Photos of the Cali Roots Music Fest taken by Ural Garrett for Okayplayer.
You have to use your imagination a bit but follow me.
Imagine a place—the same locale for the now famous HBO drama Big Little Lies—where a reggae fest featuring artists like Matisyahu, Collie Buddz and Nas converges on Monterey Bay. Where dreads don’t just flow off the tops of Rastas. Where the artists are—in the spirit of Haile Selassi and the motto for Jamaica (a land we love)—really out of many, one people. The politics feel progressive. Hemp stands are everywhere and the vibes are Venusian, like the British woman we met who had no idea who The Roots were and giggled like a pixie from another world when we mentioned the word “writing”.
There are a confluence of cultures and people here that are baffling in range. Blonde skater kids with dread locks rock Vans and baggy Dickie’s. Silken pant stoners sway to roots reggae acts like Hawaiian hailed The Late Ones and Jesse Royal, who’s already been featured in Vogue and Noisey.
We’d hesitate to use the term hippy, but this backyard party turned full-fledged extravaganza was literally born out of the Monterey Pop Festival’s bone yard. It’s DNA is sprinkled throughout, but not concentrated into the wail of Janice Joplin or the charred guitar of Jimi Hendrix. Yes, that was 50 years ago now. That generation gave way to drugs first, then greed. But the spirit is alive at the California Roots Music & Arts Festival somehow, simmering on a dutch pot of roots reggae, bud and I an’ I.
The sets jumped between hybrid collisions of blues, country, hip-hop and rock, with ska, trap, and others lobbed in, but the one central ingredient was reggae. And the festival has drawn huge acts. Spread from Friday, May 26 – May 28, this year’s festival grabbed Nas, Thievery Corporation, Jurassic 5, including rock & reggae royalty like Dirty Heads. A scene had been flowering underneath our noses but we were completely unaware.
This is Cali Root’s eighth festival. Nestled in Monterey, California, a place with an aforementioned mega history of musical greatness, the festival is co-produced by Dan Sheehan. Previous groups to touch the stage include Ziggy and Damian Marley and The Roots. But what’s important to note is the togetherness and unity of it all. It’s like a place where our nonsensical politics simply don’t enter, bounced back to the void by a mutually shared philosophy of acceptance. Where white men in dreads swing flags of the Lion of Judah unironically.
It leads us to believe that maybe there is some alternative universe out there not spurned by rage and discontent. That happiness is a lifestyle, a movement of live-and-let-live that is antithetical to the abject pettiness and morality-as-torture of our time. Soja—a band that has grown as the festival has grown—has been around since 1997, and their crowd lapped up each line as though it were more manifesto than song.
In a conversation with budding star Jesse Royal, we asked him how, in a world as divisive as ours is now, can we come back to some kind of balance. “It’s all about realizing we’re all human,” he said. “Before there was a word for love, people were still sharing their harvest. We need to get back to that place.” His newest single, “Always Be Around,” centers on a similar idea: that before we were slaves and there were slave holders we loved. Is it really possible to get back to that?
Sure, the weed helps. And there’s only so long before the reality of politics and race creeps back into our lives. But in Monterey, at the Cali Roots Festival, with bands like Rebelution taking up the mantle of Roots reggae for a U.S. crowd that values dank weed and unity over all else.
When we prodded Jesse Royal with how he felt about the dancehall light you hear blowing up on the radio right now he smiled. “We love dancehall,” he told us. “But we’re doing this from the heart, not for the charts. We follow a different mission.”
Maybe that’s all it takes.
Check back for day two of coverage from the Cali Roots Festival right here at Okayplayer.