Three Stars Align to Change the Game
Toronto’s Woodbine Shopping Centre and Fantasy Fair has never seen anything quite like this. Thousands upon thousands of Rexdale yutes—hood-fresh guys in their best kicks, chains, and jackets; bashment girls sporting multicolored hairstyles and dressed in garments ranging from skin-tight to see-through—flood the massive mall’s parking lot on Saturday, August 19 for Fresh Fest.
Only a few minutes’ drive from Pearson International Airport, this venue sits in the working class Scarborough district of Ontario. Nearby neighborhoods like Rexdale have their fair share of government housing projects and experience more crime and violence than most of this relatively peaceful city. Putting on a dancehall show here means a lot to this community. Especially an outdoor concert featuring three of dancehall’s biggest stars—Mavado, Alkaline, and Jahmiel. Story, Photo & Video After The Jump…
As the sun sets a booming sound system blares Konshens’“Bruk Off Yuh Back” while excited fans try to make their way inside the tall metal barricades that the show’s promoters have erected in the parking lot. Event security staff have their hands full tonight. The presence of a sizable—and visibly nervous—police force is not making things much easier. “Back up, way back!” yells the cop by the VIP/Artist entrance, basically a gap in the fence that’s mobbed by hopeful fans, all pleading their case as to why they should be allowed to pass through to the other side. “I’m closing this entrance now!” the cop yells, sending fans scurrying to find another opening in the perimeter.
Much of the crowd arrived hours early because an appearance by any one of these artists—let alone all three—is a very big deal: Mavado aka the “Gully Gaad,” Alkaline the “Vendetta Boss,” and the newest Jahmiel, who reps “Patriots.” Over the past six months they’ve been known as MVP, although this crew is more of a spontaneous movement than a group in the traditional sense of the word.
“People me ah beg you. We don’t get shows like this in Toronto. Please don’t fuck this up!” —Rodeo the Promoter
The concept first took shape this past March when Jahmiel released a song called “Bad Dawg” containing the following braggadocious bars:
“And if you never know, don’t fuck with MVP
In other words, Most Valuable Players
In other words, Mavado, Vendetta, Patriots
You see weh me a say?
All ah we bad!”
Fans soon ran with it and began posting #MVP hashtags on all three artists’ photos, songs, and videos. A few weeks later the three artists performed on the same bill for the first time. The occasion was Alkaline’s “New Rules” stage show, held at Kingston, Jamaica’s National Arena in the car park—not unlike tonight’s show in Toronto. That highly anticipated event—Alkaline’s first live performance in Jamaica for two years, accompanied by Mavado, Jahmiel, and a few other top stars—created such a frenzy that, according to published reports, “rowdy patrons broke down the barriers and bombarded the stage area” while “security personnel…. became overwhelmed.” The Man Himselff—as Alkaline is known on IG—was escorted to the stage surrounded by a human shield of guards. Despite some chaotic moments, the show was completed without major incident.
Jamaican music is a powerful force whose global impact has never been stronger than it is right now. International pop stars from Ed Sheeran to Justin Bieber—not to mention Torontonians Drake and Tory Lanez—regularly borrow dancehall beats, flows, style, and slang to create hits on the worldwide charts. But all too often the Jamaican creators of dancehall culture are left standing on the sidelines. In many cases they’re distracted by local rivalries, making songs more interesting to industry insiders than to the public at large—taking their eye off the ball just when it matters most.
Tonight’s Fresh Fest is all about reversing that trend as Mavado, Alkaline, and Jahmiel come together to bring raw uncut dancehall straight from Jamaica to the T Dot massive. Maybe this particular show won’t be held in a mainstream arena like the Air Canada Centre or the Molson Canadian Amphitheatre, but all three artists consider it just as important. And nobody in town wants to miss it.
Many of those who cannot afford the $60 ticket price ($150 for VIP bands) park along Highway 27, standing next to their cars to overhear Fresh Fest firsthand. Others might try their luck at crashing the gate.
When you host a party in the hood you know for a fact that you’re playing by hood rules. “Real recognize real” as the saying goes, but only a few live by those rules because it’s not an easy road.
“Hear me now people,” says Rodeo, one of the Fresh Fest organizers, pleading with the crowd from the mic onstage. “You know me. I grew up in this area. We are proud to make this show happen for you. But the artists will not be able to perform if they cannot reach the stage. Too many people are crowding the gate. The police are telling us they will shut this whole thing down if we do not move in an orderly fashion.” As he speaks the musicians hang around backstage with nothing to do, watching the fences bulging while a team of security guards
As he speaks the band—a group of ace Jamaican musicians including the legendary saxophonist Dean Fraser and engineer Shane Brown—hang around backstage with nothing to do, watching the fences bulging while a team of security guards throws its full weight against the barriers to keep them standing strong.
“People me ah beg you,” Rodeo continues. “We don’t get shows like this in Toronto. Please don’t fuck this up!”
