MONTEGO BAY, JAMAICA -- With an impresseive lineup of nearly 50 reggae acts complemented by a few international guest artists, Reggae Sumfest  reigns as Jamaica's largest, most commercially successful music event.
Sumfest recently celebrated its 19th anniversary, July 21-23, at Montego Bay's Catherine Hall, with dancehall superstars Vybz Kartel and Mavado, original Wailer Bunny Wailer, and the iconic Beres Hammond who was honored for his 35 years of outstanding contributions to Jamaica's music business
Sumfest's special guest artist was Nicki Minaj (R. Kelly was scheduled to perform but canceled due to emergency tonsil surgery). The event also had its biggest year in terms of sponsorship.
Sumfest's best-attended night is consistently its Thursday Dancehall Night featuring almost 30 local dancehall deejays and drawing 12,000-15,000 patrons. Yet it's the international acts, which have included Rihanna, Usher, Ne-Yo and Chris Brown that attract the vast corporate support, which is essential to Sumfest's success.
"When we started in 1993 we hired vintage guest artists like the Temptations but we were struggling to survive so we changed course," explains Johnny Gourzong, the Executive Director of Reggae Sumfest. "In 1998 we brought in Boys II Men who were very popular then; ever since we have featured young hip hop and R&B acts. Our sponsors wouldn't support us like they do if it was only reggae acts because our artists perform too regularly down here."
Created as a vehicle for stimulating tourism during the slow summer months, Sumfest pumps approximately $9 million into the greater Montego Bay economy, says Chairman Robert Russell. "Sumfest annually attracts 6,000 visitors to Montego Bay; hotels are filled, restaurants, bars and car rental companies do great business," acknowledges Russell.
Sumfest 2011 drew approximately 30,000 patrons over three nights, notes Gourzong; 50,000 viewers logged on for Sumfest's free live stream "Backstage Behind The Scenes" on ReggaeSumfest.tv and 3,000 have preregistered for the PPV On Demand Reggae Sumfest concert, available on August 5, says Sherra Pierre-March of Cbeanmedia.tv, Sumfest's live stream partner.
This year Sumfest secured four Platinum sponsors each contributing services or cash equaling $150,000: Digicel telecommunications company, The Jamaica Tourist Board, Montego Bay's Secrets Resort and Pepsi Jamaica. Sumfest's Director of Marketing and Sponsorship, Marcia McDonnough successfully courted a younger demographic through a ten week marketing campaign on Facebook and Twitter, which appealed to their sponsors.
"Since we began targeting a younger market, Pepsi, for example, became more interested in Sumfest and they now spend more with us," says McDonnough. Indeed, many young people, tweens as well as teens, turned out on Saturday July 23 to see Nicki Minaj who was later fined JA $1,000 (US $11.00) for using expletives during her short, partially lip-synched performance ; Minaj had violated Jamaica's Towns and Communities Act, which dates back to the British colonial era and penalizes "obscenity in a public place".
For the first time Sumfest also recruited two Diamond sponsors whose individual contributions surpass the Platinum level: Iberostar Hotel, located just outside of Montego Bay, owned by the Mallorca, Spain based Grupo Iberostar, and Jamaica's Red Stripe Beer. "There isn't a set Diamond sponsor value, they contribute money but give much more in terms of support," offers McDonnough. "Iberostar contributed about 150 complimentary rooms and Red Stripe provided much of the grounds' infrastructure, with bars, skyboxes and an elevated air-bridge that wrapped around the stage from which select patrons could watch the show."
Digicel, a Sumfest supporter for the past 11 years, sponsored the Sumfest side stage where lesser-known artists performed during the main stage's intermissions. "Our sponsorship is based on the fact that reggae is so important to our customers," explains Paula Pinnock Macleod, Digicel's Sponsorship Manager. "Without sponsorship Sumfest couldn't run so we are happy to play a part in it."
Popular dancehall artist I-Octane's association with Digicel secured the 2010 prime time Sumfest slot that propelled him into dancehall's major league. Last summer he was the face of Digicel's Next Generation campaign, their pre-Sumfest promotion; in October he signed on as the company's brand ambassador.
"Before Digicel, I didn't have the support to command a solid performance time and bring across my craft in the way I would like to. 2010 was like my first year at Sumfest, even though it was really my third," said I-Octane. Greeted by a cacophony of vuvuzelas and bullhorns, I-Octane set Sumfest 2011 ablaze, literally; his fans approvingly held butane-fueled torches aloft and lit a massive, crackling bonfire in the center of Catherine Hall, its carrot-colored flames shooting some thirty feet into the air.
Arguably, Sumfest's most talked about set was delivered by R Kelly's 11th hour replacement, venerable Jamaican singer Cocoa Tea, best known internationally for his "Barak Obama" tribute. With his smooth renderings of classic dancehall hits making an instantaneous connection with the audience, Cocoa Tea then reprimanded the promoters for not booking him for Sumfest in recent years.
"Them book foreign artists that charge couple million and look what happened?" Cocoa Tea said. And when he asked the enthralled audience if they missed R. Kelly a thunderous and seemingly unanimous "no" echoed throughout Catherine Hall.