Spanish Town sensation Koffee is shaping the future of reggae by lifting from roots positive-vibes doctrine and projecting a personal mantra of optimism as cultural rebellion as Apple Music's Up Next Artist for June 2019.
The first time I come across a video by Koffee, I am completely struck, because I have never seen anyone like her. Flicking through YouTube, my friend and I are drawn to an engaging scene, that’s at once familiar and brand-new. “Shhh…” says my friend, “a who dis?”
This is Koffee, (government name Mikayla Simpson) and the video for her single, “Toast”. We bob our heads. At 5 foot 2 and with a pure fire flow, she is the human embodiment of the Jamaican phrase ‘likkle but tallawah’ (‘little but strong’). Her luminous presence commands the 52 inches of screen as she rides into view on a bicycle and fills up the whole of it. She is the very definition of what we call in Jamaica a ‘singjay’, that is to say, one who expertly ‘toasts’ — stretching reggae lyrics and vocals over the rhythm of the beat; the sweet-hot place where the deejay meets the singer.
Everything about the visual is different and exciting. The bicycle, her red dungarees and braces, interspersed with scenes of the island, of boys and girls in the street, kids playing football, men pulling wheelies on motorbikes and Koffee sitting outside on the ground having her hair braided. All unmistakably Jamaican scenes, colours and situations, the lyrics positive; gratitude-filled. Here is a feeling of un-curated, cool joy!
Raised by her single-mum in Spanish Town, an hour away from Kingston, Jamaica, Koffee is taking the reggae scene by storm, both in Jamaica and globally. Hers is a refreshing take on the genre, a homage, respectfully authentic to the sounds and culture, albeit in a new direction. I find the live version of her cover of the Burna boy’s “Ye”, a live recording for 1Xtra where she deftly substitutes the N-word in the original track to Bredda (brother), handling the Nigerian pidgin flow like a Jedi Master.
The first song she wrote was a tribute to track star Usain Bolt called “Legend” that would go viral at light speed after Bolt himself reposted it on Instagram. From then on just about everybody wanted a Koffee fix, as producers and labels came knocking. In 2017 “Burning” — a song she wrote about not being accepted into sixth form college — caught the attention of her now label Columbia UK. The last 18 months have been a total whirlwind with Koffee teaming up producers like Walshy Fire of Major Lazer.
Jamaica has proudly embraced their home-grown talent and hails her as their hottest new export making waves on an international scale and landing her a coveted spot as Apple Music’s latest Up Next artist. Her vastly expanding fanbase (among them Rihanna and Jordan Peele) is completely in love with her and, right at this time, the world seems poised, ready for what she is serving: clear-eyed lyrics that tell a story, that inspire good feelings and positivity and also deal with the honest truths of living in Jamaica, politically, spiritually and otherwise.
Humble and calm, with an energy that is both assured and powerful, childlike and wise beyond her teenage years, she greets me warmly from a hotel room in London — “blessings, how are you?” — as I’m practically screaming ‘wha g’warn Koffee!’ down the receiver from New York. I collect myself.
YRSA: I’m so excited to be talking to you!
KOFFEE: Thank you… I appreciate that, I appreciate you saying that.
Y: It feels as though your arrival and growing popularity signals a new and brilliant time in, not only music, but the culture in general. A growing need for authenticity and joy. How do things feel right now for you with everything happening at once?
K: It’s definitely a crazy time. It is, but I’m here staying grounded. I’m not home in Jamaica very much at the moment to be honest. It’s busy right now, so mostly I’ll stay home for a week or two at the most and head out again. But that’s good…I can’t complain…that’s the blessing, you know? Something to give thanks for.
I always love the energy in the UK. It’s a great vibe here as usual. And being able to travel the world and do what I really love. It’s something that I definitely make sure I take the time to appreciate in the moment.
Y: That’s an important thing to be able to do. Everywhere I go, I’m hearing you! Does this feel real? When did you fully realise…okay, this is really it…it’s is happening now and it’s going to be huge?
K: The moment it started happening, to be very honest! At first it was surreal. Quite surreal. But I was always aware. At the end of each day, and especially in the mornings, I have the chance to appreciate and take it in and kind of bask in it for a few moments — but never for too long, I have to get back to work!
Y: One thing I was drawn to is your affinity and appreciation for language, the strength and the lyricism in your works. “Ragamuffin” has such a distinct and recognizable flow and rhyme scheme and sounds so fresh. I heard you described as a ‘pioneer’ of this consciousness revival.
K: Ah! [I hear the smile in her voice]. Thank you!
Y: Is that a deliberate and conscious thing? Considering we’re at a time when we’re tapping into what’s ‘real’ and important, what matters and what is true about society, about human nature and what is going on around us in our communities…
K: It is definitely a part of my environment at all times. It is important to me to talk about Jamaica. I love Jamaica. I’m proud of Jamaica. Consciousness-wise we have to be honest and speak up about the things taking place. That’s definitely a part of my environment; especially when I was growing up, because my mother took the time to instil in me certain values and qualities. She’s a guide, so proud and happy and supportive from the very beginning. I’m so happy to have her by my side in all this. She’s really allowed me to be the person I am, because of her I feel as though my background and upbringing.
Y: I’m raised Seventh Day Adventist too. We have that in common.
