Reggae Legend Jimmy Cliff Receives Lifetime Achievement Award, Performs in His Rural Hometown

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Jimmy Cliff performs during the 2015 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival  at Fair Grounds Race Course on April 24, 2015 in New Orleans.

An enthusiastic crowd of several thousand began gathering from 6 AM on Sunday, February 12, along the narrowly winding rocky road leading to the Somerton All Age and Infant School. Seemingly an improbable venue for a ceremony honoring a 2010 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee and a two time Grammy winner, for James Chambers, whose lofty ambitions prompted the use of the surname Cliff, his choice of the school’s auditorium as the site to receive the inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award from Jamaica’s IRIE FM (107.5) was an acknowledgement of the rural community that shaped him.

“Somerton prepared me for everything I went on to do in my life; I’ve gotten many awards but to get this right here in my home where my navel string was cut is overwhelming,” Jimmy Cliff told Billboard in an exclusive interview following the award ceremony. Cliff, 68, was visibly overwhelmed throughout the four-hour observance as he listened to politicians, well-known Somerton film maker Lenny Little-White and dancehall great Beenie Man laud his accomplishments and fellow Jamaican artists, including singers Bushman, Lymie Murray, Shuga and Tammy Tee, dub poet Yasus Afari, sing-jay Queen Ifrica, master drummer Bongo Herman and trumpeter Dwight Richards, perform his songs.

The crowning segment of the formalities was a 45 minute acoustic set by Cliff, delivered on an elevated makeshift stage in the schoolyard, spanning selections from his early 60s ska hits to unreleased material from his forthcoming album, with "Somerton" a possible title. “I have not performed in Jamaica in a long time, because when I perform here it has to be special, and this was special, to see the love from the community,” Cliff shared.

He continued: “I always had in mind to do a free concert in this area and it never materialized but now I can say I will endeavor to keep it up annually."

In Jamaican patois “irie” is a general term of approval, meaning cool or great; as an acronym for the radio station, IRIE stands for “innovative radio inspiring everyone”. Founded in 1990 as Jamaica’s first 24-hour reggae formatted station, IRIE FM revolutionized the island’s airwaves, playing local dancehall and reggae releases at a time when most of the island’s stations refused to do so. While many initially doubted the success of such a format, IRIE FM consistently boasts a double-figure lead in the Jamaica market share, in addition to numerous listeners online, through modestly priced subscriptions.

The IRIE FM Lifetime Achievement Award will be conferred each February, designated as the island’s Reggae Month, to a Jamaican whose body of work demonstrates outstanding and exceptional leadership in industry advancement, nationally and globally.

“When we decided to inaugurate a Lifetime Achievement Award, we called a committee together, and every person came back with the same name: Jimmy Cliff,” explained Ka’bu Ma’at Kheru, Program Director at IRIE FM’s parent company Grove Broadcasting. “The Lifetime Achievement Award has a few criteria: the artist must be alive, we considered their global impact, body of work aside, and if they gave back to their community.”

For years Cliff has quietly supported many initiatives in Somerton, including the local soccer team bearing his name; Cliff also helped to rebuild Somerton’s Oneness Oval where a soccer match was held (Jimmy Cliff All Stars vs. IRIE FM invitational) following his acoustic performance. “Jimmy said, 'If the community doesn’t benefit from what I do, then I am not successful,'” Kheru offered.

Born on April 1, 1948 in Somerton’s Adelphi area (about 12 miles outside of Jamaica’s resort hub, Montego Bay) Cliff attended Somerton All AgeSchool in the 1950s. With his exceptional musical talent recognized early on, Cliff set out for Kingston in the early 60s, seeking greater fortunes within the capital city’s burgeoning recording industry. His early ska hits for producer Leslie Kong’s Beverley’s Records, including "Hurricane Hattie" and "Kings of Kings," earned Cliff a slot within the Jamaican contingent that traveled to the 1964 World’s Fair in Queens, NY and introduced ska music (and its accompanying dance) to the cosmopolitan gathering.


More hits followed for Cliff, including "Hard Road to Travel," "Wonderful World Beautiful People," and in 1970, "Vietnam," a war lament that Bob Dylan cited as “the best protest song ever written”. Cliff penned the song about a friend from Somerton who was drafted into the U.S. army, and never recovered from the debilitating effects of post-traumatic stress disorder.


Cliff’s move to Kingston in pursuit of a musical dream parallels the story line of the 1973 landmark Jamaican film The Harder They Come, produced, directed and co-written by the late Perry Henzell. Cliff’s affecting portrayal of the film’s protagonist, Ivanhoe Martin, and brilliant contributions to its stellar soundtrack -- including the immortal title track -- catapulted him to international stardom, while introducing reggae to a receptive global audience.

“The film was the first of its kind, with a music that was totally new to the world," Cliff told Billboard. "Before that, Millie Small had 'My Boy Lollipop,' Desmond Dekker had 'Israelites,' but Jamaican music was still seen as a novelty, especially in America. So putting the visuals with reggae music told a Caribbean story in a way that had never been seen before,”


In her moving tribute at the Somerton School, Henzell’s daughter Justine said a photo helped convince her father that Cliff was the right actor to play Ivanhoe: “In that photo, Jimmy looked smooth and easy but also militant, a rebel. If he could convey all that in a photo, what would he do on the big screen? We saw what he could do on the big screen. Thank you Jimmy Cliff for giving me the soundtrack to my life.”  

The Harder They Come's soundtrack peaked at 140 on the Billboard 200, but the film’s impact goes far beyond what that number suggests. One of the top college campus attractions of its era, The Harder They Come enjoyed extended midnight screenings at theaters across the US, including a reported 10-year run at the Orson Welles Cinema in Cambridge, Mass.