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Montego Bay, Jamaica's Rising Violence Mirrors Past Troubles -- With Music as a Balm

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Montego Bay, Jamaica. 

40 years after a concert meant to inspire peace that ended in violence against Bob Marley, a spike in murders led to a similar effort in Montego Bay, Jamaica.

On Dec. 5, 1976, Bob Marley headlined the Smile Jamaica concert in Kingston, named for the pacifying single Marley had released the same year. The Smile Jamaica concert was held to provide a respite, however brief, from deadly political violence perpetrated by armed gangs aligned with both the socialist-leaning PNP (which sponsored Smile Jamaica) and the right-wing Jamaica Labor Party. Bob’s participation in the event was (wrongly) perceived by some as partisan, and has long been pointed to as the catalyst for an attack on Marley by four gunmen, who sprayed the inside of his home with bullets and wounded the reggae legend as well as his wife Rita and manager Don Taylor -- two days before Smile Jamaica began.

While Jamaica’s political violence has radically declined over the decades, its murder rate has spiked in recent years, especially in Montego Bay, the center of tourism on the island located in the western parish of St. James. St. James Police attribute most of the parish’s 200 murders since January 2016 -- a 30 percent increase from 2014’s total -- to skirmishes between rival lottery phone scam rings over money and lists of potential targets contact/identity information.

As a means of beginning to calm the spike in violence in Montego Bay, much as the Smile Jamaica concert attempted decades before, a concert, Entertainers Against Crime and Violence, was recently (Dec. 4) held, presented by Entertainment Missions, a consortium of Montego Bay area artists/musicians, alongside sing-jay/activist Queen Ifrica, whose sophomore album for the long-running and respected independent label VP Records, Climb, drops in January.

The concert, which was free, drew an estimated crowd of 10,000 and featured performances by 60 artists, including dancehall legend Ninja Man, gospel reggae artist Stitchie, sing-jay’s Bugle, I-Wayne and Nesbeth, singer/songwriters Hezron and Duane Stephenson, Entertainment Missions’ Mackie Conscious, Queen Ifrica and her mentor Tony Rebel, the founder of Jamaica’s annual cultural reggae concert extravaganza Rebel Salute.

One of Entertainment Missions’ goals is to expand Montego Bay’s live music scene, which has struggled in parallel to the rise in violence.

"The killings are usually reprisals or unfair gang dealings, but the violence has made many people afraid to go out at night, so promoters put on fewer events, which means less work for musicians," Mackie Conscious tells Billboard. "We plan to hold events in some troubled communities and harness these youths’ talents; if they can pull off these phone scams, we know they can do good things with their skills."

A recent video for singer/songwriter Hezron’s hit single, the sobriqueted "Mobay," juxtaposes the second city’s natural splendor with the depiction a vicious gang shooting.

"I heard about two brothers gunned down at the wake of their friend who was murdered a week earlier, so I wrote 'Mobay' to address our situation, the crime, the scamming, the killing. If we run from it, it can’t change," says Hezron, whose sophomore album The Life I Lived (Soulful Salvation) is due in late January from Hardshield Records. "We know the system creates situations where men have to hustle to survive, but hustle in positive ways and make people live," adds the singer, whose Hezron Clarke Foundation, which launches in the first quarter of 2017, will provide scholarship assistance to select Montego Bay students.

Tourism is Jamaica’s most lucrative industry, generating $1.3 billion over the first six months of 2016, according to an August release by the Jamaica Tourist Board. Montego Bay’s current difficulties, Queen Ifrica proffers, partially stem from the failure of tourism revenue to significantly impact local vendors, due to the proliferation of the all-inclusive hotel concept: prior to their arrival, visitors pay a flat fee for their hotel room, food, drink, activities and entertainment, eliminating the need to leave the hotel property (many non-Jamaican owned), usually situated on a private beach.

"When tourists came to the heart of Montego Bay, youths could sell their crafts and make money, local businesses were supported; now we see the ripple effects of removing that without providing other opportunities," Queen explained.

Queen Ifrica and Tony Rebel have led successful interventions around volatile areas of Kingston, brokering peace between rival gangs for extended periods of time. As they prepare for similar initiatives within Montego Bay’s problem-plagued communities, Queen Ifrica urges widespread support for their courageous, transformative undertakings.

"We utilize our popularity as musicians to do what we can but we need more impactful contributions from government and corporate entities for the interventions to succeed on a sustainable level," she says. "Help us put an infrastructure in place for academic advancements, skill training, for recreational centers to benefit youths who have nothing to do so they can build from there."