K: Big up!
Y: The lyrics for the Rapture EP are brilliant. Your work sounds as though you read a lot. Most of us who grew up in the church are early readers. I wondered if it was down to exposure to biblical verse and hymns. Do you think there is something about growing up in the church that causes you to write a certain way? To dig into deeper hidden meanings to things; to what is poetic?
K: Most definitely. I read the bible most mornings. I love to read. I try to read a lot. I really aspired to be well learned and well-spoken from an early age. Growing up reading was a full part of my life. I remember mummy always pushing me towards books, if I asked her about the origin of a word she would always send me to the dictionary to find it for myself! I would have to if I really wanted to know what something meant.
Y: From church, how did you find your way towards reggae music?
K: At school, there was a music club and a choir which really had an effect on me. That’s where I learned about reggae music and how to expand my own ideas of what I knew music to be. Church is the first place where I was exposed to music and fell in love with it, so it has influenced in a huge way how I understand and express music. In the choir, music grew with me. You will know that the choir is a big deal in the Seventh Day Adventist church. The influence of music was there from the beginning. But at school was when I got the chance to explore other forms and to perform in smaller groups.
- Hood Underage
Y: Did you ever feel a push back or disapproval because of this direction?
K: I didn’t and I still haven’t. They know me, they’ve known me since I was born [laughs]. They know I’m a good kid. What music is for me, what I’m most concerned with is presenting positivity and consciousness. That I’m able to influence in and out of the church.
Y: Yes! Overall the message on the Rapture EP are of gratitude, togetherness, blessings such a different sentiment to most songs out there. What was it about your influences that shaped this?
K: As a writer I am inspired in a big way by the people who have come before me. I am inspired so much by Chronixx and his song topics and melodies. He’s also a very positively inspirational person that I was able to really relate to growing up. To me he stood out and I was proud, because he’s from Spanish Town as well. I was touched by his music by such an early age. I could listen to what was behind the lyrics. Protoje’s lyricism also completely shaped the way I write music. I am honoured that they have been such big supporters of me from the beginning.
Y: Back home in Spanish Town everyone must be so excited to see you blowing up like this.
K: This a unified moment for the community. It’s really important in our community to celebrate as a whole and in unity, not just as individuals…it’s a great feeling.
Y: What’s your core reasoning for being here right now doing what you do? What keeps it meaningful?
K: To speak positivity. A strong message. Knowing that everything, every aspect of life, is a gift from God, the way that things were set up. The things I am able to have and hold. I didn’t know it would happen like this at all. This was a huge surprise for me. When I started writing, I thought that I would write for other artists, not be an artist myself. Testament to that is when I say in the song “Toast”: “Oli say do road and mi gwan wid di road”. My friend Oli said ‘you can do your ting, you know…you talented…write your songs, perform your music!’. So, I tried a ting.
That’s why I embrace it. You know when they say, ‘count your blessings’? It’s so much that I’ve been given. When I think that I’ve been given all this opportunity, to be able to speak to people in my way. I have to give my heart to it. I’m like…what would you say…a steward. I can’t be careless. I can’t misuse it, trust me, [Laughs] that wouldn’t be good.
Y: What’s the most beautiful thing in your life?
K: I would say this…Life is the beauty, life itself. That way you can see and experience all of it. I don’t want to miss anything. I think that you have to be able to look at the whole picture, rather than looking at one thing that seems beautiful in the moment, to appreciate what is good and bad. So you see that beauty and treasure lies in them all.
Y: You’re low key and very intentional on your social media…
K: It’s me, it’s my personality, you know. There are so many sources of influence happening on there that I know aren’t so positive, so if I have the chance to add to it and to use what I have to influence in a good way, I’ll try to do that to change the world for the better. Injecting positivity, everyone, particularly in people my age. But there has to be a naturalness to everything I choose to do — it’s got to be real.
Y: What do you find yourself wishing would materalise soon?
K: I wish to be able to bless everyone in my life at the same time. With success there are benefits. So I want to make them feel good from the things that I’m experiencing and getting. You want to do all that at once with the resources. It’s a natural thing. Everybody wants to do that, you know… the rappers, all those people [laughs], they want to share the love too, to help those around them.
Y: What’s it like having this experience both being younger and working in an industry and musical genre that’s been quite male dominated?
K: I feel unperturbed by that. I don’t feel threatened; I have never been troubled in that way. So, I have nothing negative to say — I just feel blessed! I’ve felt very respected and accepted by them in the place that I’ve come to hold.
Y: You keep your own counsel. Even your lyrics, like on “Raggamuffin” [“Mi only spit lyrics nuh really talk a lot”] state you’re a person of few words, except for when you’re on the mic! During this busy time how do you carve out the place for yourself?
K: Yeah, I hold my space. It’s very important for me. I keep the space around me as empty as I possibly can outside of work. I’ll be meditating, reflecting, that’s definitely what keeps me grounded enough to hold those qualities; those parts of me that I want to preserve. I have to.
Each month Apple Music’s Up Next emerging artist initiative spotlights rising talent from around the world with an introductory short film shot entirely on iPhone XS, an interview with one of Apple’s own Beats 1 anchors, plus a late night TV performance on Jimmy Kimmel Live!