Jimmy Cliff Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.