Five Questions With Jimmy Cliff
Survival is an all-too-familiar story for James Chambers. Born in Somerton, St James, Chambers moved to Kingston as a teenager, learned to become a man, and later became the successful reggae, rocksteady, and soul musician known by the name of Jimmy Cliff. The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer and Grammy Award-winning artiste said he had to learn to survive to stay alive, and practised conscious meditation from a young age to cope with hardships. This, he said, was fundamental to him having a positive outlook on life. “It all started from my childhood. I always share that, economically, our family was not well-off. However, in the country, finding food that we ate, like breadfruit, pumpkin, banana, or other produce, was not difficult. It was easy to keep a positive mind living in Somerton,” Cliff told The Gleaner. “However, when I came to Kingston, I first lived off Windward Road, and at nights I walked around and picked up empty bottles, washed them out, and in the days, sold them to the bottle truck that would come around. That’s how I helped myself go to school,” he continued, noting that life would become harder when he moved to west Kingston to board at another home. While he has more triumphs than he can count on his two hands, The Harder They Come artiste knows trials.
“I knew real hunger – walking by the bakery on Spanish Town Road and smelling the bread – if it wasn’t for my home training, I’d break the glass the way I was hungry. I told myself, ‘Look, Jimmy, you have to survive, you have to stay alive,’ and then started thinking [about] what to do to get that bread. The adverse forces have been teaching me,” Cliff said. He could not have predicted, some six decades later, he would be witness to a pandemic that would present unbearable hardships to the people of the world, where his lessons on the power of adversity could inspire. Singing in a recent release titled COVID-19, the icon gives methods of survival. In this week’s Five Questions With, he explains his reasons for the release and shares personal beliefs.
So, it’s safe to say ‘COVID-19’ is about survival. What are your methods for survival, and why did you feel the need to put them in a song?
Indeed, we have to survive with the virus, but apart from that, the pandemic is a big challenge for the majority of people on the earth just to find basic needs, like food. I would sometimes refer to it as ‘World War III’, with us fighting against unseen forces. These occurrences need to be recorded, like most of the history from our time on this planet, and I am one of those beings who is a recorder of time, people, places, and things. That is how I came to do the song. As for my methods of survival, I just use all the senses I have or, as I like to explain it, one main sense. To see, to hear, to smell, to taste, or for us to physically feel, something has to touch the optic nerve, soundwaves have to touch the nerve in our eardrums, things in the air touch inside our nose, something has to touch the tastebuds, and we have to touch, respectively. It all boils down to one sense, touch. I use the five we all know and four other senses that we are not normally aware of, like intuition, psychometry, telepathy, and another type of vision.
You also describe the virus as an ‘alien agenda’ and as ‘aliens among us’. What are you referring to? Do you believe extraterrestrial beings exist?
Does anyone really think we’re the only species that exist in this vast universe? An alien is something or someone who is not the same kind of species we’re used to. Another example is when we travel from one country to another, we’re called aliens. Do I accept aliens exist or have come to earth? I do, in the way that most religious persons who believe in angels can’t tell me they have seen one, but that does not stop them from believing. They use books to confirm their beliefs; similarly, I do research. I believe the virus is something brought here by aliens; they exist like angels. Why do I say that? Because they have not proven the first person who ever caught it, whether patient zero comes from China or somewhere else, we still are not clear. Secondly, I watch a lot of documentaries on the History Channel, the most recent was one with NASA speaking about a spaceship, a mile long and a half a mile wide, that they haven’t seen anything like. Then again, it’s television which I like to say is ‘tell-lie-vision’ (laughs), and it could be telling lies. But, when I sing about extraterrestrials and aliens, it’s to stimulate the mind of the people.
What’s a day in the life of Jimmy Cliff, especially now with no tours or shows happening?
I awake at about 5 a.m. I will lay down for a little bit while I check on what my day is going to look like. It may or may not be busy. Then, I get up and do the brushing of teeth, et cetera (all those hygienic things). Meditation is important, which can last anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes. I walk after, for about 45 minutes to one hour. Swimming is also part of my daily routine, sometimes in the morning or in the evening hours. I am a vegetarian, so I don’t eat anything with flesh or blood, and I will have meals provided by a nutritionist. I also don’t eat three full meals a day. I eat once my body feels it needs nourishment. In the evening, I watch Jeopardy!, that’s the one programme on the TV that wherever I am in the world, I tune into it. Then it’s bedtime by 9 p.m.
This year marks 50 years since the ‘I Can See Clearly Now’ original by Johnny Nash, which you play the bongo drums on, was recorded, and this month makes 28 years from the release of your version. Why did you do a version of the song, and how do you feel knowing it’s been a staple for so many years?
I recorded it at the time, because it fell in my lap. They were doing the film called Cool Runnings and had originally wanted You Can Get It If You Really Want, but my manager said no to that. The suggestion was made that I do I Can See Clearly, and of course, I agreed because, well, I knew the song so well. Some songs never die; they live on with the time. Johnny was blessed with one of those songs, and maybe another five, 10, or 15 years from today, we will hear another hit produced from it.
How does it feel knowing your children, like Nabiyah Be, who is not only a singer but an actress, is securing big roles in phenomenal movies like ‘Black Panther’ and has followed in your footsteps?
It is very satisfying knowing all my efforts did not go in vain. I made sure I did my best to get her a good education; she went to one of the best schools in Britain and could have gone to university if she wanted. I have to pat myself on the shoulder. I tell you something, me haffi say, acting was my first love, but she’s a lot more fortunate than me, because you know how long it took me to get in a movie? I think I am a better actor than a singer. So, I am pleased to see what she has done for herself. As for how many children I have, I live by the African concept — all the children are mine — some are my biological ones, and others who look to me as my children, like those in Somerton. I act as their father by keeping them from doing the wrong things.