Jimmy Cliff: Spirit in the Material World

Jimmy Cliff – “I am spirit.”

Reggae’s message of peace and political consciousness is often blurred by a haze of spaced-out hokum. But when the singer of songs like “Many Rivers to Cross” and “You Can Get It if you Really Want” says “I am spirit”, it means something.

The list of Jimmy Cliff ’s greatest achievements is so long it reads like a small novel. But why take my word for it?

  • Jamaica’s representative to the World’s Fair of 1964
  • One of the first Jamaican musicians signed to a major label contract
  • Musical guest on the first season of Saturday Night Live
  • Collaborator with Sting, Bruce Springsteen and the Rolling Stones
  • 2010 inductee to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
  • 2011 Grammy Award winner for Best Reggae Album
  • Only living musician to hold the Order of Merit, Jamaica’s highest public award
  • Star of Jamaica’s most internationally-famous film, “The Harder They Come”.

Jimmy Cliff Reggae Music JamaicaFor the son of a tailor, in the hills above Montego Bay, to find worldwide stardom is wildly improbable. When I asked how he did it, he didn’t haul out platitudes about destiny or allude to his talent and tenacity. He spoke first about his earliest memories of music.

“I didn’t have a radio until I was twelve years old – then I heard music from Cuba, Santo Domingo, and rhythm & blues from New Orleans. Before that I heard music at weddings and funerals, work music and indigenous music. The roots were in Africa: Pocomania, Kumina, typical African dances.”

I asked if he smoked ganja in his youth.

“As a child I had red eyes naturally. Everyone thought: Why is this boy smoking marijuana at such a young age? But I never smoked.”

He was little more than a child when his music hit the airwaves and sound systems of Kingston, and even then he was looking towards a wider world.

“My socio-political awareness came at an early age. My father was an avid reader. In school it was all British history. But I stretched my knowledge to the global situation, like the Vietnam War.”

For young Jamaicans like Jimmy Cliff , political awareness often went hand in hand with Rastafari, ganja, and reggae music. Cultural elements like the Nyabinghi rhythm strengthened connections with Africa that English rule tried to sever.

“Rasta is one of the schools I went through after I closed the door to Christianity. I remember following my first Rasta teacher in the bush. He used to plant ganja in the hills. Prince Emmanuel taught me Nyabinghi and smoked some herb, that’s when I first smoked.”
Jimmy Cliff Reggae Music Jamaica“These days I smoke when I feel like it. I smoke to relax, not to work. I go for the quality that makes me spacy. Like last night when I couldn’t sleep. When I create, or perform it doesn’t help. I can’t hold my thoughts; it’s more like spacing out. I just go for the best quality, something not too heavy. I like strains like Lambsbread – I forget the names. I’m glad to see the powers that be waking up to the reality that marijuana has benefits. The Rasta knew it all along.”

I asked if he wanted to get into the marijuana business.

“I don’t have the same interest in the industry as I do in music, film, and fashion. When you’re going into business, you should have love for it. I know people who love their farms, and raise their children there, but that is not who I am.”

After a lifetime as a metaphysical voyager – Christian, Muslim, Rasta – he’s come full circle. Nearing the age of 70, his mind is on science, politics, and the nature of life.

“There’s a new energy in the air, a higher level of thinking. That kind of cosmic consciousness is causing people to look for the right leadership. It seems reasonable. People gravitate to whoever can benefit them economically. ‘I’m going to put money in your pocket, money for your family.’ We’re focused on the material.”
Jimmy Cliff Reggae Music Jamaica“What makes me is my spirit, the physical being. We’re in a free mentality, where man gets out of the box of religion. Science is something I always investigated since a youth. How come flowers bloom? What makes things work in nature? Science teaches me what I need to know about the universe, the multiverse, the omniverse. It’s what I turn to at this stage of life. Religion has no place. It’s a man-made thing used to control. I am spirit, and I don’t need religion.”

Jimmy Cliff is currently in the studio creating his upcoming album Somerset, set to release in 2018. The album will be released through Zojak World Wide. To listen to his first single, check out “Life” on iTunes and/or watch his new video below.