Cliff's notes

Reggae master Jimmy Cliff discusses his new album, his eternal optimism, and the challenges of making music during wartime.

By Thomas Bartlett
Published August 24, 2004 8:00PM (EDT)

More than three decades have passed since Jimmy Cliff helped bring Jamaican music to the masses, so it might come as a surprise that this grand old man of reggae is only 56 years old.

Just 14 when he had his first Jamaican hit -- he was an international star by 20 -- Cliff made his reputation on simple, catchy songs carrying an inspirational and optimistic message. He's also written powerful political songs, such as 1969's "Vietnam," which Bob Dylan called the best protest song he'd ever heard.

Cliff is probably best known for his starring role in the 1973 cult film "The Harder They Come." The film's soundtrack includes some of his best-loved work, including his original version of "Many Rivers to Cross," on which Cliff's voice is high, taut and pure, bursting with passion but somehow restrained, lonely but perfectly dignified. For that song alone, he'll be remembered as one of the great voices in all of popular music.

With the release this week of his new album, "Black Magic," produced by Dave Stewart of Eurythmics and featuring guest appearances by Sting, Annie Lennox, Wyclef Jean and Joe Strummer, Cliff is redefining himself for a new generation. The music is rooted in Cliff's classic pop-friendly reggae but also incorporates dancehall, electro-pop and a whole slew of eclectic world music elements, blended into compulsively inclusive global pop.

Driving from Santa Ana to Petaluma, Calif., midway through a U.S. tour, Cliff spoke to me by phone about his spirituality and the eternal optimism of his music and gave me a Cliffs Notes version of the history of reggae.

Do you have high commercial hopes for this album? You certainly have some heavy hitters guesting on it.

Yes, I do. Because I think it's a fine album. Objectively looking at it, even if it wasn't me, I think it is a really excellent album. So yes, I have high commercial hopes for it.

Has your music made you wealthy?

It's kept me going over the years, I've never done any other kind of work in my life. Of course there are different degrees of wealth. I'm not a very wealthy man, but I do live very comfortably.

Your lyrics seem to be written from a universal perspective, about big ideas rather than specific people or situations. Why is that?

I don't know, I think that's just the way I am. Growing up in Jamaica I always had this very universal outlook. For me, it's more powerful to write in universal terms. I find I connect with people all over the world that way. There are some artists that have become really huge, for example, in America, but have not connected with South America, or Africa, or Asia, and that's because their outlook is more based upon the American environment. I like my music to be loved and listened to everywhere.

A lot of your songs seem as though they're meant to inspire hope in people. Is that a primary goal of your music?

Yes. You know the situation that I grew up in wasn't very positive. I grew up in a part of the country that one would call a ghetto. I had to have a very optimistic outlook to stay on top of that situation. So I cultivated and developed this kind of inspirational thing for myself, and through my music it goes into the other people's lives.

So you're an optimist, spreading your optimism to the world?

I am optimistic, but I'm pessimistic too. I don't think one can help being pessimistic living in a world like this today. There's so much pessimism and negativism going on that you can't help but be affected by it. And so I try to help balance things with the optimism of my music.

It sounds like you're deeply disheartened by the current state of the world.

To put it bluntly, I think we are in a time of decadence. If we look into history, and look at civilizations as they were crumbling, we see the same things that we see in our world today: overindulgence in sex, in food, in all of the physical things of life. People have forgotten to say to themselves, "I am a being, a separate entity that is able to think for myself. I am an individual spirit." Most people today have forgotten that. People are brainwashed by the establishment, and so our civilization is decaying. But while something is decaying, something is also being born. It's important to choose. Where do you want to be: with what is being born, or with what is decaying? To be on the side of what is being born is to look inside yourself, to find the light inside yourself and to seek out other people who are like-minded.

Are things getting better, or are they getting worse?

Things are getting worse. Me, with all of my optimism! But I think that's why it's important for somebody to accentuate the positive. People need to be able to appreciate life. That's what my music is for. You can listen to my new album when you have to get up and go to work, and think, "Oh, life is worth living." Or if you have a bad day, you can come home and put it on and say, "It's good to be home."

What do you think of the current U.S. administration?

I think they are making the same mistakes that have been made in the past. America today is the sole world power, and they've become arrogant. When I was growing up, and in all my travels, people always looked up to America, always wanted to go to America. But I've just toured all over Europe and in the Middle East, and there is a very powerful resentment towards America there. I've been a traveler for the past 25 years, and it's never been like that. This administration has made the mistake of becoming arrogant, and they've turned the world against them.

There are a number of songs with political messages on your new album, but why do you think there hasn't been more of a musical movement, writing protest songs about this war and this administration?

The system, the establishment, has been clever enough to divert the attention off the movement of the '60s when we used to write a lot of protest songs that helped to make a change, and you don't find any artists inclined to write protest songs. Or if they are inclined to, they are not being given any attention. That is what I think rap came to do, and they diverted it.

So you think that "the establishment" has just taken that spark out of people?

Yes. But I am one of them that can't be diverted. It's a part of me. It's what I feel, and I have to express it. So I comment on this record with songs like "Terror" or "Over the Border," which I did with Joe Strummer. I don't think music should just be for entertainment. I think music should become another tool to use positively, to change the world.

And you think that it can?

