Austin Reggae Festival preserves reggae community

Jordyn Zitman

Eccentric people, relaxed vibes and good music are quintessential aspects of any great music event, and the Austin Reggae Festival delivers these in spades.

In 1994, Austinites began gathering at Auditorium Shores to enjoy performances by reggae music stars, an experience that at the time only cost a donation of two canned goods for the Central Texas Food Bank. This spring marks the festival’s 25th anniversary, where from April 20 through 22 thousands will gather to support the same cause, enjoy reggae music and celebrate the Austin community.

Felicia Pena, community engagement director of the Food Bank, said that since the festival evolved into a paid event, the Bank now receives a portion of ticket sales in addition to food donations. Pena said the Food Bank carefully selects organizations and events to partner with.

“We work with partners who are willing to get creative and really have a passion for our mission,” Pena said. “We make sure to do everything we can to help them represent us in the best possible way.”

Austin’s constant celebration of live music helps explain the festival’s regularly large turnout, but Hugh Forrest, co-coordinator of the festival, said that reggae is not as popular as it was when the festival first began.

“Liberty Lunch was a club in Austin in the 1980s, and it was kind of the center of the reggae scene then,” Forrest said. “It has since been torn down as the reggae scene has died down.”

Forrest said that while some regulars of Liberty Lunch frequent Flamingo Cantina on 6th Street, a new hub for reggae, the lack of internationally renowned reggae artists has contributed to the genre becoming more niche.

“Bob Marley was the biggest reggae star there had ever been,” Forrest said. “Since he died in 1981, I think until there is another star of that magnitude, reggae will be more of a niche than a mainstream commodity.”

Despite the shrinking reggae community, the festival remains popular among Austinites who attended the festivities last year. Since its inception, the event raised over $1,000,000 to feed hungry families, leading to 2.3 million meals for the Food Bank and nearly 376,000 meals last year alone. The festival has been Central Texas food banks largest annual fundraising event for several years.

“I think that really reflects a lot of the sentiment of some of the best reggae music,” Forrest said. “It’s all about empowering people without a voice, giving back to the community, and speaking truth to power.”

Undeclared freshman Sophia Cantor plans to take her sister visiting from out of town to the festivities.

“My sister and I are very laid back, so we wanted to go somewhere that wasn’t too expensive where we could be outside and experience that famous Austin eccentricity,” Cantor said. “This festival is such a cool way to enjoy relaxing music and support a really great local cause at the same time.”

Forrest said that his only concern for the festival’s success is the weather, and that in the case of rain, festival attendees may only consist of hardcore reggae fans rather than a mix of newcomers. Regardless, Forrest said he is excited for the festival, which he has been involved in for over 20 years.  

“It’s a celebration of the spring and the coolness and weirdness of Austin,” Forrest said. “I love the music we have, but what I love even more is getting to help the community, and our neighbors get back on their feet. It’s an amazing thing to be a part of.”