The student newspaper of Washington and Lee University

The Ring-tum Phi

The student newspaper of Washington and Lee University

The Ring-tum Phi

The student newspaper of Washington and Lee University

The Ring-tum Phi

Reggaefest celebrates Caribbean culture

Irie has brought students and faculty of the Caribbean diaspora together during its first year at Washington and Lee
Catherine McKean
Irie brought live Caribbean reggae music to Reggaefest with the Richmond-based band, Reggaelizit.

The sights and sounds of Washington and Lee University’s second annual Reggaefest spilled out into the street, beckoning passerby to come in and check out the celebration with its lively music, colorful flags and the fragrant spices of hot dishes.

Held at Sankofa House on April 6, Reggaefest was attended by a diverse assortment of students eager to showcase their heritage or learn about a new one. This year, the festival fell under the direction of Irie, W&L’s organization for students of Caribbean descent. 

Active since September 2023, Irie’s mission has been to foster community and bring awareness of the cultural and historical components of the Caribbean to W&L’s campus. According to the group’s Instagram, the name Irie comes from the Caribbean word for a “state of harmony and peace.”

Irie president Niani Benjamin, ’24, says the organization was in the works since the end of the last academic year, when the African Society and the Student Association for Black Unity (SABU) teamed up to host the first annual Reggaefest.

“We realized then that there were enough of us that wanted a specific space to celebrate Caribbean culture and heritage,” said Benjamin. 

When this school year started, Irie began holding events like a Zumba workshop and cooking sessions to bring students and faculty with Caribbean heritage together. The organization also started its philanthropic efforts, which Benjamin described as integral to Irie’s mission.

Through fundraisers selling Caribbean snacks and drinks at W&L sports games, Irie has been raising money for its merit scholarship fund. The fund directly helps students in Clarendon, Jamaica access secondary education.

“We’ve been able to raise $1,200 just this semester,” said Benjamin. “From this, we’re able to send four different students to secondary school.”

The lead-up to Reggaefest has also contributed to Irie’s fundraiser, with the proceeds of each ticket ($7 for students, $12 for faculty and staff) and t-shirt going towards the scholarship fund.

Alina de Zoysa, ’25, Irie’s event coordinator, spoke on the power of Reggaefest in building community and helping students of the Caribbean diaspora have the space to explore their culture.

“This year, we really wanted Caribbean students to be spearheading the events and making decisions about what aspects of our culture we thought were important to highlight and celebrate,” said de Zoysa.  

One of the most important aspects, she said, was the inclusion of live reggae music, a new addition to last year’s festival. Reggaelizit, a self-proclaimed “multi-generational” reggae band, was hired to perform for the celebration.

The group is part of the resurgence of reggae music in Richmond, Virginia, and follows the typical structure of a traditional reggae group by having the lead vocalist backed by two guitars, drums and a keyboard, as well as occasionally featuring a horn or saxophone solo.

Reggae is a musical genre originating from Jamaica in the 1960s and is deeply linked to Rastafari, a spiritual and cultural movement promoting pan-Africanism. The movement encourages solidarity and the strengthening of bonds between all groups belonging to the African diaspora.

The songs incorporate elements of jazz, calypso and traditional African folk rhythms and tend to celebrate living life in the present while also emphasizing themes of social justice, resilience and peace.

De Zoysa said members of Irie were able to gather to watch famous reggae artist Bob Marley’s biographical movie “Bob Marley: One Love” this February.

“This was one of the first movies on the big screen to feature a Caribbean reggae artist and activist,” she said. 

Another important aspect of Caribbean heritage that Irie was able to highlight through Reggaefest was Caribbean cuisine.

Like reggae music, Caribbean food is a fusion of the many cultures that met in Caribbean cultures as a result of colonization and trade, including African, European, Latin and even Southeast Asian cooking and ingredients.

Members of Irie prepared dishes from the Caribbean countries they identify with for Reggaefest. (Catherine McKean)

“A lot of our general body and exec members made the food from their home country and from recipes passed through their families,” said de Zoysa.

While she and others were preparing the food in preparation for Reggaefest, de Zoysa says she was able to grow closer with other members of the Caribbean community on campus as well as her family back home.

“While I was cooking, many of us called home for advice. I called my grandma, I called my dad,” she said. “Not only were we able to celebrate with each other, but we were able to show our families how much our heritage means to us.”

President Benjamin said that Reggaefest has always been “something of a family affair,” sharing that even last year’s event was made possible through the help of family and friends, like Irie vice president Ewunik McCarthy’s, ’24, dad running the grill.

“It’s definitely a community effort,” she said. “And we have to lean on a lot of off-campus sources, because we can’t get half of this food because we don’t have an international store anywhere near Lexington.”

Being vegetarian, Benjamin said she prepared Caribbean fusion dishes like rasta pasta, BBQ jerk tofu and curried potatoes and chickpeas for Reggaefest.

The full menu also included dishes like the Haitian salade makawoni, curry goat from St. Vincent and the Grenadines and Jamaican Escovitch fish, giving attendees a wide assortment of heritages and cultures to sample.

De Zoysa said her heritage comes through her grandmother, who was born in Guyana, a country on South America’s North Atlantic coast. When she first came to W&L, she said that it was difficult to find a place to celebrate that specific history.

“While there are organizations like SABU and even CLE that have some overlap including the Caribbean diaspora, there wasn’t really a specific space for Caribbean students,” she said. “Our nation and heritage is often lost in discussions about the African or Latin diaspora.”

This year, de Zoysa said she’s finally been able to celebrate her culture as a Caribbean-American in a way “that is true to the authentic cultural experience.”

Irie plans on continuing to celebrate the Caribbean experience in the upcoming years and hopes to expand its programs and philanthropy after a successful first year at W&L.

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