Stepping High Festival: Honoring Life, Love, Reggae, & Cannabis in Jamaica

Negril, Jamaica – Cannabis and Jamaica are symbiotic. Reggae musicians like Barrington Levy, Peter Tosh and Bob Marley are universally known for anthems cherishing the plant while questioning the absurdity of its illegality. Rastafarian culture is enriched with cannabis use and the Stepping High Festival presents one of Jamaica’s major Rastafari celebrated events that occurs every March. This congregation provides the “original and longest running ganja festival in the Caribbean” and demonstrates an authentic display of Rastafari philosophy and livity, or life. The format of the event is designed to showcase Rastafari livity and the vital role that “herbs” (cannabis) plays.

The visionary behind Stepping High, Lyndon Connell,  intended the festival to also serve as a social movement through contributions to community, cultural, and educational development through the faculty of entertainment. The core values of this long-standing movement – family, friendship, community, and love – provide a much-needed return to the vital aspects of existence, beyond the realm of the standard, global transgressions. Stepping High’s focus has always been on holistic development, personal and economic. It hopes to inspire attendees to transcend the “ordinary”, reach a “higher” place, and innovate new ways of facing existing challenges through one’s newfound, or perhaps rekindled, perspective.

The objective and vibe of Stepping High, best expressed by Khimaja, Festival Director, intends to install peace-of-mind, security, and bring together Earthlings who embody the expression of love, peace, and harmony. This feeling of security offers humankind the motivation to step high, to develop beyond one’s current state. It displays a peaceful Jamaica and reflects the motto, “out of many, one people.”

The story behind the festival began in 2004 as a private house party in West End, Negril, driven by the vision of it’s founder prior to the decriminalization of cannabis in Jamaica. For over eleven years, the Stepping High Festival was an underground event, unable to be advertised to the public. Patrons only heard of the event via word of mouth by a few trustworthy individuals who saw and believed in Stepping High’s mission.

While underground, Stepping High was a free event. It wasn’t until 2015, with the amendment to the Dangerous Drugs Act, that Stepping High could go forth and amplify the movement. As such, the introduction of a cover charge helped to heighten the festivities. Thus, the organizers of Stepping High excitedly hosted their first public event in 2015 when cannabis was finally decriminalized in Jamaica and the event was permitted by authorities.

Sadly, but perhaps not unexpectedly, the production team came under tremendous pressure for even hosting the event and the permit was ultimately revoked two days before the event was slated to begin. The founder appealed to Jamaica’s Commissioner of Police who reinstated the permit the night before Stepping High’s first public staging.

In a few weeks, on March 20th and 21st, Stepping High will celebrate its 5th public festival in Negril, Jamaica. Patrons should expect total immersion into the experience of oneness. The festival features four core themes: education, exhibition, entertainment, and experience. From the cannabis exhibition in the Space Station, to the lyrics of the musical acts; from spoken word poetry to exhibitions of art, crafts, and food, each theme educates attendees on the holistic, social, and economic benefits of cannabis.

Day 1 will be located at the Original Stepping High Grounds in West End, and will recreate the underground experience, giving patrons a firsthand flavor of what Stepping High was like before the decriminalization of cannabis. Day 2, in Norman Manley Boulevard Beach Park, features forums; workshops; discussions; pop-up art galleries; live art; a fashion show; promotional models; ganja exhibitions; best Ital ganja farmer awards; product samplings; vegetarian/Ital foods alongside healing herbs, teas, and juices; and live bands with renowned international reggae artists and great, but perhaps unrecognized performers. These concerts have included many renowned names in reggae music history such as ​Lee Scratch Perry​, ​I­Wayne, ​Bushman, Andrew Tosh, Toots, ​Lutan Fya, Akae Beka, Kabaka Pyramid, Jah 9, Capelton and more.

Back to Ital for a minute. Ital typically refers to the Rastafari, predominantly vegan, diet that excludes chemicals, additives, and most meats. The concept is extendable to cannabis cultivation. An exhibition of Ital-grown ganja in an exclusive zoned area of the event called the Space Station allows farmers to display their plants and share their Ital growing techniques. Lyndon says it’s called the Space Station because “it’s the transition of the mind into another space. Elevating Mind Experience.” The Space Station is one of the main highlights of the event as it’s where the farmer exhibitions are held and provides a lounge for V-VIP Judges.

The Ital exhibition seeks to encourage farmers to utilize best farming practices which are sustainable, efficient and environmentally friendly. It also hopes to establish the Jamaican “Ital” growing standard, which could be considered a subgroup of organic farming. Foods that are Ital are fit for consumption by Rastafari, and of a different and even higher quality than organic, as they are produced under the guidelines of Rastafari livity like the production of kosher foods for the Jewish community.  

Ital farming, however, differs from organic farming. Plants are grown outdoors using only plant-based nutrients. Compost is gathered from wild, natural resources found by local people. Traditional farmers and the local community are exempt from organic farming as a standard has been set that makes it difficult for them to afford soil and products already established overseas. The requirement to meet the organic medical standards also exclude these people, many of whom were prosecuted and persecuted during decriminalization of cannabis in Jamaica.

The new Jamaican medical cannabis requires organic growing within controlled environments using air conditioning or indoor growing. Ital cultivation utilizes the sun, giving plants freedom to grow naturally. The THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (cannabidiol) are natural and balanced and are not manipulated for specific purposes. It’s this type of traditional farming in Jamaica that has earned worldwide recognition.

Stepping High encourages cannabis farmers to be environmentally conscious and to grow naturally. It promotes the Jamaican brand and awareness of best practices within Jamaica’s cannabis agricultural industries. The festival validates Jamaica as a destination for wellness/therapy tourism. Stepping High, therefore, bequeaths a distinctive opportunity to lively up yourself by celebrating life, love, compassion, reggae, Rastafari, and cannabis in the lovely setting of Negril, Jamaica.

About the author

Jason S. Lupoi, Ph.D.

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