Bob Marley’s Legendary Band, The Wailers, Perform in Destin
By Crystal Hamon | Photography by Jessie Shepard
The beloved reggae hit “One Love,” written by the revered Bob Marley in 1965 and made famous by his band, the Wailers, is enshrined in the heart of popular culture. The song conjures up different sentiments in its listeners, as all songs do, but its simple and poignant message of love as the answer to the problems of the world still rings true today.
Big Dreams Lead to Give BIG
Who would have thought that an episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show would bring reggae legends to the shores of Destin and unite a community in the fight against world hunger? For local realtor Jessica Stepleton, that fateful airing altered the course of her life. As she listened to Oprah’s guest, Drew Barrymore, discuss her work as an Ambassador Against Hunger for the World Food Program (WFP), a new passion gripped her. That day, she saw the faces of hunger flash across the screen and she heard the shocking truth that 25,000 people in various parts of the world die every day from this unnecessary plague. She also learned that just twenty-five cents could feed one of those starving people for a day. When she clicked off the TV that day, something clicked inside of her. With equal parts compassion and commitment, she was convinced that she could do something to help. That something became known as Give BIG Destin Florida.
Jessica’s vision for Give BIG encompassed a one-day music festival in Destin that would raise funds to feed hungry people in our local community and the world through the WFP, the world’s largest humanitarian organization, which feeds people in eighty countries on average each year. One year later, Jessica and a team of dedicated volunteers had gathered the support of the community to fight world hunger. More than fifty local businesses had contributed more than $50,000 of in-kind donations, which ranged from public relations efforts and producing a television commercial to hosting the event, and more. Even schoolchildren from Destin Elementary contributed by collecting $1,000 in quarters and 800 pounds of canned food to help other children in need. Canned food drives that benefited four local charities, including the Harvest House, St. Andrew’s By-the-Sea Episcopal Church, Destin Harvest, and Children’s Volunteer Health Network, took place during the month leading up to the big event on April 4th. The Village of Baytowne Wharf hosted Give BIG, and the community truly came together in a grassroots effort to make a difference, as organizers said, “from one village to another.”
The Wailers Share “One Love” with Destin
When Jessica contacted WFP to tell them about Give BIG Destin, she was astonished when they referred her to the legendary Wailers. The renowned reggae group recently started their own charitable organization benefiting WFP called I Went Hungry. Jessica was even more amazed when the Wailers agreed to donate their time and talent to headline Give BIG Destin.
On the eve of the festival, a press conference was hosted by Fleming’s at Grand Boulevard. Along with other members of the press, I anxiously waited outside to catch a glimpse of the philanthropic musical legends. A colorful Paradise Taxi, appropriate for the reggae royalty that it held, pulled up to the curb. From their tropical chariot stepped the guests of honor: bassist and fearless leader Aston “Family Man” Barrett, lead singer Elan Atias, and rhythm guitarist Audley Chisholm, who goes by the name of Chizzy.
Tangible excitement about the Wailers’ appearance permeated the small crowd, but, as Destin mayor Craig Barker spoke, he reminded us why we had come. “In these economic times, we are seeing people who used to donate to the food banks now standing in line to receive their nightly dinner. We felt that if everyone could make a small contribution, together as a community, we could make a difference.” He proclaimed that April 4, 2009 was the official Give BIG Day, and presented the Wailers and Jessica Stepleton with keys to the city of Destin.
In an unexpected turn of events, my friends and I were invited to join the Wailers for hors d’oeuvres. Our short press event quickly evolved into an evening-long social. The performers were happy to sign autographs and take photos with fans. Passionate about their music and their cause, it was easy to tell that they were there to give. Our conversations ranged from the humanitarian crises in places like Sudan and Ethiopia to funny stories about their tour. Mostly, they talked about the history of their world-renowned band and their faithful leader, Family Man or “Fams.”
Fams, widely considered as the architect of reggae, and his late brother, drummer Carlton Barrett, teamed up with Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, and Bunny Livingston in Jamaica in the late sixties to form the Wailers. Together, they went on to sell more than 250 million records worldwide and took reggae music from a regional island style to an internationally loved genre. Today, Fams proudly wears the Wailers mantle and preserves its legacy. Although many people think his nickname is derived from the fact that he has fifty-some-odd children, Elan says that it is because he keeps the family together, uniting the band and maintaining the spirit and sound of the Wailers.
There are still a lot of people in the world who don’t know what it is like to turn a tap and see water, or flick a switch and see light. For me, personally, it is a pleasure to be here offering my services.
