Students halt Pitzer reggae fest, citing ‘cultural appropriation’

There’s an old saying in the entertainment business: “The show must go on.” The show might not go on, however, for Pitzer College’s 15th annual Reggae Fest.

The festival, which welcomes community members of all ages as well as local college students, was set for mid-November. On September 21, however, the Pitzer College Student Senate froze funding for the free two-day event.

Student Senate President Josue Pasillas told the COURIER the executive board opted to freeze the budget “in response to a lack of outreach to students, staff and faculty of color who expressed concerns of the festival being cultural appropriation.”

That concern was expressed in a Student Demand Letter, drafted by 70 Pitzer students, staff and faculty members in February 2016 and distributed last December at a gathering addressing campus diversity. Representatives of the Asian Pacific American Coalition, the Latinx Student Union, the Black Student Union and the First-Gen Program signed the letter, which was called “a living document.”

Among 26 action items, the document calls for the college to cease support of Reggae Fest,  “an example of cultural appropriation that Pitzer is fully funding.” It calls for the event’s budget—which ranges annually from $10,000 to $15,000—to be allocated “toward programming or financial aid that supports Black students instead of furthering their marginalization on campus.” Another action item demands more funding for Pitzer’s Latinx Student Union Rockabilly Festival.

Pitzer College President Melvin Oliver was traveling this week and was unable to comment on the issue.



Cultural appropriation—a notion some call valid and others refute—is when people adopt aspects of another culture or ethnicity, gaining enjoyment or profit while failing to grasp the circumstances from which the cultural expressions arose. 

Jah Faith, a reggae musician and emcee at Los Angeles’ Dub Club, has performed twice at Pitzer’s Reggae Fest. “It was a nice experience, although I thought it could be more well-attended,” he said.

He expressed surprise at the contention of cultural appropriation as well as complaints by students about the event being too white. In a September 30 article in The Student Life (TSL), student Kimberly Hah cited Reggae Fest among Pitzer events that “have historically been very white spaces.”

“I will be honest that it was kind of odd at first seeing that Reggae Fest was being run by three white guys,” Xandrine Smith-Griffin, a student who served on last year’s Reggae Fest committee, told TSL, adding she was made uncomfortable at times by the selection of musicians.

“Dub Club is the biggest reggae club in California or the whole of America,” Mr. Faith said. “It’s run by white guys and no one has a problem, because they are working for the upliftment and advancement of the art form of reggae. Music breaks all color barriers. Music transcends all boundaries.”

Wayne “Native Wayne” Jobson is a Grammy-winning Jamaican record producer of European descent who has produced music by reggae musician Gregory Isaacs, ska/rock steady pioneers Toots and the Maytals and platimun-selling artists No Doubt. On Sunday afternoons, Claremont residents can tune into his weekly radio show on Indie 103.1, “Alter Native.”

He didn’t mince words regarding the Pitzer Student Senate’s decision.

“Reggae’s figurehead is Bob Marley, whose father was white and whose mother was black. So as an emblem of unity, reggae is half-white and half-black,” Mr. Jobson said. “The biggest reggae acts in America are SOJA and Rebelution, who are white, and the majority of the reggae audience is white.

“So let’s forget about color and use the message of reggae to uplift our consciousness,” he continued. “And for those who disagree, please tell them to notify the rock bands from around the world to please stop playing American Chuck Berry’s art form called rock ‘n roll.”

The festival is not the first time the concept of cultural appropriation has played a part in student politics. Last November, the student senate indefinitely tabled the proposal of then-freshman Janu Patel to start a Pitzer chapter of DreamCatchers.

The organization aims to grant the wishes and dreams of terminally ill patients. The reason cited for the kibosh was the organization’s use of the Native American dreamcatcher as a name and symbol. While student senator Kamyab Mashian was in support of approving the club, she told TSL many senators were troubled by organization’s imagery.

Speaking of DreamCatchers founder Caitlin Crommett, Ms. Mashian said, “She’s fairly light-skinned and has blonde hair, so in the picture [on the website] it just looks like a white girl holding a dreamcatcher—like a textbook example of cultural appropriation.”

Ms. Crommett says part of her family comes from the Penobscot tribe of Maine. She has collected dreamcatchers her entire life and her organization presents them to patients as a reminder of their experience.

“Frankly, it is upsetting that the group did not realize they are preventing kindhearted students from making a positive change and difference in the community, and in the lives of individuals who may not have a lot of light in their lives at the end,” Ms. Crommett told TSL.



Another concern contributed to at least one student’s discomfort with the reggae festival.

Julia Foote, an international student from Jamaica, told TSL she feels the festival’s references to marijuana—like the show’s kick-off at 4:20 p.m., which many say is the most common time of the day marijuana users get high—foster sterotypes.

“It doesn’t sit well with me, as it just perpetuates the idea that Jamaicans (and Caribbean people in general) just sit around and smoke weed all day,” she said. 

Mr. Faith said he would be interested to learn whether Ms. Foote likes Bob Marley, as a musician and as a fellow Jamaican.

“Bob Marley smoked weed all the days of his professional life and even before. The world doesn’t have a problem with him doing that. Do you have a problem with that?” he said. “To Rastafarians, who are the founders of the reggae music that makes the people come around and feel good, marijuana is a sacrament. Herb is connected with the Most-I [God]. Herb and reggae, they go hand in hand.”

Bob Marley also figured prominently in a lengthy comment, excerpted below and posted by Gibb Schreffler, assistant professor of ethnomusicology at Pomona College, in response to the TSL article.

“Reggae in a fashion was given to the world outside Jamaican culture long ago, and the person who had probably the greatest hand in that was an artist that I need not name—because anybody reading this, if they know only one name associated with reggae, already knows that name,” he wrote. “And the fact that they all do know that name is proof in itself that, at some level, reggae music is not confined to a particular culture-group’s use or knowledge any more than the English language or a university. To be sure, there are ‘insider’ things to be known about reggae, but we are long past the point when only insiders know reggae.”

Student organizers of the Reggae Fest sent a response to the Student List of Demands: “We understand why a festival like this can easily appropriate many aspects of Jamaican culture if proper precautions are not taken. However, unless we are gravely misinformed…we believe that a festival like ours represents a case of cultural appreciation.”

Pitzer Senate Treasurer Harrison Sattley told TSL the response failed to address the problems with Reggae Fest and cautioned that if organizers don’t come up with a plan to reform the festival, its funding will be reallocated.

Reggae Fest President Jose Preciado told the Student Life that he wants to listen to the community and ensure that the festival gets “rid of any signs of disrespect.” In the meantime, however, he said “time’s ticking.”

Claremont might just be out a music festival. That would be a shame, John York, a local musician perhaps best known for having toured with the Byrds, said. He wonders how far the concept of cultural appropriation will be taken.

“Should only Austrians play Mozart?” he asked.

—Sarah Torribio


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