Reggae pioneer Jimmy Cliff

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame reggae legend explains the spiritual concept behind the title of his new album, “Sacred Fire,” and shares how he was able to help put his genre of music on the international stage.

With a catalog that's among the most influential in global culture, Jimmy Cliff is the elder statesman of reggae. He had his first hit in his native Jamaica at age 14 and earned international stardom with the album and film The Harder They Come—the first feature written and directed by a Jamaican and shot on location using an all-native cast. A Grammy winner and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, Cliff has collaborated with and had his material performed/recorded by numerous and diverse artists, including the Rolling Stones and Jerry Garcia, and recently released his first new music in seven years on the CD, "Sacred Fire."


Tavis: Pleased to welcome Jimmy Cliff to this program. The reggae icon has been an influential force in the music business now for nearly 50 years – I couldn’t even get it out. It’s been so long, it doesn’t seem that way – next year, marking the 40th anniversary of his seminal album and companion movie, “The Harder They Come.”

Starting next week, you can pick up a copy of his latest project, a new six-song EP called “Sacred Fire.” Jimmy Cliff, an honor to have you on this program, sir.

Jimmy Cliff: It’s a great pleasure, sir. Thank you.

Tavis: I love that title, “Sacred Fire.” Tell me about that.

Cliff: “Sacred Fire” on an artistic individual basis is the secrets that I’ve kept sacred over the years, things that I’ve yet to do, things that I have yet to accomplish as an artist. And another level, it’s the secrets of my connection as an earth man.

My pigment is of the earth, and collecting my sacred fire from my solar plexus with the central sun of the earth. So these are secrets that have been kept sacred and I am growing to understand these things.

Tavis: And now the secret’s out [laugh].

Cliff: The secret’s out [laugh].

Tavis: Now your secret is out.

Cliff: Yeah.

Tavis: Let me go back and get you to unpack a couple things you’ve just said for me now. I thought I heard you say that there’s still so much more stuff you still want to do musically and, given the icon that you are – and I don’t use that word lightly – I’m trying to figure out what the heck that might be, Jimmy.

Cliff: Okay. I’ve done a lot of things to become what I’ve become, out to create and establish a musical form and I call it movie. However, first of all, I was a songwriter and I’ve written some good songs, but there are lots of greater songs that I know I have inside yet to come out.

I’m an actor. I have done like four movies, so I’ve not done the amount of movies that I would like to do. I tour very regularly all over the world. I do festivals, but I’m not doing stadiums as yet. I do some stadiums in other parts of the world like Africa or South America and those things.

Yeah, there are those things to be accomplished and maybe the big albums or the great songs that I think I have to do inside.

Tavis: Again, you keep saying things I want to go back and get, so I’m gonna try and keep up with you for the next 25 minutes here. When you say there’s still good songs, great songs, inside of you – I don’t think I’ve ever asked this question and I’ve talked to a lot of songwriters over the years, a lot of great ones.

I don’t know if I’ve ever asked this question, but I want to ask it of you, given what you’ve just said now. Does a songwriter ever lose his or her mojo? I ask that because, as you well know, there are many great songwriters, yourself included, who have their moment. They have their era when all the stuff that they write is chart-topping.

I don’t want to believe that, because your stuff isn’t chart-topping, you can’t write great music, but what is it that’s even allowing me to ask this question whether or not a songwriter ever loses his or her mojo? Is there anything there?

Cliff: I don’t think a songwriter should lose their mojo. In my situation, I’m one of those artists that lasts over a long period rather than have your moment and your moment is gone. So I’m one of those that go over a period of time. I analyze myself and know these things about myself, so that’s why I know that I have these great songs yet to come.

Tavis: I’m gonna ask it one more time, a different way, and I accept your answer. I guess what I’m trying to get at is what happens in a person’s career, if they’re a great songwriter, why is it that when I go see artist X, Y or Z in concert, I want to hear the songs from the period when, to my mind and everybody else’s mind, they were writing great songs?

If a good songwriter is always a good songwriter, then why does their stuff resonate at one period of time and doesn’t necessarily resonate or chart-top at another time? Does that make sense?

