“I remember when I first came to the US, and they said ‘what sort of music do you play?’ and I’d say ‘reggae’ and they’d say ‘Reggie? Who’s Reggie?’” I’m talking, down the phone, to Jimmy Cliff, the Jamaican singer-songwriter who can justifiably claim to have been a key force in making that Caribbean island’s main musical export go internationally mainstream.
“People like Desmond Dekker, Millie Small and Ansell Collins had had hit records in the UK and in the US, but it was a movie that really made people think ‘ooh, reggae’.”
The movie in question, Perry Henzell’s The Harder They Come, starred Cliff as a wannabe musician in contemporary (early 70s) Jamaica who turns to crime after becoming disillusioned with the corruption of the music industry, and ends up on the run after killing a cop. Cliff wrote the title song for the movie, and contributed a couple of other songs to a soundtrack that became a hit album either side of the Atlantic. The Harder They Come was the first of a string of international hits that have made him into the household name he is now, including the self-penned Many Rivers to Cross, You Can Get It If You Really Want, and Wonderful World, Beautiful People, as well as his Cat Stevens cover Wild World.
“Even if I had success before as a singer-songwriter,” he continues, “it was that movie that catapulted me… and reggae music… into the global eye… People could see where the music was coming from, the culture that goes with the music, that is Rastafari.”I ask him how come such a small island is responsible for such an inordinately influential music scene. “I attribute that energy to this: Jamaica is a little piece of Atlantis, that broke off Atlantis when it snapped, and therefore the sun hits Jamaica at a different angle, and that’s what gives us that energy, for all that we have given to the world.”
Another Jamaican export we discuss is the notion of the ‘rude boy’, assimilated into British culture in the Two-Tone cultural explosion, led by The Specials, in the late 70s. Cliff also reckons ‘rude boy’ culture to be the genesis of the punk explosion in the UK. He explains: “the rude boy is the one who rebelled against the system in Jamaica. In the era of the rude boy in Jamaica there was a bit of violence, too. I mean they carried knives. But they were frustrated because they couldn’t get a job, and they couldn’t fit in, and it led to violence.”
So, I wonder, to conclude our brief chat: is Jimmy Cliff a rude boy? “I was someone who rebelled against the system, just like the character I played [in the film]. And in that sense, I was a rude boy, but I wasn’t a violent person. Was music my weapon? Absolutely, yes.”
Photo by Tom Sheehan
Jimmy appears at the Love Supreme festival, Glynde Place, July 5th-7th