do. It’s just a part of our culture. With covid comes this whole new era of the day parties. Water parties in the day, soca parties start in the day. Breakfast brunch parties are happening more because we’ve had to shift to work with the time that we had. Even though we don’t have curfews anymore, we’ve kind of gotten used to doing things during the day.” Watkiss highlights a salient point here as the industry is already recovering from a huge blackout of sorts and is still on the cusp of a new era. Now here comes a warmer climate, unpredictable weather, droughts. and other extreme events courtesy of climate change. 

Despite the added challenges some people are finding and implementing solutions. Protoje’s own Lost In Time Festival had a stage with a canopy extending over the audience providing some shade. Music analyst and data specialist Lloyd Laing, who has been working in the entertainment space for several years, thinks we would do well to adopt some solutions from abroad. “Daytime events will always be lovely in Jamaica, we’re a humid space, and if we’re going to be inviting not just foreign interest in terms of investors but also patrons who don’t understand the kind of heat; we need to provide solutions. Things like cooling stations, which are implemented in festivals abroad with these huge fans where people just go to cool off.”

music festivals
Photo credit: Gladstone Taylor

Daytime events and festivals have the potential to seriously boost the earnings of our entertainment space. It has been done in the past, says Laing, “When the World Music Festival came to Jamaica in 1982, we did not have a space to accommodate those superstars and that level of production. But we managed to do it and the earnings from it allowed us to build out what is now a fundamental part of the infrastructure of the second city.” 

With more development on the horizon, though limited in newer ways by the changing climate; Jamaica’s entertainment space is holding up thanks to many of its informal structures. The extent to which these new prospects by way of Chance The Rapper and other foreign interests, will actually find success and synergy despite the lack of infrastructure, is yet to be seen. 



This story was originally published by Backayard Magazine, with the support of the Caribbean Climate Justice Journalism Fellowship, which is a joint venture between Climate Tracker and Open Society Foundations.


Picture of Gladstone Taylor

Gladstone Taylor

Gladstone Taylor is an author and journalist living and operating out of the creative industries of Kingston, Jamaica.

He has been writing professionally for over eight years. He’s reported on the environment, culture, music, film, and tech through platforms such as Mongabay, The Fader, Sole DxB, Bandcamp, The Face Magazine, RollingStone, Afropunk, Syfy Wire, and PopDust, to name a few.

He is a member of Covering Climate Now and Uproot Project.

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