Oh, absolutely. Music is very powerful. If we look back from ancient times, music has always been used in powerful, potent ways. They beat the drums for people to go to wars! And even today, if we look in today's society, it can have a powerful effect, positive and negative. An associate of mine, I was surprised to see take a partisan stand recently. I'm speaking of Bruce Springsteen.

With his New York Times editorial and the announcement of his Vote for Change concerts. And you were pleased with that?

Actually, I was surprised, because I think that as artists we are beyond politics. But at the same time, we are supposed to use our art in a positive way. Taking a partisan stand is not really something that I would do. But I think that he feels a need for change in his country, and that is what is inspiring him to take a stand. So yes, I appreciate that.

Can you describe your faith to me? I understand it's very important to you.

Religion had been an important thing in my life, but that's in the past. Religion is not important to me anymore, because I have found out that religion is a tool, a device, that is used to stabilize people. I am still very spiritually inclined, but absolutely not religious. What people call God for me is the substantial reality that exists in this universe.

It's interesting that you say that religion is a tool for stabilizing people, because it seems right now as though it's doing exactly the opposite, with all of the violence and divisiveness of different kinds of fundamentalism.

Yes, that's the big paradox and contradiction. Because religion, if you look at it, was always the trigger for most of the wars that go on in the world, and still is. Religion isn't just a tool; it's also a spell. Everyone is under a different spell, and they are all convinced that they are right. And that's what caused the conflict. The way forward for the world is to get out of this trap, to get out of this spell. Religion is a spell. They have to break the spell. Once you break the spell, you become a free person.

So you practice spirituality without any religious affiliation?

Yes, I feel that I've evolved from all these religious doctrines. For me, they were all like schools. And now I have graduated from them.

Can you describe that evolution?

I grew up in a Christian family. When I was a teenager, I became disillusioned, so I started to rebel. In that rebellion I started to look for other outlets, and I found Rastafari. And then after a while, I said, this is really very similar to Christianity. Then I found Islam, but I've also been involved with Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism and many other faiths.

Do you practice any meditation?

Yes, I've learned different methods, and I've also developed my own methods. I meditate with a light, like a candle. When I look at that candlelight, I see myself as that light. I sit in the lotus position, because it's a good way to activate my chakras. I take the light into my third eye and send it all through my body, and then I empty myself of all my thoughts. I can do that for five minutes, 20 minutes, half an hour, and then after that I feel very refreshed.

What music do you like to listen to these days?

While I respect what we did yesterday, the music of the '60s, the '70s, the '80s, I like to be current. So I listen to rap and R&B and reggae, and I also listen to a lot of classical music. Bach and Beethoven, mostly.

What young artists are you particularly excited about?

In the rap world, I like Nas, OutKast and, strangely enough, Ludacris. And somebody like Beyoncé I appreciate, because I think that she has talent. She writes really good songs, so even without her sexuality, I think she'd still be a really good artist.

Would you rather work with the Neptunes or Timbaland?

I appreciate the Neptunes, but I do like Timbaland. I feel a little closer to what he's doing as a Caribbean artist.

And current reggae favorites?

In the Jamaican scene I like Bounty Killer, I like Sizzla, I like Capleton. Those are names you probably don't know.

I have to confess that I know very little about reggae, beyond your music. As someone who has been there since the beginning, could you give me "Jimmy Cliff's Brief History of Reggae"?

OK, that's interesting. Because I was there from the very beginning, from the very germs of the music, before it even had a name, before it even took form. I contributed my energies to giving it form, giving it a name. When it started, we called it "ska." And now you have a lot of ska bands, like Madness. The ska was a very upbeat music, because we had just gotten independence from Britain, so everybody was in an upbeat mood. And then the music slowed down, because everyone said, "Hey! What's going on here? What is this independence?" As you know, the music is always expressing the situation of the people. So the music slowed down and turned into what we called "rocksteady." And then, out of the rocksteady era, came the rude boys. They were a new set that started to rebel against the system, and they became quite violent. I hung out with them and was a part of them, but because I had my music, I didn't feel I needed to carry a knife.

But then we saw that we needed some roots, so we looked to Africa, and that's when Rastafari came into the music. Just as a movement at first, but soon it developed into a religion. And it was that spiritual element that transformed the music into reggae. That gave it the grounding that made the name stick. It then developed into different forms of reggae, like dub reggae and raga reggae, and to where we are today, which is dancehall.

How do you feel about the dancehall artists who have been having so much success in the U.S. recently?

The dancehall is the latest evolution of reggae, so I appreciate it. At the same time, it expresses only one branch of reggae, which I call "Girls and Cars and Superstars." It doesn't really express the side I call "Roots and Culture," and that side is very necessary. Reggae developed out of a need for spiritual consciousness, so I still give a lot of attention to that area of it.

That sounds similar to the gripe that underground hip-hop has with the mainstream. Do you think that hip-hop has undergone a similar evolution?

Yes, I think so. Hip-hop was a music that came like soldiers, to cut down the establishment. And the establishment said, "Hey, what's going on here? These people are fearless. They don't fear anyone. Let's try to diffuse this rebelliousness." So that's exactly what they did. They just turned it another way, and everybody in hip-hop now is also "Girls and Cars and Superstars."

Thomas Bartlett

Thomas Bartlett is a writer and musician in New York. He maintains a blog called doveman.

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