Many great music artists can be described as legendary. The Honourable Jimmy Cliff is a living legend. With a legacy spanning nearly 50 years, Cliff continues to help shape modern music with his distinguishable voice, classic reggae rhythms and powerful lyrics.
People typically think of Bob Marley anytime reggae music is mentioned. There’s no doubting his impact, but Cliff can be credited with introducing that genre to the world. That introduction took place in 1972 when Cliff made his film debut in “The Harder They Come.” Cliff both starred in and performed on the soundtrack for the independent Jamaican film.
Featuring some of Cliff’s now greatest hits (“You Can Get It If You Really Want,” “Many Rivers to Cross” and “The Harder They Come”), the movie’s soundtrack made reggae music a mainstream sensation for international audiences. Before that, the genre was only popular in Jamaica. This year marks the 40th anniversary for the iconic album and movie.
“The Harder They Come” remains Jamaica’s most significant film. Cliff’s contributions to the film and music of Jamaica were honored in 2003 when the Jamaican government awarded him The Order of Merit, the nation’s third-highest honor. The award can be held by no more than 15 living people. Those who receive it are entitled to wear the insignia of order as decoration and to be referred to as “the Honourable.”
Since his debut, Cliff has continued to inspire audiences with new music and his enduring message of peace, love, justice and hope. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2010, and is the second reggae artist to be inducted after Marley.
His most recent album, “Rebirth,” is slated for release in July 2012. On the album Cliff collaborated with Rancid frontman and producer Tim Armstrong. It’s not an obvious pairing, but as Cliff described it in our interview with him, their collaboration “just came about naturally.”
Audiences in Vegas can hear Cliff perform songs from “Rebirth” along with his classic hits on June 21 when the reggae legend takes the stage at the pool at the Hard Rock Hotel. Read what else Cliff had to say in our interview below.
Q. What can audiences expect to hear from you at your upcoming show in Las Vegas?
A. “They can expect to hear some Jimmy Cliff reggae classics from ‘The Harder They Come’ to ‘You Can Get It If You Really Want’ to ‘Wonderful World, Beautiful People’… At the same time I have this new album out, ‘Rebirth,’ and I have this whole other new material to sing from it. I have a great new band, and we’re all full of energy to come out to Vegas and perform.”
You mentioned “The Harder They Come,” and I know that this year marks the 40th anniversary for that soundtrack and the movie. What is that like for you, looking back and knowing that it’s been 40 years since you introduced reggae music to the world?
“It’s been a great journey, a wonderful trip because 40 years ago seems like yesterday. Every time I sing one of those songs it’s as if I’m singing it for the first time because every time I get a new experience I get new chills in my body when I see the reaction from the crowd. That movie is the movie that propelled reggae music, a new culture and Jimmy Cliff to the world. That was a special piece of movie making. It’s a classic, and I’m very proud to have played the part that I played in it.”
Were you surprised by the impact that it had?
“We went into it with a very positive outlook. We didn’t know, we couldn’t predict what impact it was going to have, but we were all positive and had high hopes. So, seeing the result that it had, I feel fantastic. I feel that I have achieved what I hoped for.”
How has your music and your message changed since then?
“I have evolved as a musician, as an artist. The message has always been a message of a quest for justice and peace, love, hope and all of that, but I have evolved and expanded and all of that. I have a bigger understanding of what they all mean now and how it will work and why it doesn’t work. So I have expanded on that, and I have a lot of that expansion on this new album, ‘Rebirth.’”
How has your understanding of things like peace and love changed?
“You know, it is the human nature. The human nature, we have the capacity to be good or to be bad, to be positive or to be negative, and choices that we make and leaders that we choose and institutions that exist and are still perpetuating for things. So we are in a time when we have to look for what is real, what is true. This is the level of my growth, and I like to share the things that I’ve discovered in my life in my songs with people. ”
What has continued to inspire you to perform over the years?
“I’ve set my goals really high. I have achieved quite a bit of them. However, there are still other goals to be achieved. My first love was acting, and I have not yet won an Oscar. So that is an aspiration that I’m still reaching for. I’ve not written my best songs just yet. I’ve not written all the number one hits like I aspired for all over the world just yet. I’m still not yet a stadium act. So all of these things that I’ve yet to do are what keep me going.”
Is writing your next No. 1 song something you’re always working on?
“Absolutely… For instance, I go to a new country and maybe just walking down the street, there might be some incident that I see or something going on in my life and inspiration comes, but sometimes inspirations are like fruits. They come out in a bud, but you have to wait until they are ripe. So I could have an idea for a song going on for more than a year, and it doesn’t come to fruition until after a year or some time, but yeah I’m constantly working on songs.”
I know you’ve worked with many different artists. Is there anyone you have in mind that you’d like to collaborate with in the future?
“Well the way that works for me is the collaboration process is something I like when it happens quite naturally. For instance, I’m working with Tim Armstrong on this new album, and that just came about naturally. We had not met before until the first time we met in the studio, and everything just flowed. So I may say, ‘Well maybe that artist or that artist I would like to work with,’ but maybe it’s not the same energy. So I prefer when it just flows. When we connect and it happens like that, that’s when it’s great.”
What do you like to do when you’re not performing or writing music?
“I like to go to the beach. I love swimming, it’s one of the things I enjoy doing. If I’m in Jamaica or wherever I am, I like to go for a walk in the forest. I love nature, so I love to do things in nature. I grew up in Jamaica in nature. I grew up in the countryside of Jamaica so I still have that love for nature, everything that is natural. I miss that when I’m on tour sometimes in the big cities of concrete and steel. So when I’m not, I try to connect again with nature.”
Why do you think your music has had such a profound impact on people and music all over the world?
“I think that I am still growing. So with every new generation I learn something new about that generation. Obviously I transmit it through my music, and I’m going to have that channel. So it appears that I am echoing the echoes of the people that when I connect with something that is in someone’s mind they say, ‘oh you know I was feeling just the same way sang in the song.’ That’s how I think music connects with people. Because I’m constantly growing every day and because I try to stay current with what’s going on in the world, I think that’s how I keep connecting with people. I hope I keep doing it better.”
You really are a voice for so many people. What is that like for you knowing that fans have that expectation when they hear your music?
“I’m inspired by people, so as a child I’ve always loved people. There were children that gravitated to me in school because I would defend them if they couldn’t defend themselves. I still have that kind of energy in me. I’m inspired by just observing people, and I guess by all of that I transmit it to people, so there we are.”
So what’s next for Jimmy Cliff?
“Well after this tour, which probably goes on until September, and the tour takes me all over the United States and Canada and Europe, after that there are like three movies on the table. Hopefully one will go into production late in the fall. If not, then I think it will be early next year that one goes into production, so those are the near future things to do.”
What is it like for you transitioning from performing as a music artist to being an actor?
“That is great because my first love was acting, and it’s great fun to transform oneself into someone else. It’s a great thing to be playing someone else… I enjoy it, and it can take you into some deep places because if you’re playing someone like a blind person for instance, you have to really get deep into that character and transform to that. It can take you far places into your mind.”