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Koffee: Reggae Riddims and Flows

About the Episode

Jamaican singer-songwriter Koffee is taking the world of reggae by storm. With her electric beats and fluid lyrics Koffee became the first woman and youngest person to ever win the award for Best Reggae Album at the Grammy Awards.

You can find Koffee in the new book Rebel Girls: 100 Inspiring Young Changemakers! We’re celebrating all September long with two special Changemakers podcast episodes each week. Preorder Rebel Girls: 100 Inspiring Young Changemakers wherever books are sold to learn about how girls just like you are changing the world.

This story was produced by Olivia Riçhard with sound design and mixing by Mumble Media. It was written by Nicole Haroutunian and edited by Abby Sher. Narration by Sheryl Mebane. Thank you to the whole Rebel Girls team, who make this podcast possible. Stay rebel!

Transcript

Twelve-year-old Mikayla Simpson sat on her bed, a big acoustic guitar balanced on her lap. She didn’t know how to play yet, but she was determined to learn. Mikayla plucked a string and cringed at the twang, then watched a few how-to videos online, adjusting her fingers on the frets so she could try again. And again. And again.

Growing up, Mikayla went to church with her mom and loved singing with the chorus there, but she wanted to do more, like play instruments and write songs. That’s why she’d borrowed this guitar from a friend to try to make new sounds.

“Um, Mikayla?”

Her mom heard her practicing and knocked on the door, reminding Mikayla it was time to do her homework. Mikayla’s mom was very loving, but she didn’t want her daughter to slip behind at school.

Mikayla couldn’t stop thinking about making music though.  

She especially loved reggae because it was from Jamaica, just like her.  Reggae had meaning and spirit. It could be political and fun at the same time. Most of all, reggae felt uplifting to Mikayla. 

“One of the greatest things about reggae music,” she said, “is that it’s…about speaking of experiences in a positive light as much as possible.” Mikayla and her friends saw a lot of discrimination and poverty around them in their hometown of ​​Spanish Town, Jamaica and few miles outside the main city of Kingston, and yet a lot of people joining together in song too. That was the magic of reggae —it didn’t look away from what needed to be changed. It celebrated all the possibilities.

Mikayla studied and practiced reggae night and day. She listened to her favorite reggae artists, paying close attention to their lyrics and flow. The way they rhymed—it was sooo good. She wanted to write like that! 

When her high school’s talent show rolled around her senior year, she decided to sign up.

The show was organized by the school music teacher, but it wasn’t just a small performance. When Mikayla stepped onto the stage, she saw at least a thousand people staring back at her. What??? 

She planted her feet, stared straight out into the crowd and went for it. Mikayla was only five feet tall, but she commanded the stage. No one could take their eyes—or their ears—off her. And as she finished, they exploded with applause. She might have been the only one surprised when she won!

Winning was a huge step for her and definitely boosted her confidence, but Mikayla knew she still had to work on her rhymes. She’d been thinking about the Jamaican track star Usain Bolt, “the fastest man in the world”. How hard did he have to push himself to win his Olympic gold medals? 

Hmm…she thought. Gold…gold…unfold? 

Slowly, Mikayla came up with the lyrics and melody to a song about Usain that she titled “Legend.” She recorded a video of herself performing it. Dressed in a black polo shirt emblazoned with the Jamaican flag, she played a guitar her grandmother had bought her and belted out her original song. When Mikayla finished recording, she posted it to social media under her handle, @originalkoffee.

Koffee was a nickname she’d picked up one hot day when everyone else was drinking icy sodas and she ordered herself a steaming coffee! Koffee told her mom she hoped her song would reach Usain Bolt and her mom tried to be encouraging. But neither of them expected what happened next. 

To say her phone blew up is an understatement. The likes! The DMs! Turns out, Usain Bolt didn’t just see her video—he reposted it. Music executives and record producers followed Usain Bolt—so did more than ten million other people! And now they were listening to Koffee’s song, and loving it!

As Koffee began to meet music industry insiders and get invited up onstage with some of her reggae heroes, it seemed like everything was falling into place…until…it wasn’t… 

In Jamaica, after high school, students can go on to a two-year education program called 6th Form. Koffee planned to go, pursuing music and general studies. She applied to 6th Form and waited for her acceptance letter to arrive. But when she pulled the envelope from the mailbox and tore it open, she found…a rejection letter. 

What? Why?? 

She threw down the paper, burying her face in her hands. She didn’t know what to do with this tide of anger and disappointment welling up inside of her. Then she realized, Wait a second, this is what reggae is all about. How can I turn this setback into something positive? 

She played herself a  riddim she’d been sent. In reggae, a  riddim is an instrumental track that many different artists put words to, creating their own separate songs. Koffee was a singjay now—what Jamaicans call a combination DJ and singer-songwriter—and, as she swayed to the  riddim, the words started to come to her. She could feel her anger and disappointment transforming into fierce words, full of determination and resilience. She called the song, “Burning.” It was about embracing your inner fire no matter what anyone else says. 

And pretty soon, “Burning” became Koffee’s first hit!

Soon after she released this motivational song, Koffee signed with a record label and recorded her debut EP, Rapture. It was only fifteen minutes long, but it had a lot of energy and pizazz packed into its five songs. Rooted in reggae, it fused hip-hop and Afro-Caribbean influences too. Koffee was already finding her unique style.

Rapture was hugely successful. Koffee got asked to perform all over the world. She was thrilled to be trying out her new sounds in front of so many different audiences.  She was proud to represent her country, which she called “likkle but tallawah,” a Jamaican phrase that means “little but strong.” 

Then, one day in 2019, Koffee got the news—Rapture had been nominated for a Grammy! The Grammys are one of  the biggest music awards in the United States –– people all over the world tune in to watch them. 

Koffee couldn’t believe it. Reggae was still a male-dominated genre. Not only was she the only woman nominated in her category, but a woman had never, ever won Best Reggae Album before! What’s more—Koffee was nineteen years old. Usually, it was old-school artists who won. Koffee thought about that rejection letter from 6th Form and part of her just wanted to hide. It would have been safer, she thought, to stick with school. But at the same time, what a wild ride music had taken her on already!  

The night of the Grammys, Koffee got dressed in a simple black suit and boots—nothing sparkly except for her mouth which was full of shiny silver braces. She wanted to dress like herself and be comfortable! Walking down the red carpet felt surreal. As she sat in an enormous, glitzy arena in Los Angeles, she watched as celebrity after celebrity took the stage, trying not to quake. 

When it was time to announce the winner in the Reggae category, all Koffee could hear was her thumping heartbeat. 

“And the Grammy goes to…Rapture, Koffee!” 

Koffee froze in her seat. Was this really happening? She had to shake herself out of her giddy daze and jog toward the stage. She got to the podium breathless, her eyes wide and full of surprise. 

“Blessings,” she said, before graciously honoring the other nominees. “This one is for all of us. This one is for reggae, this one is for Jamaica!”

Koffee’s story is really just getting started. She has so many songs in her heart and so many  riddims she wants to explore. Since that first Grammy win, she’s released she’s released her first full-length album and collaborated some of the world’s most famous pop stars. 

She keeps on pushing herself to write meaningful lyrics and to share her love of this great music. She truly believes that reggae promotes love, peace, and understanding. And when she opens her mouth to sing, she knows that people from all over the world can come together through song.

One note at a time.