Lively up yourself: Set sail to the sounds of Jamaica on the Welcome to Jamrock Reggae Cruise

From Bob Marley tributes to dancehall's finest, the Welcome to Jamrock Reggae Cruise brings Jamaica's signature sounds to the water.

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The 2023 Welcome to Jamrock Reggae Cruise Sail Away Party from Miami (Photo: Tizzy Tokyo

A favorite essay collection of mine gets its title from a chapter referring to luxury cruises as “a supposedly fun thing I’ll never do again.” But the eighth annual Welcome to Jamrock Reggae Cruise turned out to be an absolutely fun thing I’ll definitely do again, a Jamaica-bound platform for live performances by Sean Paul, Stephen Marley, Third World, Beenie Man and many more. Sold out months in advance, Jamrock features nightly shows by veterans and young guns of reggae and dancehall, sound clash battles and screenings of Jamaica-based cult classics like “Shottas” while vacationing cruisers sail down to the Caribbean.

Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite Cruise — a ’90s R&B-flavored sail to the Bahamas with Maxwell, Ledisi, Musiq Soulchild and others — sent notices through my social media timeline as I packed for Jamrock; musical cruises catering to Black vacationers are on the rise. Benefitting from this year’s 50th anniversary of hip-hop, the Rock the Bells Cruise had a fun-tastic inaugural run down to Nassau in November with De La Soul, MC Lyte, Rakim, and other golden-age rap greats. But Jamrock has spiritual reggae vibrations onboard, a lesson I learned on my first cruise last December.

Someone once said that guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days. The same might have applied to spending nearly a week with the hundreds of other passengers on our floating hotel, a mammoth cruise ship named “Independence of the Seas.” Thankfully, the experience of jostling amongst reggae lovers for five straight days of concerts felt nothing but positive. The 14-deck ship allowed plenty of room for everyone to enjoy jacuzzis, slot machines, (relatively) fine dining, mini golf, movies, spa massages and morning yoga. Our float plan included stops in the Jamaican towns of Falmouth and Ocho Rios before circling back to Miami, with excursions available for ziplining, horseback riding, waterfall wading, etc.

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Day 2’s “Whiteout Night” directed all of us to outfit ourselves in head-to-toe white for concerts by Wayne Wonder, Sean Paul, Stephen Marley and others. Sitting front and center behind a conga drum colored with the green, yellow and red of the Ethiopian flag, Marley launched an acoustic set full of material from his latest album, “Old Soul.” His younger brother Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley — who founded the Jamrock Reggae Cruise in 2014 — later joined him to perform their 2010 duet, “Jah Army.” Bob Marley covers are inevitable at Jamrock, and Stephen Marley didn’t disappoint, adding spirited new arrangements of “I Shot the Sheriff” and “Trenchtown Rock” to his setlist.

The Jamrock crowd included Rastafarians in long locs, middle- and retirement-aged couples, younger women tanning their BBLs in string bikinis alongside their muscled boyfriends — and, of course, sporadic white reggae fans. Searching for impressions from both the typical newbie reggae aficionado and a seasoned expert of the scene, on Day 3’s “Blackout Night” (everyone wearing all-black everything), I approached a young St. John’s University grad who seemed like this might be her first Jamrock.

Chanel Mayers, a 25-year-old Afrobeats fan of Trinidadian descent, came on the cruise to spend time with her parents. “They’ve been to Jamrock five times, and they rave about it,” she said. “While the performances were happening, I thought, ‘Oh, I know more reggae than I thought!’ [With] Sean Paul, I knew most of the songs. Beenie Man was pretty cool.” Before Lady G hit the stage, Mayers’ mom added that she loves reggae’s subject matter most of all. “It’s really conscious lyrics, and we don’t get those anymore because people just sing about random things that aren’t really important,” she said. “I think reggae is more relatable to life. It’s old school and I love it.”

For my seasoned expert, I approached music journalist and reggae specialist Rob Kenner. Known as the voice of Vibe magazine’s “Boomshots” column (Kenner was a founding editor), he’s been involved with the cruise since its beginning, interviewing performers on Jamrock Radio. I approached him for some personal highlights.

“The legendary highlight would be Third World performing,” he says. “They’re celebrating their 50th anniversary of their first recording this year. [Guitarist and co-founder] Cat Coore was playing the cello; singer A.J. Brown was singing opera-type vocals. It was just another level of musicianship you don’t see every day. And Damian Marley produced Third World’s last album, ‘More Work to Be Done,’ which was nominated for a Grammy. So it’s like a family vibe.” 

As both Kenner and Mayers’ mother noted, even amid a great escape, the music is also reflective of life on land. “[F]or the newest of the new, Jahshii has been going through a lot of really intense stuff over the past year,” Kenner explained of the up-and-coming dancehall artist, who opened his set singing a cover of “The Harder They Come” by Jimmy Cliff. “If you know that movie, it’s about an artist who gets caught up in the street life and his music begins to reflect the things that he’s experiencing in real life. Jahshii’s definitely having a parallel experience … there’s been a lot of drama,” he continued. “I’ve never heard such a raw performance, with emotion pouring out of [Jahshii’s] voice singing ‘Born Fighter.’ That was a big deal.”

Providing relaxation and release, whether you’re a casual reggae listener or a rudebwoy fan, the Jamrock Reggae Cruise has all the sunshine, positivity and righteous vibes to lively up yourself, guaranteed. Dates for 2024 are Dec. 9-14; tickets are on sale now

The Welcome to Jamrock Reggae Cruise provided complimentary onboard accommodations for the writer of this article.

Miles Marshall Lewis (@MMLunlimited) is an author and Harlem-based cultural critic whose work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, GQ, Rolling Stone and many other outlets. Lewis is currently finishing a cultural biography of comedian Dave Chappelle, his follow-up to Promise That You Will Sing About Me: The Power and Poetry of Kendrick Lamar.

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