I Went Hungry: An Expression of the Music and the Message
On another occasion, I had the opportunity to talk with the Wailers about their newest venture, I Went Hungry. Like most musicians on tour, the Wailers receive riders, the little extras provided by promoters, which usually include food and beverages backstage or in their dressing rooms, whenever they play shows. But, last year, they started realizing just how much food was going to waste. Lead singer Elan told us, “There is only so much you can take on the bus. About eighty percent of it was getting thrown out.” It was after this revelation that the band heard about WFP and the heartbreaking details of hunger, such as the fact that every six seconds somewhere in the world, a child dies from hunger or a hunger-related issue. Stirred to action, they told their promoters to take the money that was allocated for those riders, and give it to the World Food Program to help feed and save kids. They would rather go hungry that night so that someone less fortunate could eat.
“We started this because, as the fortunate ones, we’ve got to look out for the unfortunate ones,” Elan continued. “I know there are a lot of problems with the world today, but kids are dying every six seconds because they don’t have food…food should be a human right.” He talked about the economic struggle that America is facing right now, but encouraged us to remember that we are still privileged. “Every man thinks that his burden is the heaviest.” Chico Chin, the Wailers’ trumpet player, chimed in about the paradox of hunger in the modern age, saying, “There are still a lot of people in the world who don’t know what it is like to turn a tap and see water, or flick a switch and see light. For me, personally, it is a pleasure to be here offering my services.” He continued, saying, “Because, when I look on the TV, and see these hungry kids suffering from malnutrition, tears come to my eyes and I want to go help them.”
The fun-spirited music of Bob Marley and the Wailers has always carried a strong political, spiritual, and activist tone. At the same time that the lyrics say “don’t worry about a thing,” they also tell you to “get up, stand up for your rights.” The I Went Hungry movement is a new expression of the passion to help the oppressed that resonates through the music. Elan said, “The vibe, the message, and the movement never change. I think the message today is even more important than it was in the ’70s, when the music was created, because the problems now are so much worse.” Marley not only drew inspiration for his songs from the sociopolitical climate of the day, but also from spiritual sources that the Wailers believe continue to play a pivotal role in today’s society. “Bob used to write with a Bible in one hand and a guitar in the other.” That spirit is still felt in the steel drums and bass lines of the Wailers’ impassioned music today.
I asked Family Man, the keeper of the flame, what he thought about the evolution of the music’s message and how I Went Hungry builds on that concept. He replied in his deep, soft voice and rich Jamaican accent, “Saving lives is close to my heart. It is revealed in prophecy, for sure. The message is for all ages and for all times—past, present, and future. It is roots, culture, and reality. The music is for all time. It’s like the moon. The older the moon, the brighter it shines.”
The BIG Event
On April 4th, Jessica awoke to a perfect spring day, ready to see the fulfillment of her dream, the fruits of her hard labor from the previous year. Local musicians Reed Waddle, Gileah Taylor, Donny Sundal, and Dread Clampitt offered the beautifully skilled tones of their craft to the festivities. The crowd grew throughout the day as people flocked to listen to their favorite local talent and stake their spots on the green. Jessica opened the event by thanking the crowd for “taking time to care with us.” Children twelve and under were admitted for free if they brought canned goods for local charities, and many families gathered to enjoy the music.
Eventually, 1,500 people had assembled for the culminating event of the festival. Fans wore the flag of the Wailers as skirts, hats, or as body paint, casting red, green, and yellow hues over the crowd. As the Wailers took the stage, palpable anticipation filled the park. The band began to play and an unseen vocalist began to sing. The voice sounded too perfect. My first thought was that they were simply playing a track of Bob Marley’s voice, and I was somewhat disappointed. Then, Elan walked into the spotlight from where he had been singing off stage. I was floored! This California native sounded just like his Jamaican predecessor with his own passion interjected into the songs. The band played well-loved hits from their Exodus album (named Best Album of the Century by TIME magazine) and a few of Elan’s own songs. Throughout the amazing performance, Elan encouraged the crowd to “love everybody, never discriminate, and take care of people who are hurting.” While jumping around the stage and pouring his passion out in song, he frequently reminded us that we were helping starving children. As he spoke and the band played, people stuffed donations into a brightly decorated water cooler jug that was passed overhead through the crowd. The music moved us and the message stirred our souls. People danced to the timeless songs with their undying theme and suggestion that everyone should “get together and feel all right.” I don’t think I have ever enjoyed their music more than I did that night. Jessica told me, “So many people came up to me after the event telling me how they felt so much love that day hanging out at Baytowne, enjoying the music and knowing another's life was made easier just by participating.”
In the end, Give BIG Destin Florida raised $10,000 and 4,000 pounds of food, a donation large enough to feed more than 50,000 people. Jessica said, “I’m so proud of our community coming together in a difficult time to make a real impact on the lives of others.” Jessica’s plans are already under way to host an even bigger event next year. She is already recruiting other big-name musicians to join the cause. As the number of the world’s hungry recently hit one billion, people like Jessica, the Wailers, and the Destin community are all the more committed to “hear the children crying” and give of their time, resources, and passion to turn the tide.
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