Last weekend, Reggae Rise Up (RRU) orchestrated yet another remarkable congregation of reggae and alternative aficionados at Vinoy Park in St. Petersburg, Florida. Over four days, RRU curated an impressive assemblage of musical performances across two main stages, exquisite artworks, delectable cuisines, and a merriment-packed festivity, attracting over 15,000 enthusiastic attendees with several noteworthy moments to cherish.
After delivering an amazing lineup last year, with headliners including Damian Marley, Soja, and Rebelution, this year’s lineup brought Marley and Rebelution back, plus adding Koffee, and most notably Wiz Khalifa. Each artist and band put on an amazing show. From Matisyahu joining Hirie during her set, to Rebelution’s unique cat-walk stage, or Marley bringing out his 13-year-old son to finish off his set, the weekend was filled with unforgettable, breathtaking moments that could only happen once in a lifetime.
On Friday, festival goers made their rounds to the free water stations in attempts to stay cool from heat, both from the stages and in the atmosphere. On the “rise up” stage in mid-day heat, Philippines-born, Hawaii raised, Hirie entranced the crowd with a whimsical serenade that could only be compared to a mythical siren, the way fans were funneling in to see her. With a pop infused reggae vibe, Hirie displayed impressive vocal range as she hit high notes and strutted the stage in a green dress. Closing off her set with “Blacklist”, reggae veteran Matisyahu made a surprise appearance as they jumped and embraced each other, giving a clear co-sign of Hirie’s exceptional talent.
In a packed crowd which seemed to resemble a headliner, Sublime with Rome exemplified how well ska-punk has aged, supplying original Sublime hits with a new generation twist. Beginning their set with 1991 Sublime’s first single “Date Rape”, fans bellowed every word as the band played with rigor, featuring a mean bass line played by the last remaining, original Sublime member, Eric Wilson. Swiftly moving through songs, the crowd’s sea of hands never went down for more than a few seconds over the 45-minute set.
Renowned reggae singer, Matisyahu, was next, gracing the vibe stage with an amalgamation of soulful music and a positive atmosphere. Despite appearing almost unrecognizable from his earlier days as a strictly Hasidic Jew, adherent when he achieved fame with his track "King Without a Crown", the artist demonstrated that his vocal, rapping, and beatboxing abilities have not diminished over the years. As he bounced from song to song, with the likes of “Chameleon”, “One Day”, and “Jerusalem”,
Upon the arrival of Rebelution onto the stage, night had descended and the amphitheater was illuminated with a magnificent display of laser lights that spanned across the full range of the color spectrum. Rebelution made its entrance, surrounded by beams of vivid green and a haze which consisted of equal parts smoke C02 and THC. Wasting no time in igniting the evening with its most popular songs “Pretty Lady”, “So High” and “Fade Away”, the experience was not only an auditory delight but also a visual spectacle. Moreover, the acoustics of the venue were exceptional from every location, and every song was met with enthusiastic reception from the fans.
Unforgettably and uniquely compared to other bands throughout the weekend, Rebelution’s set featured a catwalk which put the icing on the cake as lead singer Eric Rachmany, his guitarist, and clarinetist strutted the cat walk back and forth. Rebelution had the audience captivated, with everyone singing and clapping along to the music, making for an unforgettable evening.
Moving on to Saturday, festival goers arrived with renewed energy to add onto a successful Friday. On the “rise up” stage, Louisiana-born, Bermuda-raised singer-rapper Collie Buddz eased day into action with a set that blended classic-soul style with R&B-tinged island music. His sharp white loafers looked not a drop worse for the wear, even as he energetically performed, standing on speakers and jutting into the photo pit.
Photo by Isaiah Stevens
Koffee plays Reggae Rise Up at Vinoy Park in St. Petersburg, Florida on March 18, 2023.
In another change of pace, young Jamaican pop-reggae star Koffee took the “Rise Up” stage much like Hirie, with an unanticipated amount of crowd support. (Unanticipated due to Koffee’s difference in genre.) However, this difference in genre quickly blended to match a more overtly reggae energy as Koffee’s Jamaican roots shined, bringing a full band with her. It was pleasing to not only hear some of her bigger hits like “Toast” and “Rapture”, but to also be introduced to some of her latest work like “10x”, which samples the classic Bob Marley track “Redemption song”.