Back in the Woodbine Shopping Centre parking lot, the Fresh Fest Crowd had swelled to between 10,000 and 12,000—with an extra 5,000 or so outside in the parking lot and along the road—a “crowd like Toronto had never seen,” as the promoter Rodeo would later describe it. “It’s rare,” he said, “to have three stars like this at the height of their powers.”
Jahmiel is the first to take the stage, and the crowd goes wild for the dreadlocked artist Mavado refers to as “Mad Ras.” Running through a fiery, uplifting set of songs including “Gain The World,” the track that first put the young singer on the map in late 2015. The crowd really lights up when he launches into his more recent tune “Strongest Soldier.” The front row sings along as Jahmiel assures the crowd that “Better days are on the way.” Jahmiel exits the stage on a high note.
“Look how much fight Gully Gaad get from the beginning! So we know how dangerous fight is, and we know how a youth feel when him get fight. But the more them fight, ah the stronger the youth them get.”
After a 90-minute delay for the next act the crowd is growing more restless with each passing minute. With people still crowding the artist entrance it’s not clear when the next acts will appear. Less then 2 hours before curfew Alkaline finally bursts through the back gate and makes his way toward the stage, which by now is jammed with entourage and hangers on.
“Canada, Wah gwan!” Alkaline greets the massive crowd from the backstage steps while the band begins to boom. “Say Ooosh!” The crowd responds in unison with Alka’s signature slang and he continues his introductory remarks.
“Yo! We sing that song deh for the whole of unno. We are people with fighting spirit. When we buck up inna obstacle, we get up and keep moving. Canada you can sing that one with me?”
The band plays softly now as Alkaline sings “Conquer the World” over a gentle piano melody. “We make it past all of the drama. / When them a hackle up themself we keep it calmer…” Recognizing the song, some members of the crowd begin to scream before Alkaline even steps onstage.“Weh dem ah go do now, now now when everything buss? It’s too late it’s too late now for them fight me that can’t work/ Weh dem ah go do now, now now that time catch up? / Conquer the world now…”
And with that, Alkaline sprints onstage as the band launches into “After All.” The noise is deafening as the tall skinny artist jumps in the air, waving his hand in the sky.
Because the promoter wants everyone to get home safe, he decides to bring Mavado on after a half hour or so without a band change. The Gully Gaad stalks up from stage right in a red jacket with a towel covering his head. As impossible as it may seem the crowd gets even louder as two thirds of MVP go back and forth for the next hour with jet airplanes flying over their heads every so often.
It is a show that will go down in history, a performance put on by the people for the people.
Afterwards the artists return to a nearby hotel. The parking lot is littered with high-end vehicles and the lobby filled with entourage and excited groupies. Somehow we make our way up to Mavado’s hotel suite, where he plays new songs from a smartphone inside a Louis Vuitton case. Jahmiel gets a warm welcome from the Gully Gaad when he walks in the room. “Mad Ras!” Mavado calls out giving him a pound. They listen to a new collab featuring both artists produced by Chimney Records. There’s also a song by a new female artist he’s developing, and a wicked gunman tune called “Four Corner Badness.” Just then Alkaline makes his way into the room, champagne bottle in hand, and an exclusive exchange of real talk amongst dancehall’s realest crew begins.
First of all congratulations— that was an amazing show. Toronto was giving super love tonight. what did you guys think about the night?
Mavado: Crazy thing. Crazy, crazy, crazy.
I just have to say when I was looking out at the crowd I saw lots of different people. A lot of people coming here to see you guys. The whole world is coming to get some real dancehall.
Mavado: That’s our work. Ah so it go. Just our work. We haffi just do it. So it go.
MVP seems like a new movement within dancehall. I’ve interviewed all of you guys individually but never had the opportunity to speak to you all at once. How did this MVP crew first come together?
Jahmiel: You know ah mi come up with the concept, knowing me and the Vendetta boss are friends of the Gully Gaad and right now ah we ah run the place. So we say Mavado, Vendetta, Patriots are the most valuable players at the moment. You see me?
M stands for Mavado, the Gully Gaad. V is for the Vendetta Boss. Where does that name come from?
Alkaline: It’s just part of the culture. It’s just a name to categorize my fans so we just call them Vendetta.
Are you familiar with that British comic book called V for Vendetta?
Alkaline: I’m more familiar with the movie.
Is that a character you relate to? He wears the mask and he’s got the smiley face. But behind that it’s a different story.
Mavado: But watch this, this is real life! [Laughs]
Alkaline: Yeah man. What you see here is real.
Alkaline: But we just want to say big up the fans dem for the turnout. You see mi ah say? It was a good show. We love the energy.
Good show? That’s an understatement. I’ve been to many shows and I felt like the walls were gonna cave in to be honest with you!
Alkaline: Ah just the impact and the power of good music you know. Ah just desso the thing deh right now. And we ah show them unity inna dancehall also. You see me? And show them artists can coexist. We can live together, work together, and we nah go fight against one another.
