Jimmy Cliff Essay - Critical Essays

Cliff, Jimmy


Jimmy Cliff 1948–

(Born James Chambers) Jamaican songwriter, singer, and musician.

Cliff is credited with popularizing reggae, a combination of calypso music, African rhythms, and American rhythm-and-blues that began in the ghettos of Jamaica. His performance in the 1972 cult film The Harder They Come caused a critical and popular sensation, leading some people in the music industry to predict that reggae would become the essential music of the 1970s. This prediction was never fulfilled, and Cliff has had a difficult time pleasing critics since. He has, however, a group of loyal supporters who believe that he has opened many doors for reggae in England and America.

Cliff is known as an accessible reggae artist, a label that has both helped and hurt him. While it has made him popular with audiences unfamiliar with the form, it has been a source of contention between Cliff and reggae purists because Cliff has broken musical and lyrical reggae conventions. He produces music that sounds smoother and more polished than most reggae. His themes are universal and express vastly different concerns than those of other reggae artists. These differences, and the fact that his writing has its roots in Islam and not Rastafarianism, have made him a controversial figure in Jamaica. To this Cliff responds that reggae's greatest weakness has been its insistent isolation from the mainstream of western culture and the failure of its artists to write more original material. Cliff loyalists believe that he, like many artistic pioneers, has had to sacrifice the favor of critics to pursue his commitment to innovation.

Cliff's life bears considerable resemblance to that of Ivan, the hero of The Harder They Come. At the age of fourteen Cliff collected some of his songs, left his home in the small Jamaican village of Sommerton, and moved to Kingston, where he hoped to record successfully. Cliff faced the corruption and treachery of the Kingston recording network. He received little money for any of his work until he was twenty-one, despite the fact that he was considered a successful recording artist by the time he moved to England in 1965. Cliff's first years in England were traumatic. He confronted racism and bigotry and discovered that British audiences were not open to the reggae sound. It was at this point that he began to experiment, combining reggae and other musical forms in the hope of reaching a larger audience.

Cliff's work has focused on the racism and desolation he experienced in England and his faith in his ability to overcome their deadening psychological effects. "Hard Road to Travel" and "Many Rivers to Cross," both of which express this pain and faith, are considered his masterpieces. The acclaimed "Wonderful World, Beautiful People" is more optimistic and reveals Cliff's humanism and his holistic world view. While this song is credited with giving reggae international respect-ability, "Wonderful World, Beautiful People" also marked the beginning of Cliff's differences with reggae traditionalists. Some reggae supporters have interpreted the song's universal theme as Cliff's attempt to dilute the form. Other critics have stated that without "Wonderful World" reggae might still be struggling to gain a large audience.

In general, critics view Cliff's later work as disappointing. However, Cliff continues to move in a new direction lyrically and musically, and he remains a great influence on other reggae artists.

Pauline Kael

[The film "The Harder They Come"] is a mess, but the music is redeeming, and Jimmy Cliff's joy in music, along with the whole culture's, stays with you. (The title song goes on playing in your head.) (p. 121)

Pauline Kael, "The Riddles of Pop," in The New Yorker (© 1973 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. XLIX, No. 1, February 24, 1973, pp. 119-22.∗

Lenny Kaye

[The soundtrack from The Harder They Come] provides an introductory overview of the reggae world that is pretty much unequaled to date, at least in America, and thus highly recommended for any who wish to initially plumb the mysteries of this latter-day inheritor of the ska and rock steady tradition….

[It] is essentially a greatest hits collection—leaning heavily on the work of the film's star, Jimmy Cliff—and one which appears to have been chosen as much for variety as for scenic relevance. It runs the gamut from the sleek and soul-influenced (most of Cliff's contribution falls in this vein) to voices deep within the reggae peer group….

Fittingly, it's Cliff who sets the overtone for The Harder They Come, both in the movie's two themes and a matched set of jewel-like pieces that do much to describe the life-force that reggae attempts to deal with. In his hands, the songs are wailing allegories of triumphal hope, man working in the face of tremendous odds….

Lenny Kaye, "Records: 'The Harder They Come'," in Rolling Stone (by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. © 1973; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Issue 133, April 26, 1973, p. 55.

