Jimmy Cliff… 68 cheers for patriarch of Reggae music
Jimmy Cliff is definitely an arch-patriarch of reggae music. He was born on April 1, 1948 in the rural Jamaican village of Somerton in St. James Parish as James Chambers. He would later change his surname to Cliff. There can be no better way to celebrate the sixty-eight birthday of this brilliant and enigmatic superstar with him than to tell about how he stunned the music world three years ago when he won the coveted Grammy Award for Best Reggae Album for the second time.
The music world had to stand still to applaud this feat as a testament to Cliff’s awe inspiring ingenuity when the veteran Jamaican showman took the award on Sunday, February 10, 2013 at the Staples Centre in Los Angeles, USA. It was with his compilation album titled Rebirth that Cliff secured this remarkable conquest. As an excellent work of art, Rebirth had hit the stands with a loud bang in 2012. So well received and so commercially successful was the album that all the experts viewed Cliff’s 2013 Grammy success as a well-deserved achievement.
At its peak, Rebirth had stood at an admirable No. 76 on the United States Billboard charts but, even more impressive was the album’s 12th position on the authoritative Rolling Stones Magazine’s round up of Top 50 albums for 2012. Nevertheless, Rebirth had to beat down stiff opposition from four similarly deserving entries, all of which Cliff’s entry floored to give him the coveted crown. It was truly tough going at the February 2013 Grammy Award, where Rebirth outshined Miracle, the album submitted by The Original Wailers. Sean Paul’s Thomahawk Technique, Sly & Robbie & the Jam Masters’ New Legend – Jamaica 50th Edition, and Toots and the Maytals’ Reggae Got Soul: Unplugged on Strawberry Hill were three other Grammy entries set aside to give Rebirth the right of way it merited so well.
The reggae category was added to the Grammy’s set of awards originally in 1985 when Black Uhuru took the maiden edition with their Anthem album. Jimmy Cliff subsequently won the award with his Cliff Hanger album in 1986, making him the second reggae act to have ever won an American Grammy award. Even though he took the award again in 2013, making him the seventh artiste to take the reggae Grammy more than once, Cliff had lost several previous nominations for Best Reggae Album at the Grammy. His other nominations were Reggae Nights (1985), Club Paradise (1987), Hanging Fire (1989), Breakout (1993), and Black Magic (2005).
Cliff is known to have expressed deep dissatisfaction with the handling of the Award ceremony. Back then, talking to American CBS News Network, he spoke of how inwardly nice and pleasant it feels to be nominated for a Grammy. “Yet,” Cliff declared, “I consider it correct and proper that people see me openly and gladly accepting the Grammy on Television. I disagree with the way it is being done now for a reggae Grammy where you just hear about it. It’s about time I am shown on TV.”
For this blunt but necessary statement that he made, the soft-spoken but fiercely patriotic Jamaican singer and songwriter could easily have been misunderstood. However, as an Afro-Caribbean music form, the value and ultimate mission of reggae goes far beyond the scope of the surface entertainment and commercial profiting that have always driven the Western-dominated global music industry. Reggae has always been more of a tool for cultural awakening and mass motivation.
For reggae, commercial success and entertainment quality are merely a front to obtain its core agenda. Someone of Cliff’s Salvationist inclination who see Africa’s socio-political and economic liberty as the job they were born to accomplish may see themselves as successful in reality only after Africa has been liberated socially and economically. Consequently, he saw within himself a new birth in 2013 to achieve Africa’s freedom. Any publicity and razzmatazz that a Grammy victory can garner must therefore be tapped to the greatest extent beyond which loss of meaning becomes the foregone conclusion for a deeply concerned pan-African of Jimmy Cliff’s standing.
Many insensitive and/or wrongly informed music commentators keep describing reggae in recent times as a genre growing weaker and weaker in appeal. Yet, focused and mission sensitive reggae artistes around the world are doing what Cliff – born into a family of nine children – is doing and has always done. For us on the mainland of Africa, his non-apocalyptic but positively prophetic voice was the first and only one we were hearing for so long from the Western Hemisphere. Eventually many other musicians and reggae groups gained pre-eminence on the global music scene but Jimmy Cliff has persisted in the good habit of continuously redefining both himself and his music.
To hear Jimmy Cliff say that his career is “just getting started,” anyone will find it hard to believe considering what Cliff has accomplished already as a pioneer of reggae music. On March 15, 2010, Cliff was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Earlier, after learning of his nomination for the induction, Cliff had enthused; “This is good for Cliff, good for Jamaican music and good for my country.” After the induction his zeal to scale brand new heights was freshly reignited. Put aside music but do not be surprised that Jimmy Cliff’s greatest ambition today is to win an Oscar and he believes in himself staunchly enough to think he will still make it.
Until 1974 when House of Exile was released Jimmy Cliff was universally seen as the number one ambassador of reggae music worldwide. In album after album, Cliff made this loud and proud assertion but it was not an empty boast because his 1972 movie and soundtrack, The Harder They Come, were the film and the piece of music that originally secured a foothold for Jamaican reggae on the international entertainment map. He practically paved a path for the emergence of Bob Marley who would eventually become the acknowledged King of Reggae. Follow My Mind, Jimmy Cliff’s 1975 release features No Woman No Cry, Bob Marley’s international hit song, like handing him the baton.