In an interview with Ben Kaplan for Canada’s National Post, Jimmy Cliff speaks of the events that led to his inclusion in famed reggae film The Harder They Come.
When I first went to Kingston, reggae music was not yet formed. Jamaica was into jazz, R&B and calypso. We had Latin music from Cuba, but the musicians in Kingston weren’t getting any respect. It was when we were searching for our identity that the music took form. Out of what you might say was anger, Kingston’s singer-songwriters started doing our own thing. They’d say, “You’re Jamaica’s Four Tops, Jamaica’s Motown.” I never want to be Jamaica’s anybody — I wanted to be who I am. That’s the way reggae music was formed.
I started singing at the Pentecostal church where’d I’d go with my family. My mother, father, grandmother, that’s the way my brothers and I grew up. It was a big family, like most of the families in our district, and my mom would say, “This little boy doesn’t know anything about spirituality. Why does he want to get up in church?” My father said, “Allow it,” and it went like that. I could sing! I was always a spiritual person, a spiritual soul, but as I grew up I became disillusioned and dissatisfied with Christianity. I went to Kingston and started looking into other avenues.
Bob Marley was a poet with a great sense of rhythm. When I first met him, I was working as an A&R in Kingston at Beverly Records and he came in to audition for me. I thought, ‘This man has it.’ Everyone’s born with one particular thing and then you develop that thing, that talent. In life, you have to find what your talent is. I could see what the talent was in Bob Marley. And I could also tell what the path was for me.
I was an unknown quantity when I went to New York in 1964 for the World’s Fair. I was amazed the next week to look at Billboard and Cash Box and see people writing about this thing called Jimmy Cliff. I met Chris Blackwell right after the World’s Fair. I went to London, made my records and it was an amazing time. Bob and I, Peter [Tosh], we would meet up with each other: ‘Can you believe this, man?’ Reggae music had gone all over the world.
In London, I’d go to the West End and watch lots of movies. I loved cowboy films. I’d watch four movies a day and think: “Boy, one day my movie’s going to be shown up here.” You have no idea how powerful the mind can be. The Harder They Come actually had to stop and start shooting many times. One time, we ran out of money. Then the cameraman had an accident — we only had one guy with a camera and we had to wait for him to get better before we could shoot. I used to love when the lights were turned on and someone yelled action. It was the first Jamaican movie and people were so amazed to see one of their own up there on the screen. The theme of the movie — good boy turned bad trying to get his own in the system — Jamaicans liked that, but unfortunately it did have some influence on gun violence in Jamaica. That’s very hard for me. There’d be a gun man and he’d say, “I’m like Jimmy Cliff.” You don’t think of that at the time.
I’ve always been somebody who like fairness and justice. I’ve always rooted for the underdog. Everyone has a calling on the planet, something you ought to be doing. My calling was in the arts — music, acting and sending out positive messages to uplift the people. Reggae music, Jamaica, that’s something gold. Bob would say, “Jimmy, man, things are going, you know. We need to keep on.” Until I move on to a higher plane, that’s what I’m supposed to do.
Jimmy Cliff, 62, plays Toronto’s Massey Hall tonight. His new album, Existence, will be out this fall.