Koffee, the 19-year-old wunderkind from Jamaica’s Spanish city, was the first female artist ever to take home the Grammy for Best Reggae Album at this year’s awards ceremony. Her Rapture is a quiver of only five songs, all of which stand out for their lyrical ingenuity and positive message. The title “Toast” even landed on the Obamas’ summer playlist. But their acceptance of the prize did not even make it into the main show.
This is normal, though. Reggae music is all too often marginalized like a shunned stepchild – not only by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, which is working with its Diversity Task Force in the midst of recent criticism, but also by American DJs and the public.
Koffee is perhaps the greatest hope to change this, and she sees some momentum.
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One afternoon at Miss Lilly’s on New York’s West Houston Street, as she roared along on her stratospheric rise, Koffee took a rare breather. After an interview with Sirius XM, she was scheduled to do a recording session at the famous Jungle City studio that evening before flying to Los Angeles the next day to record a performance on Jimmy Kimmel Live! that was scheduled to air in July.
After being selected as Apple Music “Up Next” artist and amid rumors that she would be performing on and helping write Rihanna’s long-awaited R9 reggae album, Koffee, along with other reggae artists, has enjoyed a popularity that has been outrageously popular with American audiences lately. Billboard’s Next Big Sound charts feature three Jamaican reggae artists – Koffee, Shenseea and Skip Marley (Bob Marley’s grandson) – as harbingers of what is yet to come. Chronixx, Protoje and Popcaan are perhaps the most prominent emissaries of the reggae revival, but other reggae artists such as Jah9, Kabaka Pyramid, HoodCelebrity, Govana and Vybz Kartel are also part of the movement, as is a deep bank of future stars such as Lila Ike and Sevana.
The US is a particularly tough market for reggae music, as DJs all too often marginalize the music or limit it to hip-hop stations rather than making the music accessible to a wider pop audience. According to Statista, reggae accounted for zero percent of music album consumption in the US in 2018. This is equivalent to classical music and a number of hip hop/rap (with 21.7 percent) dwarfs. But Koffee and his crew are fighting to change that.
By the summer, reggae streaming at Apple Music worldwide had grown 36 percent over the previous year. The song “Toast”, which was featured in Jordan Peele’s Us, became the No. 1 worldwide streamed reggae song on Apple Music this spring, and during the entire week of release in March, Rapture reached No. 1 in the Apple Music Reggae Album Charts in 39 countries, including the U.S.
“There are some popular artists – you would say they rule Jamaica, just as their songs are played all over Jamaica because everyone there is able to identify with them,” Koffee said.
But not all artists are able to make the leap to mainstream abroad.
“The positivity in my message, especially as a young artist, and the fact that I started with a positive foot, I think that’s what attracts a lot of people to me and allows my music to reach a new level,” Koffee said. “I want my music to break through every boundary and reach every person. It feels good to be part of what feels good or what other people say is a resurrection or a revival of strong Jamaican music.
The rise of Reggae
Reggae has been well received by Ebro Darden, the global editor in chief for Hip-Hop and R&B at Apple Music. He said his team had unanimously decided – a rare case – to make Koffee the Up Next artist, a monthly program that identifies and showcases emerging star talent.
“Koffee is not just a lyrical genius – she represents youth and brings positivity that uplifts people and makes them feel good, in a time when we are all flooded with negativity,” he said.
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This positivity could further explain the appeal of reggae, Darden added.
“I think that’s probably a big part of the reason why the sounds of Caribbean music, especially reggae and soca, really started to take off.