Reggae fans can't wait to see "Mr. Loverman" himself, Rexton Rawlston Fernando Gordon, the Jamaican legend better-known as Shabba Ranks. In the '80s, 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 most 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 image by collaborating with No Doubt on "Hey Baby."
So what do these artists have in common? While all four of these talented Jamaicans 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 like Amnesty International.
But protesters just might want to lay down their picket signs for at least part of the festival. The lineup features two reggae legends with progressive attitudes. Both Cocoa Tea and Lady Saw 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 hit duets, "Who She Love" and "Pirates Anthem," with Shabba or croon "Eighteen and Over" alongside Buju. But the man whose soubriquet 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," the reggae legend muses. "Cocoa Tea and Shabba Ranks in combination will pull the house apart! And I must perform songs like 'Good Life,' 'She Loves Me Now,' 'Riker's Island,' 'Israel's King,' 'Holy Mount Zion,' 'Rocking Dolly'... there are so many hits to talk about."
In Jamaican culture, many singers who used their lyrics to tackle society's ills have been regarded as prophets. Cocoa Tea deserves that title, along with Bob Marley, Burning Spear, and Garnett Silk. Tea has expressed fierce, far-sighted political sentiments in "The New Immigration Law" and "No Blood for Oil," which was released in 1992. Unfortunately, these songs never received radio airplay. "I did those tunes, and I didn't mean to be cute," he thunders in almost indecipherable dialect. "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."
Cocoa Tea even has a formula and a dark theory.
"You know what is the 666, the mark of the beast?" he begins. "The numerical value of c-o-m-p-u-t-e-r. Add that up and tell me if is lie me a tell." (For the record, if you assign a number to each letter, then add the numerical value of the word computer together, they come up to 111. Then what? Multiply by 6? Hmm.)
"I and I know them things as a Rasta," Tea says. "That is the thing sent to wreck the world right now." Needless to say, he prefers to keep his Internet use to a 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."
Again, if you're put off by the festival's few gay-bashers, rest assured that you won't hear a homophobic diatribe from sweet, sweet Cocoa Tea.
"All human beings have faults and weaknesses," Tea says. "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 plans to perform his most recent hit for 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 dancehall music altogether. Saw is the first lady of dancehall, the mother to the current crop of overtly horny, patois-spitting DJ divas. She has been chanting for the better part of, what, a decade now?
"Oh, it's been longer than that," Saw confirms. "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."
Saw's star hasn't faded, because she keeps it real with her fans, and she has worked with an enviable lineup 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!" she exclaims. "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. 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 on stage 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."
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."
Of course, Saw knows there's one particular hit the audience will clamor for.
"I have to perform 'I Got Your Man'," Saw says. "Yeah, that's the new badass female anthem! Look for a very energized performance. I am a crazy gal on stage."