Mavado: And do it easy! [Laughter]
Yeah, you guys seem so organic and natural. I know Jahmiel you said you came up with this concept, but seeing you guys together it looks like you’re just rolling…
Mavado: Yeah because watch this now—it’s all about realness. That’s why we say real recognize real. So yuh dun know Jahmiel ah mi friend. It’s not since Jahmiel becomes a star Jahmiel ah link with Gully Gaad. Him ah Gully Gaad before Jahmiel have a big song. Then yuh dun know Alkaline link with the dawg them same way from inna the streets. So it’s one whole family come right around—no matter how you check it. With DJ Frass and the whole thing same way. At the end of the day unity is key.
Jahmiel: And strength…
Mavado: And strength to everything. Watch this—most artist them get up and them ah fight against another man. Just like how when some man go so and fight against Alkaline and expect Gully Gaad to come fight against Alkaline too. But look how much fight Gully Gaad get from the beginning! So we know how dangerous fight is, and we know how a youth feel when him get fight. But the more them fight, ah the stronger the youth them get. See it there?
Yeah, for sure. Jahmiel let me come to you because I didn’t ask you about the P in MVP. That stands for Patriots, right?
Jahmiel: Yeah man.
Where does that come from?
Jahmiel: You know it’s the type of person weh me is. Defending kind of person. When we stand for something we stand for that till the day me die—never change. And that’s what patriot does, love them country and defend it. Lifestyle, defend it. Anything weh you stand for anything you believe in.
Interesting you just talked about unity. There seems to be a big unity thing happening here.
Mavado: Real recognize real. That’s that.
Jahmiel, you sing a lot about loyalty in your songs.
Jahmiel: Yeah cause we have some dawg who show me love and respect way before now, you see me ah say? Would do anything for me, way before now. Yeah, so mi know what loyalty is like.
Alkaline, one of your breakout songs was all about that. How important is loyalty?
Alkaline: Yeah, because a lot of people say them loyal but them nah know nuttin’ about loyalty. You seet? So me haffi just put it in a song and it connect to the people them.
But how do you know when somebody really isn’t loyal? You say people talk about it, but do you get that feeling? Do you go off your vibe or a hunch?
Alkaline: You never know till you know yunno. [Everyone laughs]
That’s the truth. So how do you protect yourself?
Mavado: Ah time ah the master you know.
Alkaline: Time ah the master, definitely.
Mavado: And remember time heal all wounds yunno. So what is in the darkness must come out in the light. Some people feel them can’t come ’round. Cause if you understand bout them you can’t act.
Does that make you skeptical? Afraid?
Mavado & Alkaline: Well we nuh really ‘fraid of nuttin.
Mavado: At times, we just afraid of the things weh we do to people.
I’m sure there’s many people who are afraid of what you might do![Everyone laughs]
Mavado: Well you dun know how the ting go. Ah music, so it’s always love for the music. Y’know we ah keep it real and the people them love that. And me think the people them wanna see something like this for the longest time. Cause over the years as artists, as we say, all the artists want to do is get up and war against each other. So at the end of the day, you dun know, if you ah step to one of our friend, you have to go step to we too… So that’s how the thing set. You hear the dawg [Alkaline] say him “have a couple dawgs that woulda dead for him.” And him nah talk pit bull… A clip full.
I have to say when you guys came out with the song “Farewell,” it did feel like you killed everything.
Mavado: It’s not feel like it. We did! Kill everything! Yeah man.
Alkaline: That was a farewell to all. Straight.
Mavado: Everybody them get inna them feelings.
You’ve been in the business for 13 years, strong. As a veteran, what do you see in these artists?
Mavado: Well you dun know, as we say, we see unity. And you dun know the unity is everything. Cause watch this—we ah ghetto youth. So me as Gully Gaad remember I’ve already been through everything that them try already. And them never stop try. But even nowadays when people try and do things we just sit down and just laugh at it. Because we have already been through the worst.
So when we deh yah—and Patriot and Alkaline as two very talented artists—deh deh, and the unity can mek and great things can come from it. We fi do that. We have to do something like that.
Because most people woulda love if them see Gully Gad get up and fight a likkle yute like even Jahmiel or fight against some Alliance artist. We nah have no time for that. As you see, most artists even call me name and me nuh even too look upon them. If me feel like me fi beat and teach them, me just do it. But if mi feel like them not worth it… why? You know?
Alkaline, in one of your songs the lyrics are “Where will I be 10 years from now.” Where do you want to end up in 10 years time?
Alkaline: Uh… Just ah do the music weh me love yunno. And just can continue support my family and continue to inspire the youth them. That is good enough for me still, uzeet. Yeah—most definitely.
And where do you all see MVP going? What are your hopes for MVP?
Jahmiel: Every man ah do weh them doing. You see me ah say? Nuttin’ but greatness. As Mavado said “Very talented artists.” So just expect greatness.
Alkaline: Just watch wha’ ah gwan. Bare hit song… Everything ah go make sense.