Ever since he was a teenager in the early 1960s, Jimmy Cliff has been an irreplaceable part of Jamaica’s legendary music community. Rising to prominence alongside friends like Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Toots & The Maytals and many others, Cliff is an institution of ska and reggae music and one of the few remaining living pioneers of the genres. However, even at 69 years old, Cliff is still releasing new music, most recently unveiling the song, “Life,” off of a yet-to-be-named album.
Recently, CULTURE was able to catch up with Cliff and hear all about his new record and his thoughts on Jamaica finally decriminalizing cannabis.
“I know as artists many times we often need something to push us along. For me, it has always been a deep need inside of me to love and be loved, and that’s what keeps me going to this day.”
We understand that you have a new album coming out in the near future, your first since 2012’s Rebirth. Did you write and record it with any particular goals or ambitions?
Well, the first thing is that I really want this album to connect with as many people as possible. That means I need it to be a hit all over the world. So, that’s the obvious goal. I still want to make hits; I need to make hits.
“Life” is such a beautiful song and has such a wonderful video, what’s been inspiring you lately? Do you draw from the same inspirations that you always have?
What’s kept my inspiration flowing was that I wanted to write songs that connected with people, and it’s still what I want to do. I just try and keep my ears to the ground, keep them open to what people are saying and keep my heart open to what people are feeling.
When you’re trying to reach that feeling, trying to find it in yourself, is there something you do or somewhere you go to get in that creative mood?
Back in the days when you had to sign on with a record company and were obliged to give them one album a year or whatever, it used to be like, “An album? Oh an album is coming up? I better find some things to do!” So, I would go for walks in the community, observe things, hang out in places or whatever I had to do to get inspired. I still do some of those things today.
I know Jamaica decriminalized cannabis not too long ago, something that is a step towards legalization which was very important to many of your peers and friends like Bob Marley and Peter Tosh. Is it exciting to see something that many of your peers fought so passionately for finally starting to come to fruition?
It was about time! They finally got it! They finally got it after they see that all of the rest of the world is making a whole lot of money from it. Someone must’ve thought, “We have always had the best, and we’re sitting on it. Rastafarianism has been talking about it all of these years. Our singers are singing about ‘Legalize It’ and all of that.” So they jump up and say, “Hey! What are we doing?!” So they’ve just come around to it. It was about time!
It seems like cannabis is being less demonized around the world these days and more and more countries are moving toward decriminalization and legalization. Do you think that reggae artists like yourself who have been open about it kind of helped to break down some of the taboos surrounding it?
Oh absolutely! It is very evident. I mean, when Peter Tosh came out and said “Legalize It,” it was such a statement in that time. It was such a huge statement. And then Bob took a photograph with a big spliff in his mouth, I was drawing a big chalice in “The Harder They Come,” and so on and so forth. So, yes, I think we definitely played a huge role in breaking down the barriers. Now they’re seeing that it’s not only for recreation, it’s also got a lot of medicinal uses too.
Looking to the future, besides the new record are there any other new projects or activities that Jimmy Cliff fans can look forward to in the future?
Well, a lot of my fans, both older and younger, also know me as an actor. My first movie, The Harder They Come, had such an impact throughout the generations. So, I still want to do more movies and we’ve been working on the script to the sequel to The Harder They Come, and we’re still working on it. I know as artists many times we often need something to push us along. For me, it has always been a deep need inside of me to love and be loved, and that’s what keeps me going to this day.