A forefather of reggae music and a once in a generation voice, Jimmy Cliff has been a music icon since he first began recording music in Jamaica in the early ’60s. Cliff’s collection of hit songs is practically endless, ranging from uplifting classics like “Wonderful World, Beautiful People” to powerful protest songs like “Vietnam” and “Piece of the Pie.” His music and role as “Ivan” in the revered 1972 film The Harder They Come played a significant part in taking reggae from the island of Jamaica and spreading it across the world.
Jimmy Cliff, born James Chambers, is now 69 years old, but he still retains his youthful energy and remains an active force in the music industry. Five years since his last album Rebirth, Cliff is on the verge of releasing another new album. Earlier this summer, Jimmy Cliff revealed the first taste of his new music, dropping a music video for “Life,” the first single off his upcoming album. The video was shot in downtown Kingston, where Cliff’s music career first took off as a young teenager.
In addition to new music, Jimmy Cliff also received the keys to the city of Montego Bay, Jamaica for his extraordinary contribution to the island’s music industry. To further honor him, the city plans on renaming Gloucester Avenue, known as the Hip Strip, to Jimmy Cliff Avenue. Cliff is certainly no stranger to awards. He’s won two Grammy Awards for best reggae album, been inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and received Jamaica’s Order of Merit honor. However, these latest awards hold a special place to him. Cliff grew up just miles down the road from Montego Bay and was able to share the special occasion with family and hometown friends.
We got a chance to speak with Jimmy Cliff about his latest awards, as well as what to expect on his upcoming album. The reggae pioneer shared some of his earliest memories making music, let us in on some of his favorite current reggae artists, and discussed what he sees as the direction of reggae music. We also get an update to the reported, and long awaited sequel to The Harder They Come. It was a lovely conversation with a man who has seen it all, and we can’t thank Mr. Cliff enough for taking the time to chat with The Pier and to Moore Media for arranging the Q&A.
Interview: Jimmy Cliff
You recently released a new single called “Life” and returned to downtown Kingston to shoot the music video. What inspiration did you draw from returning to the city where your music career first took off?
Cliff: I went downtown to do the video because it’s a place that kind of gave me my first thing. It’s where I first heard my voice. I recorded my voice for the first time. I heard my voice played back to me in downtown Kingston. To do the video down there with all the friends, and all the places that I know, it was like a full circle type of a thing.
The songs for the album, the inspirations came from all over, not just Jamaica, but all over. But Kingston is…I came out of Montego Bay, but Kingston is the city that really kind of gave me everything. When I left the country I came to Kingston, and it gave me everything that I wanted to do.
Why did you decide to put out “Life” as the first single, and what is the deeper meaning behind the song?
Cliff: The single “Life,” is really a song of the Tree of Life, and we’re all apart of the Tree of Life, and it’s also about living your life here and now. I just think that I chose this one first to try and remind people that this is the time. Now is the best time.
You’ve always been able to lend your voice to different types of music and a wide range of genres, can we expect to hear that on this upcoming album?
Cliff: Yeah! I’m an innovator, I always like to innovate. I like to be a bit different, maybe one step ahead of things. So some of that is on this album for sure.
Have you decided on a title for the album yet?
Cliff: I went into the studio to make some hit singles, I didn’t go in to say I’m gonna make an album. But it’s an album. So what am I going to name the album? There are various titles going around in my head. There is one title, so my district, 12 miles from Montego Bay is called Somerton, and earlier this year I received an award for lifetime achievement, and that was really, really cool. So at that time the idea came to me, why not call the album Somerton. So that’s one of the ideas. There’s another song on the album called “Internet,” and there’s a line in that song that says, “free for all” because everyone can download things when they want, as opposed to how it was back in the day, when you had to listen on the radio or TV. Now you have it all on the Internet, you just download it, it’s free for all. So that line, I may use it, and put it out in two sections. There are two different sets of songs on the album. One are like social, political, conscious songs, and the other set is songs of relationship and love. So I may put it out as two EPs, and the first set I might call Free For All, kind of meaning freedom for all, because it fits the kind of time that we’re living in right now, politically and socially. And then the other set I would call Love For All.
You’ve received plenty of awards over the years, but what does it mean to you to receive the keys to the city of Montego Bay and to have a street being renamed in your honor?
Cliff: It’s nice because it’s my hometown city. It’s has a little more meaning than some of the others for that reason. I appreciate it quite a lot. There were quite a few familiar faces there, some of my schoolmates were there. So, it was cool!
You’ve been a pioneer of Jamaican music, particularly reggae music, for over 50 years. Do you have an earliest memory of reggae music?
Cliff: When I came into the music industry in Jamaica, the music didn’t even have a name. So I kind of contributed to its development. It was called ska then. I put in my energy, and I’m an upbeat kind of artist, and so this ska was perfect for me because it was an upbeat kind of music. There were a lot of other people ahead of me, people I listened to while I was still in school and so it was kind of great to meet them. I was in awe when I met them. It was a good time. Jamaica had just got its independence and all of that. And people were in that kind of upbeat mood. It was kind of a joyful time.
Live music in and from Jamaica practically disappeared for a while, falling back in favor of digital music. Are you excited to see the “Roots & Culture” climbing it’s way back into the forefront of Jamaican music.
Cliff: I expect that. I expect that because what we have now, the lyrical content of the music now is more based around the physical you know? The sex and all of that. And from going around talking to people, listening to people I see that they are ready to move into another state of the music. So I think they will go back into the “Roots and Culture” phase of lyrical content and music.
Are there any artists making music now that you are particularly fond of?
Cliff: Let me see…There is an artist called Tarrus Riley, I like him. He’s a really good singer. There is another female singer called Queen Ifrica. I like her. There are various other ones that are quite young and that’s a fact I like to see.
A few years ago we had heard that there was a possible sequel for the movie The Harder They Come, did anything ever come of that, what happened with that effort?
Cliff: Yes! That is still on the table, very much on the front burner. What I’ve learned, when you’re making a movie there are three things. 1 is the script, 2 is the script, and 3 is the script. It’s all about the script! Once you have the script everything else falls into place. So we’re all working on that, just waiting to see when we’re all happy. Everyone saying “Yes! This is it.” Then we’ll go ahead. We thought we would have had something last winter, but everyone didn’t say “Yeah!” to the script. But it’s very much on the front burner.
Well, we cannot thank you enough for your time and wise words. Best of luck with the new album Jimmy!
Cliff: Of course. Thank you!
Watch: Jimmy Cliff – “Life” (Official Video)
Jimmy Cliff – “The Harder They Come”
Listen: Jimmy Cliff – “Vietnam”
Listen: Jimmy Cliff – “Piece of the Pie”