Experiencing Kaya Fest 2018

Driving up to the drab-colored NOS Events Center in San Bernardino does not make you feel that you’re about to experience a one-of-a-kind festival weekend amidst the most beautiful strangers you’ll ever meet. With Coachella happening the same April weekend in the desert just adjacent to Kaya's Riverside, California location and with renowned Los Angeles radio station KROQ’s ska-rock festival going down out west at the beach, Kaya Fest was definitely up against some stiff competition. Little did everyone know that the 2nd Annual Kaya Festival was embedded with so much magic that you simply could not miss it.

Kaya Fest had ‘Coachella-esque’ style, with giant lion-shaped shrubbery and statues…

Once in the gate, it was as if the whole center had transformed. A small manmade stream ran through the fairgrounds, ending in a lake which had giant ‘K-A-Y-A’ letters erected in front of the main fountain; this picturesque display prompted people to get a good photo op in before immersing themselves in the festival madness. People meditated at those letters, sitting cross-legged in front of the floating ducks in the pond or standing with arms open, embracing the essence of one love, one heart. Thrown by Stephen Marley in commemoration of his father’s Kaya album hitting 40 years strong, Kaya Fest had ‘Coachella-esque’ style, with giant lion-shaped shrubbery and statues among other fun selfie-friendly findings. There was even a dedicated yoga tree.

Day One was the main Marley day, with all five Marley brothers headlining the night – together on one stage for the first time! With anticipation running high for that ensemble, Hawaiian goddess Anuhea had the honors of inaugurating Year 2, with a blend of her signature island vibes and her edgy, new EDM-influenced tracks. Although early, the assembled crowd was already sizeable and cheered loud for the chanteuse as she sang. It was around the second set of the day that the relentless San Bernardino sun began to beam down hard upon the black NOS asphalt. Despite that, Oregon folk-reggae-fusion band Indubious came out and slayed the stage, with their own unique mix of sound and style. Keyboardist Evan was also rocking some sweet genie-style pants that did not restrict him in the slightest from busting out some high karate kicks in the heat of the moment. The day continued with east coast jam band Roots of Creation doing their special Grateful Dub set: the live adaptation of the band's recent Grateful Dead tribute album featuring reggae-friendly dub versions of classic Dead songs. Any Dead head would be over the moon with how it turned out. Next up was reggae queen Marcia Griffiths, who shined onstage showing off her majestic, monarchial nature. 2018 GRAMMY-nominees Common Kings succeeded the stage next, which got everyone bouncing to their upbeat anthems and catchy lyrics.

As Common Kings left the stage to uproarious applause, it became harder and harder to traverse the grounds, for Day One was sold out! Festivalgoers weren’t tripping on the close proximity though, for positive vibrations were emanating in every direction and genuine human connection was the name of the game. The Bad Boys of Reggae, Inner Circle, performed next, with hits like “Sweat (A La La La Long)” and “Bad Boys”, propelling everyone to sing along. And, along this 'bad boy' motif, chef, actor, TV-star, wrestler turned rapper Action Bronson completely annihilated the stage next – blunt in hand and spitting lyrics in between smoke rings. Latin star Yandel brought some spice to the day with Latina flash dancers and strobe lights, balancing the subsequent mellow Toots and the Maytals performance before it was Marley time. Up first was a few M3’s (Marley grandchildren or Mini Marleys, if you will…), Skip Marley and Jo Mersa Marley. It is almost unfathomable how each Marley generation truly upholds the talent and passion of the one that reigned before. Finally, the main event had arrived: Damian, Stephen, Ziggy, Ky-Mani and Julian Marley took the stage as a united front in the name of dad. Witnessing such spectacle, with all five brothers laughing and clowning in between singing their parts off Bob Marley's Kaya album, rendered the entire crowd in a wide-eyed stupor of awe and appreciation. It was indescribable. What an easy skanking night, with Weed Jesus shouting “give thanks and praise to the Lord and I will feel alright”, hands high to the sky at the front of the stage! You don't see that every day…

What was great about Day Two is that even though you’ve been there all weekend, you were still finding places around the festival tucked away…

Day Two continued a little cooler in temperature than the day before, with people getting to the fairgrounds at the crack of noon to cheer on one-man band sensation, Jah Stix, followed by Bob grandson Daniel Bambaata Marley’s playful hip hop-reggae set. All set times were pushed back a bit due to an extensive morning sound check by the meticulous, yet mystifying Sunday headliner, Ms. Lauryn Hill, but no one seemed to mind. A band did have to get cut from the lineup as a result though… bummer. Kabaka Pyramid culminated a strong Jamaican vibe, which got even more amplified by Jamaican reggae greats, Third World. What was great about Day Two is that even though you’ve been there all weekend, you were still finding places around the festival tucked away as you explored, like a full-on dancehall party – complete with a bubble machine and DJ – going down at the far corner of the grounds. That had been there this whole time?!? Back at the stage, Zion y Lennox took concertgoers south of the border with Latin flair and more scantily-clad flash dancers. Another GRAMMY-nominee, Chronixx, brought his reggae revival movement into the mix, followed by a questionably too stoned Stephen Marley sitting, smiling and playing bongos throughout an acoustic set. If that's even a feasible possibility. This led into Cypress Hill stealing the show, laying on the Sunday night crowd hit after hit after hit after hit. After so much hip hop hype, SOJA switched on the reggae back on before headliner Lauryn Hill graced the stage, decked out in an exquisite golden headdress. With the fest running behind schedule, it was well into Monday morning when Ms. Hill actually started her set and with a 2am noise cap on the NOS Center, it was unfortunate that patient Lauryn Hill fans only got a few jams before the towel had to be thrown in. The few songs she did perform were beyond sensational though!

No matter if you had work in the morning, if you had a long drive ahead or if you had nothing to do the next day, leaving Kaya Fest at 2am on a Monday felt like you were floating. You couldn’t even be mad because your weekend adventures occurred on an unprecedented level of greatness. One can only pray that Kaya Fest will blossom into a yearly California extravaganza, considering Years 1 and 2 were on opposite ends of the States! C'mon, Stephen, we've got to have more Kaya now!

Photography by Sean McCracken

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