It is undeniable that anytime a descendant of the legend Robert Nesta Marley arrives on stage, the very soul of the legend and essence of reggae consumes the entirety of the venue. This phenomenon was ever more evident in the presence of four-time Grammy Award winning musician, Damien “Jr. Gong'' Marley. Ultimately, there are no mere mortal words to describe the feeling and energy cultivated by Jr. Gong and the essence of reggae he brings. However, if there were, pure ecstasy and unparalleled empowerment would be an understatement. Damian’s set began in darkness as a solitary figure walked to the front of the stage, spotlight illuminated in his all-black attire, with reggae scarf adjunct. As he stepped out of the darkness, psychedelic laser lights suddenly engulfed Vinoy Park as the familiar twang of the guitar and pounding of dancehall bass reverberated throughout. As Jr. Gong moved between his own smash hits including “Medication’ and “Nail Pon Cross”, throwing in a plethora of his father’s society-shifting ballads like, “Get Up Stand Up” and “Punky Reggae Party”, you could feel the music travel through your toes, gripping your heart as it leaves your body. To end the night, in true “family business” fashion, Damien brought out his 13-year-old son to rap a few words and cap off a monumental performance.
Concluding with Sunday, Hawaii influenced reggae artist J Boog came out singing the intro to Bob Marley’s “Exodus”, immediately grabbing attention, and sending the crowd into a frenzy. It’s such a fun time watching J Boog and his band on stage, because not only do they sound amazing, but the way they feed off each other’s energy is immaculate. The Hawaii inspiration adds a phenomenal mix as well, into what would otherwise be considered classic reggae.
Following up on the “rise up” stage, rock-reggae band Dirty Heads took the stage to the hard-hitting jam “Medusa”. The catchy chorus and the reggae style rap really set the mood off right and immediately got the crowd dancing. Their set included songs from pretty much every one of their many albums so there was a little bit of something for everyone. The band’s ability to easily transition their sound from chill reggae/rock beach music like “Lay Me Down” and the fast-paced rapping they do on tracks like “Hipster” is a highly coveted skill, especially at a Reggae festival.
The co-headliner featured San Diego based, rock-reggae band Pepper. Emerging onto the stage, Pepper’s performance style has become notably more energetic from its previous more roots reggae style. Pepper has island reggae at its soul, but their outfits are one thing that completely abandons them from the Rasta vibe. Clean t-shirts, jeans and baseball caps isn’t exactly true ragamuffin attire, but it fits great with the Cali rock theme they ascribe to and nevertheless, had the audience at attention.
Photo by Isaiah Stevens
Wiz Khalifa plays Reggae Rise Up at Vinoy Park in St. Petersburg, Florida on March 19, 2023.
The finale came in the form of international superstar Wiz Khalifa. At 8:30 p.m. the thick, humid air of the evening clung to festival goers’ skins like saran wrap. “I can’t believe Wiz Khalifa is actually here,” raves a few fans as they make their way to the front of the stage. After a couple minutes delay, the icon himself emerged sporting a black leather jacket, cargo pants, and his famous ear to ear smile. Rolling back to the 2010s, he opened with his hit single, “Black and Yellow”. Signaled by the powerful beat drop, the crowd jumped in sync, and in that moment, a sea of cell phones raised into the air. A comradery was shared amongst everyone as they shared moments within songs that defined many parts of their childhood, or early adulthood. Songs like “We Dem Boyz” “23,” and “Roll Up,” all made their way to the mic along with songs from Khalifa’s newest album, Multiverse, which just dropped in October 2022. Each and every moment of the performance was delivered by Khalifa in a way that was so spirited, devoted, and genuinely exciting. However, it should be mentioned that no live band present meant that all of Wiz’s tracks were played as studio recorded editions, which after a weekend of heart pumping, soul raising LIVE music, unfortunately came as a letdown for a lot of fans. Regardless, Wiz’s star power alone was enough to captivate every person for every second of his show.
Live Night Events put on a great festival this year, and it’s exciting to see what they have in store for Reggae Rise Up 2024. If you can't until next time around in Florida, to experience those reggae vibes, keep an eye out for Reggae Rise Up Maryland in June. Even though the St. Pete festival just finished, hundreds of attendees are already making plans to return to Vinoy Park the following year to get some rays, hang out with friends, and enjoy some amazing acts. There is no doubt that Reggae Rise Up has the situation under control, as they routinely produce a music, food, drink, and art-filled weekend that leaves attendees happy and eager to return the following year.