Ed Ward

Jimmy Cliff is the reggae-singing outlaw star of The Harder They Come, so naturally his music is featured in the soundtrack…. [The title song] deserves to be a hit. In fact, once the movie starts getting around … I don't see how anyone can stop it. The same goes for "You Can Get It If You Really Want,"… which Cliff does to perfection.

Ed Ward, "Records: 'The Harder They Come'," in Creem (© copyright 1973 by Creem Magazine, Inc.), Vol. 5, No. 1, June, 1973, p. 63.

Charlie Gillett

Put the needle on Jimmy Cliff's Unlimited and the grooves writhe like a poised snake, the record grows hot with anger, and the air fills with the pungent smell of despair….

The songs are almost all about exploitation, of Jamaica, its music and Jimmy himself. "You stole my history, destroyed my culture," he accuses in "The Price of Peace," you "cut off my tongue so I can't communicate … hide my whole of life so myself I should hate." The slightly stilted language and the righteous indignation are reminiscent of Curtis Mayfield's songwriting style, although the music is less claustrophobic and mechanical than Mayfield's, more immediately accessible to an uncommitted listener. By the end of the second side the listener might accept Jimmy's arguments and feel contrite, but might also feel little inclination to play the record again: Too much condemnation is eventually intolerable, even when justified by strong evidence.

And there is plenty of justice to Jimmy's case. Jamaican music has been scandalously ignored by the American music business…. Since the mid-Sixties, a large proportion of the most infectious records have come from Jamaica, driven by rhythms which evolved and changed their forms and names while always compelling dance…. [Jamaican musicians] relied on subtlety and melody to weave their insidious way into their listeners. But not only were the musicians wonderful, so were the singers,...

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Ed Ward

Reggae is gonna make it. I know it. I know it with all the conviction of a religious convert, and I've been spreading the word….

Unfortunately, the record which is going to change things so drastically is not Jimmy Cliff's new album. I say "unfortunately," because [Unlimited] is released on a major US label which is perfectly capable of doing a more than honorable job of promoting it, getting it into the stores, and keeping it in the public eye. But I'm afraid Jimmy Cliff, in his mid-20s, is already a has-been, at least as a singer. He was electrifying in the movie The Harder They Come, and both his acting and his songs held the picture together, but all those songs date from the same...

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James Isaacs

[Jimmy Cliff] has for the past 10 years been the most commercially celebrated artist performing the highly stylized Jamaican pop musical idiom known as reggae….

This metrical innovation from Jamaica is perhaps the ultimate "body music" and, with the possible exception of Bob Marley and The Wailers, nobody has it covered more completely than Jimmy Cliff….

While [Unlimited] has several redeeming qualities,… the album is a far cry from his galvanic 1969 set, Wonderful World, Beautiful People …, which stands as a cornerstone of reggae.

Unlimited is a "concept album" whose theme is the oppression of black people, Jamaicans and the artist...

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Susin Shapiro

Jimmy Cliff is an artist to be watched. If you haven't seen The Harder They Come, starring Cliff in the first feature film made in and about Jamaica, do. Cliff wrote and sings five of the film's songs and they are stunners, embodying the kinky persona he projects in his role as a street singer who asks too many questions and wants the world to shake ass when he makes music…. [His] lyrics combine a touching sincerity with the arrogance of youth. He left me lost on the last notes of his persuasive lullabies, ready for more.

The soundtrack album … is a delight, offering a vivisection of Jamaican music by Cliff and other pop artists…. It's downright defiant, and only threatening if you got...

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Peter Reilly

Of late there seems to be an awful lot of Jamaican reggae music, with its hypnotic, rock-influenced beat, around. Some of it is good, most of it bad, and so far I've heard only one recording in the well-mixed genre that I consider unique. It is Jimmy Cliff's even further hybridized new … release titled "Unlimited."…

Track after track, it burns with the intense heat of a tropic afternoon as Cliff kneads and molds the basic reggae sound into a completely contemporary and individual new form…. [Though] Jamaican reggae is not an extempore art, it sometimes sounds that way, perhaps because of its heavily vernacular lyrics and the homely nature of its subject matter: Cliff's Commercialization,...