Cliff: Yes, it makes sense. I think maybe they were connecting with the energies of the time.

Tavis: Of the moment, okay.

Cliff: And then maybe you get too comfortable and, you know, stop connecting with the energies of the continued time. That’s the only way I can see it. But I try to stay with the time.

Tavis: Something else you said earlier I want to go back to, which is – and you’re right about this and you didn’t say it arrogantly. I know you said it modestly, but I do want to have you unpack it.

That is this notion of not just being a great artist, but your iconic status in large measure comes from, is derived from, the fact that you helped to put a music art form on the international stage. Take me back to that moment and tell me more about how you were able to take reggae and to put it on the international stage.

Cliff: I think we all have a role to play in life. Once one realizes what one role is, one plays it well. Sometimes we don’t realize it right away. So I’m in the position to be a contributor to this music that we now call reggae without knowing that my role would be to take it there.

Tavis: You say we now call it reggae. What were you all calling it back in the day?

Cliff: It was just Jamaican music [laugh].

Tavis: Okay, fair enough, fair enough.

Cliff: So I realized along the way, well, why am I the first here in England doing all these things? I started asking myself why am I the first going to Africa.

Why am I the first when I go there to get all this adoration in Africa? Why am I the first going to Asia? Why am I the first coming to the U.S.? Oh, so this is my role, I realize. So that is it. I realized what my role was to play in and the contribution that I made at the beginning.

There were other great artists at the commencement of the music, you know. Joe Higgs and people that were unsung. However, they did their role, so my role was to help to contribute and take it and establish it as like a pioneer.

Tavis: And you did that. You did it remarkably well and you’re still doing that. But let me ask earnestly how it feels and whether or not you’ve ever wrestled with the fact that the guy who got so much the credit for that – I see you smiling already ’cause you know where I’m going with this, don’t you?

Cliff: Yeah, I do.

Tavis: The guy who got so much credit for that, a great artist himself, don’t make any mistake about it, Bob Marley. But how have you processed that notion that the world gives Bob Marley as the end-all?

Cliff: Well, I’m gratified for the fact that I was the one took him – I wouldn’t say discovered. He came by and I heard him. He played his music for me and I was the one who took him to make his first music. So I’m gratified with that. I knew you had it, so that’s good, and I’m glad you did it. You haven’t let me down.

My role is the shepherd’s role. The shepherd is the one who opens the gate and allows the flock to go through and whoever opens the gate has to close it, and the gate is not yet closed.

Tavis: Very nicely put. Sounds like a lyric [laugh]. That was so sweet, Jimmy. Sounds like a lyric. You better go write something down real fast like. Man, that was good. If you don’t write it down, I will [laugh].

Cliff: I write songs on a universal basis. I was born out of the earth of Jamaica which I consider to be a part of Atlantis, the sunk continent, but that’s my thing. But I write songs on a universal basis, not like Jamaican songs.

Tavis: To your point now, we call it reggae now. You all back then just saw it as good Jamaican music, to your earlier point. Whatever you want to call it, to my ear – I might get in trouble for this – maybe even more than any other music form or certainly as much as any other, you guys are always saying something.

I don’t want to call them protest songs, but oftentimes wrestling with the human condition. That’s what I want to say. Wrestling with the human condition. You would agree with that?

Cliff: Absolutely.

Tavis: What is it about Jamaican music, reggae, whatever you want to call it, that comes out of that region that, no matter how funky, how cool or how profound the beat is, if you listen to the words, you’re hearing something about the human condition?

Cliff: Oh, yes. I think it’s a part of our environment, the growing up, when you check the history of Jamaica. It goes back to the whole history of Jamaica. It’s not only about the condition of love that we all share as human beings or as beings, but it’s about our whole social condition, political, spiritual condition is embodied in that.

So we used to call the music scat when it took on a form of very upbeat when Jamaica got its independence from Britain. Then we called it rock steady when it slowed down to say what is this independence? Let’s have a look, and its music slowed down. Then it became reggae when it took on a more spiritual form with the growth of Rastafari and all of this.

