Jimmy Cliff: Hail reggae's lost king

Jimmy Cliff was the original Jamaican rude-boy rebel who brought reggae to the world and stood by as Bob Marley took his crown. He tells Nick Hasted why, despite his struggles, he's still keeping positive
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The Independent Culture

Many people think Bob Marley stole his crown. But it was Jimmy Cliff who gave reggae to the world, when he starred in and wrote half the music for Perry Henzell's The Harder They Come (1972). As Ivan, a country boy new to Kingston who is hustled out of a sure-fire hit by corrupt producers, and ends as a murderous ghetto legend, Cliff's unpredictable, brooding charisma powered one of the greatest pop movies. Filmed guerrilla-style on violent streets and burning with raw energy, it was a simmering underground smash across a globe till then indifferent to reggae. Cliff's soulful "rude bwoy" rebel character then became the model for Chris Blackwell at Island, when he met Marley soon afterwards, and marketed him into international immortality. From Peter Tosh recording with The Rolling Stones to Sean Paul in the Top 10, reggae as a global phenomenon started with Cliff.

But it was his music, on perhaps the best soundtrack album ever, that ensured The Harder They Come's success. Songs like the title track and "You Can Get It If You Really Want" summed up his musical personality: indomitability, tempered by harsh realism, and a spiritual yearning to get past worldly cares. The high purity of his voice on "Many Rivers to Cross", especially, is as transcendent as anything in pop. I know friends whose lives have literally been saved by its mix of hurt and healing. But until recently, I wasn't sure if its maker was even alive.

The new compilation Jimmy Cliff - The EMI Years reveals uncommercial, obscure later work, marked by detours right out of reggae. But, even on his patchy latest LP, Fantastic Plastic People, that matchless, beseeching voice remains intact. And when I meet Cliff in Brighton, during a recent, triumphant UK tour, he appears personally undimmed. Short and wiry, with quizzical eyes and a rhythmic, mesmerising voice, he tells me where his wish for transcendence began - in the desperately poor village of Somerton, Jamaica, where he was born in 1948. The second-to-last of nine children, raised by their father, fighting, self-belief and fearlessness whatever the odds were always in his nature.

"I grew up hard," he says simply. "Everybody comes into this planet in some kind of way - it has something to do with how we are. I was born in a hurricane."

Cliff's voice had made him a star singer at his local church aged only 6. Hearing Jamaican music on the radio, as its 1962 independence neared, showed him how to reach a wider world. Aged 12, he moved by himself to Kingston, and the anarchic music scene later exposed in The Harder They Come, where rival producers routinely and violently ripped artists off. Cliff plunged in before his voice had broken.

"Kingston was rough," he admits, "because in the city you know no one. You can't go to your neighbour like in country and say, 'I'm hungry, give me something.' But by the time I got there, I was prepared to face whatever came. Even that young, I knew what I wanted to do. I had songs I had written, and I wanted them recorded. I had no consciousness about money. It was about getting my art exposed."

Typically, Cliff seized hold of the situation himself, cajoling local entrepreneur Leslie Kong to produce him, and having his first local hit aged 13. The spirituality which would define his great work was also beginning to build, as he met Kingston's despised Rastafari minority. Having grown up in demeaning poverty, in a colony owned by British whites, little more than a century after slavery, the themes of black power and African roots in Rasta were essential in giving Cliff, and his generation, strength.

"I remember the first dreadlock Rastaman I met, as a child," Cliff says. "Everybody except my father shunned him. But I was attracted to how he spoke, about Africa, in a deep, raspy voice. Then in Kingston I went to the heart of Rastafari. They call it Tivoli Gardens now, but it was then Backawall, where there were killers, criminals - and Rasta. I went there, and learnt more." He adds: "It made me want to fight. Because racism existed even in my district. We felt downtrodden, and our music expressed that. In the ska era, we were expressing the fact of independence, so music was fast and upbeat. Music slowed down through rocksteady, and then after that [in the mid-Sixties, when Jamaica's corrupt economy crashed] people were looking for something to hold on to, so it was slower still. And Rasta really took over, because it was the essence of roots."

Cliff, though, missed roots reggae's crucial first years. As it took hold in 1965, he was flying to Britain to try his musical luck, in a second radical redrawing of his life. He was cold and lonely there, discussing Black Power with fellow exiles in secret meetings, and playing to Mods. It wasn't until 1969 that he had his first hit, "Wonderful World, Beautiful People". "Vietnam", named "the best protest song" by none other than Bob Dylan, was among further sporadic successes. Then 1972 brought The Harder They Come, changing everything.

"Perry Henzell said, 'I'm writing this movie - do you think you could write the music?'" Cliff recalls. "I said, 'What do you mean, "Think"? I can do anything.' And apparently the way I made that statement was very strong for him. He came back, and wanted me to act in it. The film opened the door for Jamaica. I had had hits before, Desmond [Decker] had. But it was visual and audio. It said, this is where this music comes from; it was - boom! - in your face. It was the key for my career, too."

The door had opened for Cliff to become reggae's first king. But, typical of his transformative, headstrong life, he instead recorded the rock and soul tracks The EMI Years collects. Bob Marley took the abandoned throne. Cliff would not have another hit in Britain or America until covering "I Can See Clearly Now" 22 years later. But he says he has no regrets.

"I felt, 'If I put me in this one little bag, I'm going to be suffocated. How am I going to say what else I want to say?' And that has been a big struggle in my career. They say, 'You're a Jamaican - you're known for reggae', so you're supposed to do that. But I won't. I felt like, 'I've done my part; now I'm on another path.' It was perceived by others that I was wrong, that I could have been like Bob. But I felt good. Looking for the new, that's fundamental to me."

In the past 20 years, Cliff's tangled path has taken him to success in Brazil, and collaborations from Steven Seagal (in the unworthy action flick Marked for Death) and Disney (The Lion King) to Joe Strummer. He has also scripted The Harder They Come 2, as yet unfilmed, showing Ivan in a more ruthless Jamaica. The proof of Cliff's vitality, though, comes in Brighton. The club is dangerously hot, a throwback to the Mod dives he used to play. But Cliff makes us dance anyway till we're way past exhaustion, and elevated. It's a masterful display.

One of his lyrics, though, still puzzles me, from a man with such harsh experience: "You can get it if you really want," goes the famous line; "if you try, and try... " Surely, after all his poverty and setbacks, he doesn't really believe that? "I wrote that for me," he admits. "That song came when nothing was happening for me, and I had to keep telling it to myself, despite everything. It came from deep inside, from the spiritual part of me. I had to look at the world positively, because my life was so hard. Otherwise, I wouldn't be here."

'Jimmy Cliff 1973-75 - the EMI years' (EMI Gold) and 'Fantastic Plastic People' (Artist Network) are out now