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Dave Marsh

Jimmy Cliff's initial impact last year, based upon his starring role in the film, The Harder They Come and his work on its soundtrack LP, made it seem that he might come to be considered the best, or at least the most accessible to Americans, of the reggae singers. But the enormous expectations created by the movie have made his subsequent work—last year's Unlimited and this album—seem worse than it really is. Because Cliff is such a fine vocalist, even his worst efforts are listenable, but his initial promise has been marred by the uneven quality of much of the material he sings.

It was easy to see why Unlimited failed. Recorded for Warner Bros., it became trapped in the...

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Pete Welding

[Struggling Man] is a very pleasant reggae outing that is most effective as a program of low-keyed, easy dance music. While nicely crafted, the songs are not all that distinctive as pop fare. There's nothing wrong with them but, for all their unforced rythmic resilience and melodic infectiousness, there's nothing all that memorable about them either. Not one of them sticks in the mind, even after repeated playing. And if a pop song doesn't do that, what does it do?

The absence of striking song materials is a really serious deficiency and all of Cliff's virtues as singer and producer cannot compensate sufficiently for this lack. One cannot criticize or take exception to any of the songs. As I...

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Robert Christgau

Yes, I loved him in The Harder They Come even more the second time, and the soundtrack album is the bestest they come. It also contains only three Jimmy Cliff songs. All his other good ones are on Wonderful World, Beautiful People…. The hookless homiletics of [Music Maker], albeit better-realized than those of Struggling Man …, portend a non-star of the future—or a false one.

Robert Christgau, "The Christgau Consumer Guide: 'Music Maker'," in Creem (© copyright 1975 by Creem Magazine, Inc.), Vol. 6, No. 9, February, 1975, p. 13.

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Vernon Gibbs

It has been three years since The Harder They Come lifted reggae from obscurity to culthood and raised hopes that Jimmy Cliff would begin a long reign as an arbiter of hip Caribbean liberalism. At the same time, people noticed Bob Marley, leader and political ideologist of The Wailers, who's managed to gain a level of notoriety that threatens to cast him in the mold of a minor league Dylan.

Thankfully, that kind of media hysteria passes, bolstered no doubt by the sobering reality of light sales. Both Marley and Cliff can now be examined in a more realistic light. In the last three years, Jamaican reggae bands have followed the political vision inspired by Cliff and The Wailers, rejecting...

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Stephen Davis

Like rock and roll, reggae has both a light and a dark side. The light is perhaps personified by Jimmy Cliff…. Cliff's music, such as "Many Rivers To Cross," "You Can Get It If You Really Want," and the title song of … "The Harder They Come" … reveals a proselytizing optimism that is a hallmark of light-hearted reggae.

Cliff also has a new album, "Follow My Mind" …, that is interesting because it shows how fragile reggae can be, and how difficult it is to export. The album's tracks recorded in Jamaica ("Going Mad," "The News") bristle with the raw, assertive energy essential to authentic reggae. But the songs recorded in Los Angeles with the cream of that city's session musicians seem either...

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Bruce Malamut

[The Harder They Come] catapulted Cliff to fame as a renegade culture hero. Too bad it's been downhill for Jimmy since—his own music has hardly attained the heroic status promised by his film role & the music he sang therein. His records since … tend to be more calypso/soul-slick than highlife/jass-raw. Sounds like a transmutation of Traffic and Freddie & the Dreamers with Richie Havens, closer to Vegas than God. Peace & carrots lyrics about how he loves his mom and how we should all get together…. With the right kinda band & a songwriting shakedown, Jimmy could do it….

Bruce Malamut, "Royal Jamaican," in Crawdaddy (copyright © 1976 by...

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John Morthland

Since he electrified audiences in The Harder They Come, Jimmy Cliff has been his own worst enemy. His songs in that film bristled with passion, energy and conviction…. They were also old songs, though, and by then he had already made his move towards soul and pop reggae, neither of which he performs with comparable commitment. [Follow My Mind] isn't much different. Considering its message, "The News" has none of the urgency of, say, "Vietnam," and "Remake the World" comes off a rather desperate stab at duplicating the 1970 chart success of "Wonderful World, Beautiful People." He does manage to pull off the sentiment of "Dear Mother."… It may be one of his more listenable efforts in the genre, but...