So this is the history and, if we go beyond the history of the formation of this music, it’s from our history coming from Africa back and the struggles that we had.

Some of our ancestors had to fight for the freedom and they fought against the British. Even today, there is a – I am descendant of people who are called the Maroons and, even today, there is a piece of land that is for the Maroons and we govern ourselves. It’s not governed by the country.

So there was a treaty by the British and the Maroons because they could not win the war against the Maroons, so they say, okay, let’s make peace and we will give you this piece of land, and this piece of land is here from today.

So I’m saying all of that to say the spirit of this is embodied all along the way. We carry the genes. We have the DNA to carry all along.

Tavis: See, that’s what always gets me about this music. Never mind the commercials we see, “Come to Jamaica” and we see people running down the beach and their hair blowing in the wind and the white sand and it’s all about love and happiness and joy and, in your music, peace and freedom.

I mean, that love thing comes up over and over again. I’m always taken by how that lyrical content comes through so loud and clear with such great clarity, yet I’ve never seen a people who struggle so much. I mean, not just to your point historically.

You go to Jamaica, as you well know, and you get off the shopping strip, you get outside the resort, not just poverty, but abject poverty and crime, etc., etc. I love the country, but I’m always taken by how so much love can come out of so much strife, so much struggle, so much grief.

Cliff: You know, the love is the part of us that can never go. It’s the essence that was always there, so that can never go. Beyond everything else, that’s one of the things that kept us going, that keeps me going, you know, the eternal love, knowing that I am in the love of the all and all love is in me.

Tavis: Jimmy writing more lyrics [laugh]. Just writing prose. I hope somebody’s writing this down. You’re laying it out as the conversation goes on.

Speaking of wonderful lyrics, tell me about this new project. We talked about the name, of course, but I went right past that. Tell me more about the content of the songs.

Cliff: “Sacred Fire,” this album now I am doing it with Tim Armstrong and how the music has expanded over the years and affected so many different genres of music.

Tim Armstrong is coming from like another school of music, but yet very rooted in reggae. So we got together and decided to do this album. So when we look at the track like “Guns of Brixton,” it’s a song that was recorded by a group in England called The Clash, a punk group.

To see the music that we did, it affected them, he speaks about “The Harder They Come” in the song, so I felt it was a very appropriate moment to re-recall that song and put it forward again to the public. That’s one song. There’s “Guns of Brixton” and then there’s other songs like…

Tavis: Bob Dylan’s stuff.

Cliff: Bob Dylan’s song.

Tavis: Yeah.

Cliff: Who really was the voice of a generation. He also had a very good liking for Jamaican music, inspired by Jamaican music as well. I myself was inspired by some of his music too.

Tavis: What do you think of Dylan as a songwriter?

Cliff: Oh, he’s brilliant. He’s one of the brilliant songwriters. The music that we have today, I mean, we are not listening a lot to social political lyrics because maybe the frame of mind that people are in probably I don’t want to hear that. I just probably want to dance. But I think it’s the way you give the medicine, so I think we can give it in a nice way. Oh, you drink it; it’s so sweet, oh!

Tavis: You mention Dylan and how you have covered some Dylan stuff on this project. I was just reading somewhere the other day, speaking of great songwriters, so you’re covering some Dylan stuff here. I don’t know if you know this or not, of late, Paul Simon’s been covering your stuff, specifically the “Vietnam” song.

Cliff: Yes, I heard, I read it. I met Paul some time ago and we did talk and he told me the story of how he was listening to an album of mine for a long time, an album that came out here in the U.S. called “Wonderful World, Beautiful People.” In the U.K. it was called just “Jimmy Cliff.”

He said it was fresh music for him at that point in time and he loved it so much that he said, “Get me the same studio, the same musicians, the same Jamaica. I want to go there and record with the same band that Jimmy Cliff used on this record.”

He was telling me that story and that’s what he did and that’s how he recorded “A Mother and Child Reunion.” So I know that “Vietnam” was one of the songs that was very inspirational to him.

Tavis: Again, something else you said earlier. I want to get you to expound on it for me. What do you make of the fact that we are in a moment now where there are literally protesters in the street in this country, around the world, in the Middle East and beyond, protesters who are doing everything they can to make their voices heard? Leaders are being toppled in certain countries around the world.

