JIMMY CLIFF’s role in Perry Henzell’s seminal 1972 feature The Harder They Come simultaneously introduced Jamaican reggae to the outside world and catapulted its star into the international spotlight.
Playing talented bad boy Ivan Martin, Cliff is the focal point of Henzell’s effortlessly authentic tale of a country boy corrupted by the big city after getting involved in the drug trade and worse, the music business.
Based on the true story of armed robber/folk hero Wappie King, The Harder They Come is an unflinching portrayal of the lot of Jamaica’s ghetto youth, the ‘sufferers’ at the bottom of the pile – and the amoral establishment which exploits them.
A simply superb soundtrack includes spine-tingling renditions of Many Rivers To Cross, You Can Get It If You Really Want and the film’s theme tune by Cliff, as well as classics by Toots & The Maytals, Desmond Dekker and the Melodians.
“It’s one of those movies that has relevance throughout generations,” says Dr Cliff – he received an honorary doctorate of letters from the University of the West Indies – on a visit to London. “You can still find today a young boy from maybe Glasgow coming to London to make his fortune and, you know ..”
It may be one of the poorest countries in the western hemisphere, with just a couple of million inhabitants, but Jamaica punches well above its weight in terms of the contribution it has made to global culture. If the place can do all that with so little money, what would Jamaica be capable of with proper funding?
“What an interesting and brilliant thought,” laughs Cliff, delighted. “If Jamaica was really properly funded, lots more great people would come out. If you look at all the different areas of life, not only sports or music, literature, science, technology you know there are people from Jamaica who are scientists at Nasa, yeah, if they were funded properly, it would breed a country of geniuses.”
Not unlike the film’s protagonist, as a young man Cliff moved from the Adelphi countryside to the west Kingston ghetto. Unlike Ivan, Cliff was lucky enough to be able to attend technical college before eventually getting his big break.
“In the so-called undeveloped world, in the third world, that is the reality,” he says. “There aren’t many open avenues. Youths who are not privileged to go to an institution of learning like myself, they have two choices – sports and music.”
“The privileged few, who can go an institution, they become part of the elite. But the others have burning ambitions and the only avenues which are open to them are sports and music.
“I chose music. I actually wanted to be a boxer, but I wasn’t that good,” he adds with a chuckle.
So you were never a rude boy like Ivan?
“Well, no. I wasn’t a behaved child, but I had good, religious parents. So I didn’t steal or kill like the character I played. But definitely, I was a rebel. And I still am.”
How does that fit in with breaking the UN cultural boycott of apartheid in the Seventies?
“Well, I knew that my music was helping to fight the system of apartheid, from all the letters that I had been receiving and what not,” says Cliff. “And I had been to other parts of Africa. So I had all the information that my music was helping to bring the system down. So, I felt that by going there, personally, I would do my part in helping to tear down the apartheid system. That was my whole thing behind going.”
Did you play to mixed audiences or were they segregated?
“No, for whatever reason, they were mixed. At the time, from my understanding of what they told me, it was the first time they’d allowed all the people to go to the stadium in the township. So on the day of the show there were all different kind of people in there.
“I had white roadies at the time, my crew was white, so at the soundcheck people started throwing things onstage. So we all got kinda nervous and saying, if they start doing that at the soundcheck, what is going to happen at the show?
“Well, the show went great in Soweto, from when we struck the first note. Everyone just started swaying and you didn’t see any colour anymore, just people swaying to the music.
“I was highly criticised for that tour,” says Cliff, still a little sad at the memory. “They said there was an embargo and you wasn’t supposed to go there, so yeah, I was highly criticised and banned in certain areas.
“But it was okay for me. It did kinda hurt a bit at the time, but after a while I just said, I did what I’ve been doing all my life, which is to make music for liberation and that. So it was okay.”
You might imagine that 62-year-old actor, music innovator, singer, songwriter, producer, ‘artivist’ and businessman would be thinking about slowing down. Guess again.
The tireless Dr Cliff, who divides his time between homes in Paris and Jamaica, is currently working on a movie about Wappie King with “people from Hollywood”, while planning his biggest US tour in 20 years and promoting a UK tour of the revived The Harder They Come stageshow.
Why does The Harder They Come still have such appeal?
“It’s a universal story,” answers Dr Cliff. “It’s about a kid from any part of the world going to the big city, to say, I’m going there to make my fortune because that’s where everything happens.
“For me, the music really made it work. I’d not seen the music from that perspective, so being a stage production, with music as the central part of the whole thing, it really made it bring out a side that I didn’t see before.”
Some long-overdue recognition finally seems to be coming Dr Cliff’s way. As well as his doctorate and the Jamaican Order of Merit, last month saw his induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, where he joins some of the musical giants of the 20th century.
“Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix, they are in my view, originators – creative people who started a revolution in what they did,” he decides. “I have always considered that my contribution to reggae was a revolution in itself, and I’m here witnessing a music form which I contributed to, making an impact all over the world. Yes, it’s a good thing to be among that crowd.”
He would have preferred to play songs from his new album but the organisers were insistent that he should play the songs “that lit the fire” for reggae in the US.
“There are some songs that come to an artist at a certain point in time in that artist’s life, and those songs become timeless,” says Cliff. “I think I have captured a few of them.”
Jimmy Cliff was one of the first JA performers to tour the UK, and he experienced the kind of unapologetic casual racism which seems utterly incomprehensible today. Now we have a black man in the White House, and in the UK the current Solicitor-General is Baroness Scotland, a woman of Jamaican parentage. It seems like the world has changed a lot.
“Oh yes, definitely. It’s very obvious,” agrees Cliff. “I’ve always felt that there has been a lot of opportunity in the area of education. Because if one has equal opportunity of education, regardless of whatever race, or background or creed or whatever one comes from, they are able to excel in any area.
“Wappie King was an outlaw, a really dangerous outlaw. But the thing is, I took that spirit of Wappie and put it in a positive way. We’re all capable of doing bad things, we all have two different parts of our character.
“If somebody who was as fearless as Wappie King had used that energy into as positive way, he would have been a brilliant, brilliant, brilliant person. I mean, he was great at the bad things he did, should he turned it into a positive thing I think he would have been much greater because the positive force is the more powerful force.
“That’s what I want to do with this movie of Wappie King. The people I am working with in Hollywood are talking about the Fall or maybe the new year. I’m really looking forward to it because, like I said, that’s one area of my career that I really want to push hard in.”
That young lad who came down from Summerton and ended up introducing himself to Leslie Kong before becoming a genuine international superstar is still hungry, still ambitious, still not satisfied with second best.
“It was a vision, a vision that I had in the hills of Summerton, in Adelphi land, a vision that I could and one day would conquer the world,” says the esteemed Dr Jimmy Cliff. “Well, part of that vision is realised. I think the first chapter has been written. And that’s why I am about to do act two.
“That’s to do with movie production and other things within the music industry that haven’t been realised. One can look at how many stadium acts there are in the world. Y’know, if you look in Britain or in America, you can count the stadium acts on your fingers. Well, I would like to be among that crowd.
“So there’s something to work towards, yes.”
[This is an expanded version on an interview which first appeared in the Big Issue in the North in April 2010]
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