Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 February 2020

'I don’t take it for granted': Is Grammy winner Koffee the music industry's most humble star?

The 19-year-old reggae star on Usain Bolt, her rise to fame and being grateful

Koffee performs at O2 Shepherd's Bush Empire on November 9, 2019 in London, England. Getty Images
Koffee performs at O2 Shepherd's Bush Empire on November 9, 2019 in London, England. Getty Images

We are only two months into 2020 and it is already shaping up to be the most important year of Koffee’s career. In the space of six seismic weeks, the Jamaican singer received news that she would perform two of the biggest shows of her life. The first was for Super Bowl weekend, where she joined a line-up of A-listers including Cardi B, Chris Brown and DJ Khaled, as well as Jennifer Lopez, who performed in the coveted half-time show slot.

In April, she will take part in the popular Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in California. And if that isn’t enough, Koffee won Best Reggae Album at this year’s Grammy Awards, held on January 26. No mean feat for someone who was considering a career in pharmacy only three years ago, before her unique blend of socially conscious reggae struck a chord both at home and abroad.

When I meet Koffee in the UAE, she has just finished her headline set at SoleDXB. Backstage, she and her team are still buzzing at news of her Grammy nomination, which she had received earlier that day. She says she is excited and awed by “all these blessings that keep flowing”.

“I only got the news a few hours ago and it is really something special,” she says. “There will be a time when I will have to sit down and take it all in. I don’t take it for granted. I mean, I never expected it.”

Koffee, whose real name is Mikayla Simpson, has been confounding expectations since she emerged on the scene in 2018. For one thing, it takes a while to reconcile the fact such a commanding and seasoned voice comes from the diminutive, laid-back singer, who is 19. She is also part of a growing and revitalised roots reggae scene that has laid largely dormant in the face of its brasher cousin, dancehall, the major musical export from Jamaica over the past decade.

The biggest surprise, however, was reserved for Koffee’s mother, who only came face-to-face with her daughter’s considerable talents two years ago. The artist recounts the tale with glee: “I was back in Spanish Town, Jamaica, at the time. I grew up in the Seventh Day Adventist Church, which is a very musical denomination, so with me being part of the choir, singing and vocal classes were part of my routine. My mother thought it was a great hobby.”

“There will be a time when I will have to sit down and take it all in. I don’t take it for granted. I mean, I never expected it.”

The plan was for Koffee to express herself creatively in her free time, while her future professional career would be in the field of pharmacy. Little did her mother know, however, that among those study books in Koffee’s bedroom were journals full of lyrics and songs written in secret.

The young artist chose to reveal her musical talent to her mother on the biggest stage available to her at the time – that of her high school, at her graduation in 2017. “I wrote this song for the ceremony that I was going to perform, and since it was a graduation, my mother had to be there,” she says. “So I just went up there and really sang my heart out and the crowd loved it.” And her mother’s response? Koffee smiles. “She took me to the side and said: ‘Go ahead; your talent is undeniable.’”

While Koffee’s memory of the song remains sketchy – she has not performed it since – what she does remember is how people responded to its positive vibes. The lyrics, she says, were about celebration and encouragement, and these remain the central themes guiding her songwriting.

“I think there was a hunger at the time, and I would say there still is today, in Jamaica, to hear songs that have that positivity,” she says. “And this is really the difference between reggae and dancehall. Both types of music have coexisted easily together, but they have different messages. Dancehall is all about celebrating life in the moment, while reggae has always been looking at the bigger picture and spreading good vibes.”

It was a concept the artist applied to her first hit, of sorts, the acoustic tune, Legend. Released via her Instagram in 2017, her ode to Olympic champion and Jamaica’s superhero, Usain Bolt, went viral after the man himself reposted it online.

While grateful for the shout-out, Koffee says the song is more than just a fan letter to an idol. “It really began with a conversation with a friend about who our heroes were. I told him it was my mother because she raised me as a single parent, and my friend said it was Usain Bolt,” she says.

“I thought about that for a while, and I really looked into Bolt’s life, what he had achieved and how he did it by really being positive. I wrote the song because sometimes in Jamaica, we tend to celebrate the legends that have passed. I wanted to remind myself and others to really appreciate the legends in Jamaica that are alive among us.”

That said, for all its cultural contributions, gun violence and social unrest continue to fester across the island. It’s a topic Koffee takes on in various songs on her assured album Rapture. In Throne, the bubbly rhythms are underscored by a plea to youths to look beyond some of the violent lyrics found in some of the urban reggae tunes of today: “Jamaican people, leave the violence / Can’t you read well between the lines?”

Meanwhile, over the languid beats of Raggamuffin, she takes aim at Jamaican leaders for their neglect of young people: “What’s going on Jamaica? Parliament turn the paper / For ghetto youths, them no cater / That’s why the country is no safer.”

While Koffee admits there are no quick solutions to Jamaica’s present ills, what is needed from her generation is a change of mindset. It is only then that one can appreciate the blessings they already have. She recalls experiencing this first-hand when visiting neighbouring Haiti in 2018. With the island racked by the hurricanes of 2004 and 2008, in addition to a massive earthquake in 2010, Koffee says her trip was a wake-up call to be more appreciative of life.

It also resulted in one of her most-loved tracks, the life-affirming Toast. “I was in my hotel looking at the hill in Haiti and you know, I just thought, this could have been us in Jamaica,” she says. “We are not too far away from each other. I was reflective and I wanted to put out this message of gratitude out there. The fact that the people around the world love this song is perfect. It is really a blessing.”

Updated: February 11, 2020 01:13 PM

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