Is now the time for new protest music? Do we need more of that?

Cliff: We need that expression. Whether we want to call it protest or not, we need to express and echo the echoes of the people. Artists need to do that and that’s what I’m doing on my forthcoming album. This is the EP and then the album’s coming out. That’s what I’m doing. It’s not like something new for me. It’s a continuation.

But I think the people are in a mood and ready for that. You know, certain artists have a role to echo the echoes of the people and that’s what I’ll be doing on my next album.

Tavis: Have you ever felt – I sense not, but you tell me – have you ever felt uncomfortable in that role?

Cliff: No, because it’s what I do naturally. However, I am not one of those artists who is cemented in one way. I am able to, you know, make the happy, jovial, lighthearted music too. We need that in life too. So it’s like that to me.

Tavis: Maybe now more than ever. One never knows.

Cliff: Oh, absolutely.

Tavis: You referenced earlier, Jimmy, that – and I know this, of course. You’re always traveling around the world. You mentioned certain parts of the world where you frequent.

You’re respected and regarded everywhere, but in those parts of the world where they keep asking you to come back over and over and over again and you keep selling out over and over and over again, what is it about you or, more expressly, about your music, the lyrical content of it, you tell me, what is it that the people in those regions of the world connect to?

Cliff: I think it’s the feeling, the universal earth energy, that I am able to express connects with them. For instance, I was in Brazil and I had a song called “Rebel in Me” and, of course, Brazil speaks Portuguese.

I met this young girl and she saw me on TV and then she pointed at me and said, “I saw you on TV” and she started expressing what she saw me on TV doing. She said [singing Portuguese]. She doesn’t know the lyrics, but she’s making her own lyrics singing the melody.

Tavis: Right.

Cliff: So it’s an energy that we connect with, transmit. It’s the same way if you listen to a Stevie Wonder song. That energy to Steve Wonder was feeling you connect with it. It relates to you even today. So the music is like that and I have always had this global outlook and so I connect with people globally.

Tavis: When you were a kid growing up in Jamaica listening not even to the radio that you own because you didn’t have one, but listening to your neighbors’ radios, and in the floor listening to those radios, practicing songwriting, I assume you never imagined it would be quite like this, that you would be…

Cliff: One never imagined work would take one. However, I had the global outlook that I really wanted to capture the world. I would like the attention of the world at least and I wanted that. So I got that, but I want to take it to the next level now.

Tavis: So you have no intention of stopping?

Cliff: Oh, no. This is my role here. It’s my role in life. Like I say, everyone needs to realize why am I here? It comes in everyone’s life; you ask why am I here? What am I doing? Once you are able to answer that question for yourself honestly, you have smooth sailing.

Tavis: What do you make now of the fact that we are just about to hit the 40th anniversary of your iconic film, “Harder They Come?” What do you make of that, 40 years later?

Cliff: It’s great. I mean, that was a film that captured a moment in time and inspired so many other films. You know, one of the great films in the U.S. or all over the world is “Scarface.”

If you check the two stories, the story of “Harder They Come” and “Scarface,” you know, boy come from the country, boy come from Cuba, come to the big city, you know, you see the similarity of the two stories.

So, yeah, again, I am gratified to know that I played a pivotal role in taking that movie to the world and today to see it as a classic and it’s great to be around now to be celebrating the 40th anniversary. Still, I’m looking forward to the next level, the next movie.

Tavis: Well, if Jimmy Cliff can go to the next level, then we should all be striving for the same thing ’cause he ain’t stopping even though he’s done enough work to stop and rest on his laurels if he wanted to. Thankfully, he is not.

His new EP, first time in seven years we’ve gotten some new stuff from Jimmy Cliff, but it’s out. It’s called “Sacred Fire” the EP. Jimmy Cliff, an honor to have you on this program. Thank you for so many years of good music and thank you for a great conversation.

Cliff: Thank you, sir, for having me.

Tavis: An honor to have you here.

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Last modified: November 18, 2011 at 6:12 pm