Meet Koffee: Jamaica’s Teenage Reggae Sensation


Hannah Giorgis (The Atlantic) reports on young Jamaican musician Mikayla Simpson, also known as Koffee. [Thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.] Here are excerpts:

Toward the end of August 2017, a 17-year-old Jamaican musician named Mikayla Simpson uploaded a video of herself singing to her Instagram account. In the short clip, she strummed her acoustic guitar and performed “Legend,” a record she’d written as a tribute to the country’s famed track star Usain Bolt. “Yuh nuh need no medal with a heart of gold, yuh stay humble inna yuh glory,” she sang about the Olympic champion. “If the times get slower and yuh start get old, mi still remember yuh story.”

Soon after, Bolt saw the video and reposted it to his own account, where it has since been viewed nearly 300,000 times by his several million followers. In the year and a half since recording that first video, Simpson, who sings under the stage name Koffee (sometimes Original Koffee), has been wholeheartedly embraced by some of Jamaica’s most famous musicians—and by their fan bases. At the January 2018 edition of the annual reggae festival Rebel Salute, the veteran artist Cocoa Tea introduced Koffee to a massive audience one month before her 18th birthday. Now 19, the DJ and singer-songwriter—or “singjay,” in island parlance—has already performed alongside contemporary icons such as Chronixx and Protoje.

When we spoke in Kingston’s Mountain View clearing late last month, a day before the release of her Rapture EP, Koffee marveled at the support she’s received from industry legends. “Being a young artist, you know that you’re not the first and there are a lot of people who have been there before you to basically look up to—people who have been setting examples forever,” she said. “They’re the foundation for the music that you are here experiencing and listening to now, [so] to know that you can … reach out to them and have them give you advice and just guide you along your journey, it’s a very comforting feeling.”

[. . .] The Bolt tribute, and the resulting onslaught of attention, came a few months later. Among the viewers of Bolt’s Instagram repost, for example, were representatives of the Jamaica-based label Upsetta Records, who asked Koffee to join reggae veterans such as Busy Signal and Jah Vinci in singing on Ouji Riddim, a collaborative record on which each singer recorded their vocals over the same production, or “riddim.” Her contribution, the October 2017 hit “Burning,” showcased a young artist whose vocal dexterity could handle flows beyond the stripped-down acoustics of “Legend.”

At turns solemn and celebratory, “Burning” keenly reflects Koffee’s interest in producing music that speaks to the concerns and triumphs of Jamaicans. The record is personal—she wrote the song after failing to gain entry into sixth form, or a precollege program of sorts, but her anxieties about education reflect broader patterns among the country’s youth. Even so, the lyrics are resolutely hopeful. “Neva be ungrateful / Life is such a teacha,” she sings of the disappointment she felt upon learning of her results and the determination that kept her going. In this, she draws from the genre’s most iconic bards, whose music soundtracked moments of inner turmoil and political strife alike.

For Koffee, the stakes of her own trajectory remain high well after the setback that inspired the track. “I think it’s good to have a positive influence on youth sometimes. That’s wavy,” she said of her mission to push through the grit that characterizes Jamaica’s contemporary musical scene. The singer knows that teenagers aren’t listening to the kinds of artists they associate with their parents, but she wants to channel the social consciousness of legends such as Bob Marley with a fresh twist. “I try to modernize positivity very distinctly,” she added. With its infectious melody and bouncy spirit, “Burning” is also the record that piqued the interest of Major Lazer’s Walshy Fire, who would later co-produce her debut single, “Toast,” with the Jamaican sound engineer Izybeats.
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