Ska legend Jimmy Cliff: “It was difficult when I first came to England”

"My landlady saw me exercising one morning, and said: 'What are you doing here? Don’t you know we don’t have coloured people here?' She gave me 24 hours to get out. I slammed the door in her face."

I had been writing music for years by the time I was 16. The process started in school when I was maybe nine or 10. The inspiration was hearing a song by a local artist by the name of Derrick Morgan on the radio. I thought, if local artists are doing things and getting on the radio, maybe I can do it too.

Before music, really and truly, my passion at the time was to go to the river and swim with my friends. But then they used to put on school plays and little concerts and that became a passion. I realised people took notice of me when I did that. I loved the applause. Because I was what you would call a rude kid. Not a well-behaved kid – not everybody liked me. So it was good to be liked.

Looking back now, I had done a lot for a young person. Then, I didn’t think so. I just thought I was doing something I loved. But I had already had a hit single, recorded songs and moved to Kingston. My father sent me there to go to college and I stayed for one year. Within that year, I was auditioning for a concert and I saw again that people gravitated towards me, so I dropped out of college.

What are you doing here? Don’t you know we don’t have coloured people here?

Kingston was very strange to me. Strange people. Nobody says hello or good morning, which was what I was used to in the country. It was a big culture shock. In the country it was very relaxed and peaceful, which was great. But the hustle and bustle of the city awakened another part of my brain, gave me energy.

I represented Jamaica at the World Fair aged 16. For me it was exciting to go from Jamaica to New York – and another culture shock. If I thought Kingston was big, New York was huge! It was exciting for me to go there and perform at a huge event. I welcomed the whole thing. No one in America had heard the ska music I
was playing. I suppose I have been representing Jamaica ever since. But unconsciously – I represent myself, but I have always loved being Jamaican. So I am proud to represent them.

It was difficult when I first came to England in 1965. At that time, I didn’t even have a proper visa, so they wanted to send me back. Finally I got to come into the country, which was yet another culture shock – wow, where does all this fog come from? Why do all the houses have this thing on the top, which was a chimney. I thought they were all factories. No wonder people come here to get jobs!

My landlady saw me exercising one morning, and said: “What are you doing here? Don’t you know we don’t have coloured people here?” She gave me 24 hours to get out. I slammed the door in her face. Luckily, there was a programme called Ready Steady Go! and I was invited on – not to perform, but as one of the kids standing around Nina Simone. The next time I saw her, the landlady said, “Oh, I saw you on the telly yesterday. How nice.” I was in a bedsit in Earl’s Court and now I could stay as long as I wanted. I had become a celebrity. Fame changes the way people react to you.

I always had a global mind. I always had a global outlook. I didn’t only belong to Jamaica. So I tried to invade the world just like the British invasion. I listened to everything. My time in England helped develop that. It broadened my mind. I still played my ska, but I had to play rock ’ n’ roll, I had to play soul, I had to play a variety of different kinds of music just to survive when I first came to England. I always liked various kinds of music. Even country and western music was played on the radio in Jamaica. I was open to everything.

My teenage self would feel really good about my career. You went there? You did all that? Wow, you did well! That teenage boy from the country would be really amazed at his accomplishments. He would be most delighted about the first number one hit in Jamaica, Hurricane Hattie. But there was King of Kings, One-Eyed Jacks, Miss Jamaica, but the first one, the first number one, is a big wow!

In 1964 the year Jimmy Cliff turns 16…

  • Labour’s election win ends 13 years of Tory rule
  • Sidney Poitier becomes the first African-American to win a Best Oscar for Lilies of the Field
  • BBC Two begins broadcasting

I hated politics in Jamaica, really. But that hate made me even more interested in what they were doing. I recognised the hypocrisy at a very early age. The song Vietnam was a protest song, but it came from a definite political point of view. What are they doing over there? What are they fighting those people over there for, what right have they? That was part of my political development.

My first global smash hit was Wonderful World, Beautiful People. And my younger self would really appreciate the story behind that. I left the UK to represent Jamaica in Brazil at the International Song Festival. And nobody knew Jimmy Cliff in Brazil when I went on the stage that night. The next day? Everybody knew Jimmy Cliff. I was so motivated by the reaction that I started writing songs again – and I wrote Wonderful World, Beautiful People. On my way back to Jamaica, I completed that song, Vietnam, Come Into My Life and recorded the album. That teenage boy would be so happy!

The character I played in The Harder They Come had a lot of me in him. I was living in London then. Perry Henzell [the director] came over and I did a screen test and he decided I was the person he was looking for to do his movie. As we talked, he realised that I was a real country boy. So sometimes, when we came to do a scene, and he just said: “Forget the script, Jimmy, how would you do that?” I really put myself into it. And that was the movie that really brought reggae music and the culture of Rastafari to the world. I am very proud of the part that I played in that.

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Jimmy at home in Kingston in the 1977 documentary 'Roots Rock Reggae'. Image: Getty

You can call it exploring, but when I look at my religious journey, I would say there were many classrooms I had to go through. The first was Christianity, where my parents took me – and I discovered early that it was hypocrisy too. Then I found Rasta just before I came to England, but I did not have time to get enough knowledge, only that it linked me to Africa. Then I found Islam when I went to New York – it was political, as a black Muslim. I was on my way to go to see Malcolm X in Harlem when I heard they had shot him.

I learnt a lot from my grandmother – because I didn’t grow up with my mother. As a parent, most of the things I teach my children now are what my grandmother taught me. I try to teach them good morals: don’t lie, don’t steal.

I would tell my younger self to never forget who you are. And never forget to be who you are. There is what you are and what you become. But what you become is not who you are by nature – so remember who you are. I would whisper that in his ear.

Jimmy Cliff will be playing London Roundhouse on July 5 for Innervisions Festival and Cornbury Festival on  July 13

Image: Jimmy Cliff, courtesy of his PR