The sun is setting on a sprawling field outside of Austin, Texas, and Koffee has just stepped onto an ATV for the first time in her life. She cracks a braces-laden smile, revs the engine, and takes off for the horizon. The night before her first performance at Austin City Limits, Koffee looks more like a high school student excited to be on break in a new city than an international star preparing to take the stage at one of the country’s biggest music festivals.
At just 19, Koffee, born Mikayla Simpson, has cemented herself as a reggae sensation, largely off the strength of her relaxed, infectious smash hit “Toast.” Produced by Major Lazer’s Walshy Fire and IzyBeats, the single has racked up 85 million views on YouTube, 40 million streams on Spotify, and countless plays in barber shops, restaurants, cabs, and parties all over the world. The New Yorker dubbed it “song of the summer,” and Obama put it on his Summer 2019 Playlist. Two short years before that, she performed in front of an audience for the first time at a high school talent show in her hometown. The young singjay fed off the energy of the crowd, and discovered a quiet confidence that hinted she might have a shot at being an artist.
Born in Spanish Town, Jamaica, Koffee was raised in the Eltham View neighborhood by her mother Jo-Anne Williams. It was Williams who introduced her to reggae, playing Richie Stevens love medleys around the house. “I fell in love with it at that tender age,” explains Koffee, whose other early musical experiences happened in the Seventh-Day Adventist church. “I think we are very musical people, so we take pride in singing hymns very well, and embracing learning different instruments and learning music as a science. I think that had a huge impact on my musical career.” If there is a science behind roots reggae, Koffee has been its diligent student. Her 2019 EP Rapture nods to early pioneers like Stevens, Peter Tosh, and Bob Marley, as well as the newer names like Chronnix and Protoje, two artists she has performed with and credits as important influences.
Koffee was born in the year 2000, and while Jamaican culture presents itself everywhere in her work there is a specific teenaged global sensibility to her sound and look that’s markedly different from reggae giants of the past. She wears Supreme on set, listens to rap and afro beat, and trades laughs with her childhood friend Shanice Drysdale, a vocalist who tours with Koffee and has known her since childhood “Our mothers are best friends, kind of like sisters. So we basically grew up together, ” explains Shanice. When asked what she predicts for Koffee’s future she laughs, “Grammys. Grammys. Grammys…Goals. Like, she is a beast. Let me tell you. And then she’s very relaxed. She’s real, she’s relatable. I don’t think it could get any better than that.” With Rapture up for Reggae Album of the Year, Shanice’s vision seems entirely possible.
Koffee’s first brush with global attention is owed in part to one of Jamaica’s most notable figures, Usain Bolt. Koffee uploaded a self-taped video singing her song “Legend,” to Instagram. It is a tribute to the Olympic runner and world’s fastest man. Bolt ripped the video and shared it to his millions of followers, kicking off waves of attention from labels and fans around the world. Bolt is the kind of role model Koffee celebrates, admiring the way his Jamaican identity is so core to his public persona, and for his seeming kindness and groundedness no matter the level of fame he achieves. To this day, it’s her favorite composition, “I remember writing it from such a pure point of view, such a pure spot in my heart.”
For all of her youthful charm, Koffee possesses a solemn maturity that shows up on her face when she talks about the weight of the responsibility she feels to her mother, and to the youth who look up to her. “She has a business mind,” explains manager Tammi Chang, who has a background in community organizing and has set up youth outreach programs as part of Koffee’s touring schedule. “She knows exactly what she wants. She knows how she wants her business to run, you know.” It hasn’t been all smooth sailing, the challenge of securing visas to travel, and to maintain some semblance of normalcy in the rush of overnight celebrity has been difficult at times. “I have had moments of anxiety, so to speak,” acknowledges Koffee, “Just starting my music career and not knowing what to do next. Or even before music, wanting to finish school and not being able to realize that dream at the time I wanted to and really deeply wondering about what my next step would be, what my family would think.”
One of Koffee’s biggest singles “Burning,” was the result of a failed plan. In Jamaica a pre-college program called Sixth Form is commonplace, and involves a competitive application process. It’s standard to hedge your chances and apply to more than one, but Koffee only submitted one application to Ardenne High School in St. Andrew, and was not accepted. She felt backed into a corner and wrote “Burning” from a place of desire to find a way out of those feelings. As it turned out, the song opened the door to the start of a very real, tangible career in music for Koffee. “It created a new way for me, even though I couldn’t see a way out at that time,” she says as the sun starts to set in the yellow-pink Texas sky. For Tammi, the most important thing to focus on is pace, “Just taking it one day at a time…Making sure that she’s living her young life as well, and finding things that she loves and she wants.”
In this moment, that thing is an ATV. “I’m about to get one for myself,” she threatens, ripping circles around the open field until it’s completely dark, and time to rest up on the eve of her first Austin City Limits performance. She’ll play the festival two back-to-back weekends, one of the only reggae acts to land a booking at the largely rock and pop led festival in Music City. “I believe that reggae music has always been a source of healing,” she says. It’s about your life experiences, your environment and putting a positive spin to the things you go through in life. I definitely think that’s something that can benefit the world in years to come.”
The next day Koffee is silent and keeps to herself backstage before her set. There are crew members, band members, and managers moving around her, but she stays focused and doesn’t make direct eye contact with anyone. Koffee holds her position backstage an extra five minutes, watching the crowd swell in anticipation as Popcaan’s “Only Man She Wants,” plays loudly over the speakers. When the energy is right, she walks confidently to the microphone and starts her set. “I want everyone in this audience to know that you’re very special to me,” she offers, “because you have now become a part of my journey.”