Koffee: Strong and sweet | Backstory

Dancehall’s latest sensation, nineteen-year-old Koffee, is captivating fans across the globe with her vibesy toasting, catchy riddims, and cheeky lyrics. Nazma Muller reports on the pint-sized Jamaican phenomenon with the relentlessly positive attitude

  • Mikayla Simpson, better known as Koffee. Photography courtesy Sony Music
  • Koffee. Photography courtesy Sony Music
  • Koffee. Photography courtesy Sony Music

Cyah bawl inna life, man
Gwaan wid it, mi gwaan wid it
Toast, yeah!
Say we a come in wid a force (yeah)
Blessings we a reap pon we course (inna handful)
We nuh rise and boast
Yeah, we give thanks like we need it the most
We haffi give thanks like we really supposed to, be thankful!
Blessings all pon mi life and
Mi thank God for di journey di earnings a jus fi di plus (yeah)
Gratitude is a must (yeah) . . .

It was the night of Buju Banton’s first highly anticipated, sold-out concert after his release from prison in the US. The national stadium in Jamaica was packed for his “Long Walk to Freedom” show, with more than fifty thousand fans from all over the island, and the globe, there to welcome the Gargamel home.

Onstage was the legendary Cocoa Tea. “Sweet, sweet Jamaica, Jah Jah send Buju forward to we! Me say, sweet, sweet Jamaica, Jah Jah send Buju forward to we!” And as he paid homage to his colleague, Cocoa Tea brought on the young woman whom he had once prophesied — at 2017’s Rebel Salute, when she was just seventeen years old — would become a musical star. “Me tell dem, this female is going to run Jamaica and run the world! Dem laugh and say, ‘Cocoa Tea, yuh a fool, yuh a joke.’ Ladies and gentleman, here comes the biggest female sensation out of Jamaica, Original Koffeeeeeeeeee!”

And in she came, with a force. A simple “Good night, everybody,” and then the now-nineteen-year-old calmly and smoothly slipped into one of her massive hits:

Raggamuffin reggae beat yeah
Dancehall pan di street yeah
Caan stall nor defeat, 2030 we still a dweet
Every stage show we still a keep
Every big song deh pan repeat
Dem a respond inna dem feet
Dem a clap hands . . .

Then she launched into a rapid-fire rap:

Mi gi dem heart attack inna mi halter back . . .
“Pull up!” shouted Cocoa Tea. “Show respect where respect due!”

“Thanks for having me,” she replied to Cocoa Tea, humbly. And then it was straight back into her sweet groove:

A di reggae music causing the commotion
When di music in mi come in like a potion
Yuh mi have the waves never stuck inna di ocean
Koffee have the style dem smoother dan a lotion . . .

Over the decades, we have seen — repeatedly — Jamaica’s capacity to produce singers who blow our minds with their genius. But Koffee — well, she has even legends like Cocoa Tea singing her praises. She’s just five feet tall, but her audacious and masterful toasting style blew even Buju out of the water. By his second show in Trinidad, he had hired Koffee as one of his opening acts. A week or so later, Rihanna was rocking to “Toast” in Barbados, as seen in a video clip she posted online.

The video went viral on social media, and soon Rihanna’s seventy million followers were clicking on Koffee’s YouTube videos, including “Toast”, which already had 32 million views. The song has been featured in the recent US box office hit, Us, and the EP Rapture made its debut at number one on the Billboard Reggae Chart — making Mikayla “Koffee” Simpson the youngest woman reggae/dancehall artist ever to top the chart.

Koffee hails from Spanish Town, the first capital of Jamaica, which is also the birthplace of Chronixx, a mentor who has taken her under his wing. A graduate of Ardenne High School, Koffee cites fellow reggae stars Protoje, Lila Ike, Royal Blu, and Runkus as her other inspirations. She also counts Bob Marley as an influence. “The pace that Bob Marley set in reggae music, on such a positive and widespread level, is something that I want to emulate and carry on,” she says. “I want to honour his legacy in that sense.”

Koffee grew up in church, surrounded by music. In ninth grade, she started listening to Chronixx. “Those inspirations motivated me to try ah ting,” she says. “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. I had to embrace the musical opportunities that I received.”

At first her mother, with whom she shares a close bond, was not too happy with her decision to commit to music. (In “Burning” she sings, “I neva have nuff fun time, life rough sometime, but mi know me and me mommy haffi see de sunshine / That’s why mi come wid di fyah di city burning”). “She was a bit sceptic in the beginning, because she’s been the one sending me to school all my life,” Koffee explains. “But when she got wind of my talent, she grew to trust the moment and trust the journey.”

In August 2017, still a largely unknown talent, Koffee uploaded a video to her Instagram account of herself on acoustic guitar, performing her composition “Legend,” a tribute to her fellow Jamaican Usain Bolt. “Yuh nuh need no medal with a heart of gold, yuh stay humble inna yuh glory,” she sang.

Bolt saw the video and posted it on his own Instagram account, which has several million followers. Things started moving fast. Columbia UK approached her with a record deal. Walshy Fire of electronic dance music producers Major Lazer came across “Burning” and reached out to the singer. The speed of her rise turned meteoric.

Koffee’s acceptance into stardom has been sanctioned by none other than the crown prince of reggae revival himself, Chronixx, who invited her to freestyle with him on BBC 1Xtra last year. “He’s definitely a big inspiration,” says Koffee. “He’s a person who discovered my music on his own and decided to support it. That’s something I really have to appreciate.”

She also joined him onstage at Alexandra Palace in London last year at a sold-out concert before ten thousand fans. “That was like a goosebump moment for me,” she says. “Because he’s still young as an artist and he’s been doing so much positivity in the world — it’s very inspiring to see that.”

Giving thanks has been Koffee’s message throughout, as she brings a fresh yet sophisticated feel to her songs. Despite touring non-stop, she says she takes time to meditate and read her Bible in the mornings, to keep her core values, “like being humble, grateful, and kind. There’s little things here and there that help me stay grounded.”

On her new single “Throne”, she sings about a woman taking control. “I think music as a whole can be more male-dominated,” she muses. “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!”

And she is ready to take the crown worn usually by men like Vybz Kartel and Popcaan. “Heavy is the head that wears the crown,” she adds. “So I’m gonna take all the responsibilities that come with being on the throne.”

Her fresh innocence, combined with her masterful toasting, has already changed the tone of dancehall, nudging it towards positivity and solid content. Koffee wields words with a dexterity and style that few in the genre can match. It’s hard to imagine that this wicked wordsmith was turned down for sixth form at her secondary school. The disappointment was deep, but it turned out to be a blessing.

The motive behind her EP Rapture is her wanting to project her abilities and talent to the world. “I really want to reach out to the youths everywhere, especially people closer to my age group, since I just left high school,” she says. “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.

“I want my name to turn into a household name ten years from now,” she adds. “I want my collection of music to be listened to by 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.”

She knows Jamaica has an extraordinary influence on popular culture, far beyond its size. “We are a small country, but we can be very impactful, and I believe in that — the power of what we can do as a country,” she says.

“It’s kind of difficult to describe sound as positive, but I feel like music has feeling. I will add words as I go on in my career.”