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Joel Vance

Such ambitious album titles as "Follow My Mind" usually signal mediocre content, and there is no exception here. I enjoy Jimmy Cliff as a singer and occasionally celebrate him as a writer, but the fellow has the most maddening habit of being good every other album. His selections in the soundtrack LP of The Harder They Come were excellent, and Many Rivers to Cross was particularly effective, but his next album, "Struggling Man," was a collection of didactic, glum, corny songs about the peeeeeople. "Music Maker," in which he concentrated on making music, was fine. Now comes another snoozer, "Follow My Mind," where the songs are melodically feeble and the subject matter sounds like a United Nations...

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Karl Dallas

Jimmy Cliff's dilemma, more than amply illustrated by this well-planned double album ["The Best Of"], is that of the artist of ethnic origins who tries to break out of the confining boundaries of his background to become a citizen of the world. In the only partially successful search for wider acclaim with material like … his own, rather simplistically optimistic, "Wonderful World, Beautiful People," he loses the chance to properly define himself. On the face of it, Cliff couldn't lose. On top of his undoubted talent he secured the lead role in one of the great cult movies of our time, "The Harder They Come," which more than anything was to be responsible for reggae breaking out of the lower-class ghetto to which...

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Steve Simels

There are two traditional critical lines on Jimmy Cliff, neither of which I buy. The first is that, like Toots Hibbert, Jimmy is an Otis Redding disciple, which strikes me as downright weird…. The second is that he hasn't written a decent song in years, which is unfair, but at least I can understand the basis for it. Although there are indeed some marvelous things scattered across the albums he's made since The Harder They Come made him a star, his early songs were just so good, and their impact on an American audience hearing them for the first time all at once was so overwhelming, that it's made it difficult for his admittedly less consistent recent stuff to get the fair hearing it deserves. (pp. 94-5)...

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Lester Bangs

[Jimmy Cliff] leads off a collection of some of the very greatest examples of earlier reggae by several acknowledged masters [on "The Harder They Come"]. Some of the songs in this album—the Slickers' Johnny Too Bad, Cliff's own You Can Get It If You Really Want and Many Rivers to Cross, and the title tune—have already become standards. Certainly Cliff has never been as strong since this tour de force display of deceptively lilting Otis Redding vocal turns and street-tough lyrics…. "The Harder They Come" achieves total commercial accessibility without compromising its hardwon political principles or their religious base, nor does it teeter on the edge of the abyss of self-parody as so much...

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Vivien Goldman

An unusually passionate lament, ["Many Rivers to Cross"] brings into focus what you could see as Cliff's artistic problem: on record, he sounds so perky it's easy to overlook the agony of his lyrics. (p. 24)

The tension between rejection and Cliff's inherent optimism is the core of Cliff's music, its successes as well as its weaknesses. His adherence to Islam—though he now says simply, "My religion is God"—hasn't made his music any more overtly militant, though, perhaps because he's too intelligent to see the world as anything but a mass of contradictions, and that's why his bitter observations always sound so sweet….

He is an immensely gifted, if flawed, musician; you are...

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Stephen Davis

[Cliff's masterpiece is] "Many Rivers to Cross," a profoundly emotional epic ballad about depression and getting started again after a bad time. The song was typical Cliff; wretchedness and desolation putting on a good face and trying to look to the future….

[His] low-key but very forceful protest, "Vietnam," was … much more rock and roll than reggae. A devastating antiwar polemic in the form of a letter to a mother telling of her son's death in Vietnam, the song was too honest and tough to be popular beyond the tiny Cliff cult. (p. 84)

Jimmy Cliff is the most misunderstood of the reggae masters. He has been vilified for abandoning his roots and the Jamaican styles that...

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How come when people think of reggae most people bow in the direction of Marley and the Wailers or some of the newer groups like Third World? While Cliff, who is definitely more accessible through his feel for the pop idiom, is relegated purely to the soundtrack of The Harder They Come. Jimmy Cliff has been responsible for some great songs. "Many Rivers to Cross" is probably one of the most obvious, but such classics as "My Ancestors," "Struggling Man," "Viet Nam," "Sitting in Limbo" and "Universal Love" also deserve more recognition from the masses….

It took a while and some constant thought, but I think that this album has even replaced Give Thankx as my personal favorite Cliff...

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