Jamaica is currently experiencing a cultural rennaissance, as a new wave of young talent is rushing in to take over reggae music. Koffee, a 19-year-old graduate of Ardenne High School, is leading the pack with her refreshing spin on the genre — which gives you a jolt of energy just as electric as your favorite cup of morning joe.
The singer, born Mikayla Simpson, cites fellow modern reggae stars like Chronixx, Protoje, Lila Ike, Royal Blu and Runkus as inspirations. She first got a taste of the limelight when veteran artist Cocoa Tea brought her on stage at Rebel Salute last January.
“I was so nervous! But Cocoa just told me to remain focused,” Koffee tells Billboard about performing at the historic festival held annually in Jamaica’s St. Ann parish. “But when I returned this year [as a solo act], I was able to appreciate being on the stage by myself, having my own band and focusing on my set. Seeing everyone [in the crowd] get involved in the songs gave me such a good energy.”
That energy that Koffee exudes quickly caught the attention of Major Lazer‘s Walshy Fire, who reached out to the singer after coming across her “Burning” on YouTube to produce her official debut single “Toast.” Released last November, the infectious tune is a fusion of classic roots-reggae lyrics and a more contemporary, poppier sound that reflects the genre’s new experimental direction.
As “Toast” continues to rise, Koffee is now ready to share her unique sound with the world. Her debut EP Rapture will be released on March 14 via Columbia UK Records. Below, Billboard speaks to Koffee about carving a place in the reggae space, the message behind her upcoming EP and shaping her legacy.
When did you decide that music was your calling?
I grew up in church, so there was a lot of music around me throughout my life. Then around 9th grade was the time when I started listening to Chronixx. Both of those inspirations motivated me to try ah ting. While I was in school, I basically had to make the decision between what was important at the moment [to me] or go into a line of work that I knew wasn’t for me. So I had to embrace the musical opportunities that I received.
In 2017 I did a tribute to [Jamaican Olympic champion] Usain Bolt [a song titled “Legend”] that I posted on Instagram, and he re-posted it. After that, a lot of industry people became familiar with me. Then Columbia UK discovered my “Burning” song and approached me [with a record deal] out of the blue [last October], so that was a blessing.
How did your mom react when you told her you wanted to completely dive into music?
My mom was a bit skeptic in the beginning, because she’s been the one sending me to school all my life. But when she got wind of my talent, she grew to trust moment and trust the journey. She became supportive over time.
My mom was actually the one who told me about you, and then I watched your freestyle with Chronixx on BBC 1Xtra last year. Can you describe your friendship with him?
Blessings, thank you! Well it’s not a friendship as yet, because that’s something that grows over time. But he’s definitely a big inspiration. He’s a person who discovered my music on his own and decided to support it. That’s something I really have to appreciate. The opportunities I received through him basically came from him being inspired by my music, so I have to give thanks for that
Of course I have to bring up your song “Toast.” It’s gotten such a huge positive response and the love for it keeps growing.
It feels good! [laughs] I remember when I released my first single “Burning” [in 2017], a lot of older folks were tuning into the music. I wanted to broaden my horizons by reaching out to other markets and people who were my age — something more wide than just a particular age group. It’s surprising how well [“Toast”] is doing. It’s a good and overwhelming feeling. It’s what I’ve always wanted my music to do.
There’s a lot of hype surrounding you at the moment, but does that affect you in any way?
I try to stay focused by remaining connected to my roots. I grew up in Spanish Town [the capital of Jamaican parish St. Catherine], so I try to visit every now and then to just kick back. I also meditate and read my bible in the mornings to keep my core values, like being humble, grateful and kind. There’s little things here and there that help me stay grounded.
You’re also signed to Columbia UK at a young age. How do you make sure you protect your creativity when working with such a big record label?
I had a few meetings with Columbia UK prior to signing, and we came to the conclusion that decisions would be made with both of our input. Nobody would be left out any decisions. So we basically agreed that I would always be included. I think that set the pace and we’ll proactively continue on that same path.
On your new single “Throne,” I love that you’re singing about a woman taking control of her power.
Yeahhhh! I think music as a whole can be more male-dominated. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s happening more on a wide scale. So [this song] is just introducing myself to the world as a positive person in reggae music as a female. I’m basically saying, “You males are good, but mi come siddung pon di throne now!” [Laughs.] I’m gonna take the crown and do what it takes, because — as they say — “heavy is the head that wears the crown.” So i’m gonna take all the responsibilities that come with being on the throne.
Speaking of women in reggae, there’s a new class of singers — yourself, Lila Ika, Naomi Cowan and Sevana — that are creating their own path. It’s great to see.
We definitely have a connection, especially when it comes to different music scenes in Jamaica. We always come together where we communicate and have a vibe. I think it’s almost different from a movement because we didn’t decide to make one, but the fire that each of us have in our hearts helps us push forward. It ends up being a combined effort, you know?
I think you are also breaking stereotypes of what it means to be a Jamaican female artist. They don’t always have to be overtly sexualized if they don’t want to.
I’m brought to be aware of my [individuality] because of conversations like these, but it isn’t like a deliberate thing for me. I just try to be as natural as possible. Sometimes people are made to feel like they have to create an image that’s separate from themselves in order to be successful in any area. But for me, I didn’t get the chance to do that. My musical opportunities basically started as soon as I left high school, so I was just focused on that. I entered [the industry] naturally and I decided to keep on that same pace. But people have noticed it enough to appreciate it, so mi really respect that.
What is the message you want people to take away after listening to your Rapture EP?
The motive behind my EP is just me wanting to project my abilities and talent to the world. As a debut artist, this is what I have to offer. This is like a trial thing for me, because I just put my ideas together and decided to go with it. And I really want to reach out to the youths everywhere, especially people closer to my age group since I just left high school. As I said before, there’s a lot more room for positivity in the reggae and dancehall space. So I’d love for my music to influence the young people because I know that we’re the future.
You’re still getting your bearings in the industry, but what would you like your legacy to be defined as?
I want my name to turn into a household name. 10 years from now, I want my collection of music to be listened to be old people, young people, babies — just everybody. It’s important that my music makes a positive impact on my country, the reggae genre and the world.