Jimmy Cliff / Many Rivers to Cross
The Harder They Come the harder they fall
Both a popularizer of reggae music outside of Jamaica and an unorthodox, iconoclastic figure within the tradition, Jimmy Cliff is a durable Jamaican star with an international following. Even if he never achieved the fame and influence of his contemporary, Bob Marley, he blazed the way for Marley and other performers to spread their messages around the world. Cliff is perhaps best known for the 1972 film The Harder They Come, which explored reggae music and Jamaican life.
Jimmy Cliff was born James Chambers in Somerton, Jamaica, near Montego Bay, on April 1, 1948. A descendant of Maroons, escaped Jamaican slaves who hid out in a sparsely populated mountainous area, he was raised by his father, a tailor and farmworker. When he was 13 he quit school and headed for the Jamaican capital of Kingston. "I didn't know what I was supposed to do and I had no future at all," said in Reggae Bloodlines. "What was I supposed to do with my life? Work in a banana field? Cut cane? I came to Kingston to go to night school and learn a trade, but my intention was to sing because I was always singing good in school." Around this time, Chambers changed his name to Cliff to symbolize the heights of his aspirations.
It didn't take Cliff long to make an impression on Jamaica's music industry. Less than a year after arriving in Kingston he recorded his first single, "Daisy Got Me Crazy," and a subsequent record, "Hurricane Hattie," reached the Number One chart position in Jamaica. These recordings were in the ska style, the predecessor of Jamaican reggae. After several more hits, the teenaged Cliff performed in the U.S. in 1964, and met Chris Blackwell at the New York World's Fair that year. Blackwell, whose Island record label would eventually serve as the vehicle for the international dispersal of reggae, suggested that Cliff move to London, where the presence of both an atmosphere of musical innovation and a large West Indian population were stimulating new developments in Jamaican music.
Cliff encountered racist discrimination in London and struggled for several years, but he found the musical atmosphere congenial. Recording with English rock groups as a background vocalist, he began to build a career of his own. A new layer in his musical experiences came when he represented Jamaica in a song contest in Brazil with a composition called "Waterfall;" to this day Cliff remains popular in South America. Back in Jamaica, Cliff composed a great deal of new material, including a protest song, "Vietnam," that drew praise from U.S. folk-rock singer Bob Dylan. His 1969 LP Wonderful World, Beautiful People was a commercial breakthrough. Criticized by some in the hardcore reggae community for its slickness, the album nevertheless included his composition "Many Rivers to Cross," a reggae classic in the estimation of nearly all the music's observers.
The following year, Cliff was offered the lead role in a low-budget film conceived by Jamaican writer and director Perry Henzell. The film, The Harder They Come, told the story of a young Jamaican man who aspires to a musical career but ends up enmeshed in a web of organized crime that hovers somewhere between the governmental and gangster realms. Cliff, instantly recognizable in a T-shirt bearing a five-pointed star, exuded charisma in the role of the gun-slinging gangster, and the film became an international underground hit. The soundtrack, which contained several of Cliff's best recordings (including the title track), remains one of the best-selling reggae albums of all time.
By the middle 1970s, then, Cliff was one of the most recognizable reggae artists in the world. Several factors then conspired to dampen his popularity somewhat, both in Jamaica and in the key North American and British markets. Cliff, however, was guilty of nothing worse than following his own inner creative and spiritual dictates, and emerged as a perennially popular figure with a strong following in many parts of the world.
First there was his conversion from Rastafarianism, Jamaica's indigenous form of Christianity, to Islam in 1973. Reggae had an almost symbiotic relationship with Rastafarianism as the genre took shape in the 1960s and 1970s, and many music fans in reggae's Jamaican homeland saw Cliff's conversion as a rejection of Jamaican national and spiritual values. In one notorious incident, Cliff was spat upon by Rastafarian adherents during a 1975 concert in Kingston.
In Africa, however, where Islam is a major force in many countries, Cliff's spiritual quest did not cost him adherents but, rather, gained him new ones. Among Africans he remains probably the most recognizable reggae figure. Cliff himself saw his embrace of Islam as part of a larger attempt to reconnect with his own African roots and those of blacks in the Western hemisphere in general. "I was looking for the cause of the inferiority planted in the so-called black people," he said in Reggae Bloodlines. "But I couldn't find it until I came upon Islam." Even Rastafarianism, Cliff has contended, was motivated by the same quest. "We [Jamaicans] started looking deeper for our roots," he told Interview magazine. "Finding those roots meant searching for the connection to Africa. That's how Rastafari was born."
In the late 1970s, though, Rastafarianism, with its pacifist message and its sometimes sanctioned use of marijuana, held great appeal for youthful music listeners on both sides of the Atlantic. The artist who put together the powerful trinity of music, spirituality, and idealistic politics was not Cliff but Bob Marley, who shared space on the Island label roster with Cliff. The label promoted both singers heavily, but it was Marley who seized the public's imagination, while Cliff's heavily produced albums seemed over-polished by comparison. Cliff eventually left the label. He recorded for EMI, Columbia, and a succession of his own enterprises, but never recaptured the popularity he had achieved following the release of The Harder They Come.
Cliff made various attempts to reestablish a foothold in the U.S. market in the 1980s and 1990s, collaborating with the successful R&B group Kool & the Gang on two albums (one of which, Cliff Hanger, won a Grammy for Best Reggae Recording in 1985), and appearing in several films, including Club Paradise (1986) and Marked for Death (1990). He failed to reach upper chart levels, but a string of personal appearances kept his name before the public, and over the years his status as an elder and builder of reggae grew more and more secure. Cliff toured the U.S. in 2000, appearing at such major outdoor venues as the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and Atlanta's Music Midtown Festival.