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‘Life is truly a gift’: Koffee on growth, gratitude and her shining debut album

With the release of Gifted, Koffee brings her sunshine to the world. She speaks to Cici Peng about keeping her feet planted firmly on the ground.

31 Mar

Nwaka Okparaeke

It seems as if spring has hit the UK the day Jamaican artist Koffee arrives – suddenly trees are blooming bubblegum globes and the sun has returned from its hiatus. It’s fitting, really, as Koffee croons from the track ‘X10’ on her debut album: “When I look up in a new sky, I see the sun a shine.” Her positivity lights up even the darkest corners (especially this England).  

As I walk into our interview, Koffee (born Mikayla Simpson) is finishing up a photoshoot, adorned in a deep emerald fur coat, eyes directed intently at the camera. The photographer brings out a long, narrow platform for the 5-foot-tall singer and asks her to climb atop it. “Yah know I can balance,” laughs Koffee as she perches on it like a bird ready for flight, yet steady and rooted in her stillness. Balance is something Koffee’s music speaks to – the optimistic and the critical, the light and the heavy, her strength through her open vulnerability. 

She possesses this way of listening that makes you try harder to hear yourself

On her EP Rapture in 2019, Koffee brought back memories of long sizzling days with ‘Toast’, but then added weight to her vital optimism with the more politically charged tracks, ‘Rapture’ and ‘Ragamuffin’, which speak out against the fallout of poverty and violence in Jamaica with a free-spirited vibrancy. The instant success of her EP transformed Koffee into a global rising star. Her journey is one that’s moving at lightning speed, almost fast enough to match Usain Bolt, who propelled her into the limelight when he shared her song about him, ‘Lightning’,  in 2017.

Only three years later, Koffee broke world records herself, becoming the first woman and the youngest person at 19 years old to be awarded the Grammy for Best Reggae Album. “Winning the Grammy’s can only mean so much to a single person,” she says, “But what it does for an entire people, country and genre is so important – you really feel moved by that.” Somehow, even while making history, Koffee finds a way to remain planted, with her feet firmly on the ground.

Greeting me with a hug, Koffee dazzles with her all-star braces-smile, delight touching her eyes. Initially, she sits down opposite me and – before I can say anything – she asks if we can sit side by side, instantly putting us both at ease. As we talk, it’s clear she is not afraid of the silences that emerge between word and thought; she takes time to consider her truths. She possesses this way of listening that makes you try harder to hear yourself. At 22, she has a self-assurance and clarity that doesn’t usually accompany the tumultuous nature of being in your early 20s. 

“I’ve been growing into this space where I think that I don’t really need to remind the world of its problems”

I ask her how she stays so grounded, so positive and she looks upwards, contemplating: “Gratitude and positivity are things I try to embrace in my day-to-day life. It’s about planting the seed you want to grow for the future.” And, so it has. Sprouting into full bloom this spring is her new album Gifted, where hope and reality converge. Koffee continues, “I’ve been growing into this space where I think that I don’t really need to remind the world of its problems. Rapture was a bit heavier, but with this creation, I wanted it to be a bit lighter so it can rely on my music for uplifting you.” Gifted comes at a more prescient time than ever for young people who feel more disillusioned and pessimistic about the future. The melodies undulate with the radical power of joy; the feeling of being held, then lifted. She continues, “Life is truly a gift.” And, while listening to her album, I find myself viewing the world awash with her light. 

The opening track ‘X10’ resembles the very first breath you draw when you step outside to the kiss of the breeze, as Koffee sings, “I’m glad I woke up today, just as I woke up and say couple prayers for my family and friends, thank you Father for blessing me times 10.” Growing up, Koffee would go to church with her mum every Sunday without fail and you can hear inflections of the foundational optimism of gospel in her own sound. “My first experience of music was in church, just from hearing the piano, guitar, trumpets and the choir. It really influenced me, both in my music and my message.” 

Koffee spent most of her childhood in Spanish Town, a town 12 miles from Kingston. More specifically, she rotated between three places: school, home and church. She laughs, “My mum was a bit strict and Spanish Town was a humble place to grow up. It was a small community where everyone knew each other.” When she went to high school in Kingston, she started to explore a bit more, especially with music. “I’ve always loved music – I got a guitar when I was 12 and started playing by ear, learning different songs from YouTube. I started writing my own music then, but it was when I went to high school that I started to fall in love with reggae music.” 

She started listening to Chronixx and Protoje, both part of a new generation of artists inheriting the legacy of roots reggae that Dennis Brown and Bob Marley pioneered. “I think people like Bob set the pace for us, so we have more opportunities. We still have to work hard, but we receive our opportunities sooner with our hard work, rather than work hard then wait, wait and wait.” 

“When I was young my mum always said to me ‘The way you behave, you have to be great’”

Gifted continues the philosophy of roots reggae, commenting upon the day-to-day lives of the community but with a modern twist, blending in a slick fusion of reggae, dancehall and neo-soul with Afrobeats accents. “Of course, I was disappointed when the lockdown hit. But, it also gave me much needed balance,” she explains, “The album’s journey is kind of how I lived my everyday life. I wasn’t working the way I would typically, with all the flying here and dere. So, it gave me a chance to really see what my routine was. I like waking up really early, taking in the morning vibe and giving thanks for the ting. And then, I’m grateful for fulfilling my purpose and speaking out for what I stand for. Then, I have a romantic interest, so we are usually texting or visiting one another, and we get into that romantic vibe.” She says that the love song ‘Lonely’ is inspired particularly by British-Jamaican artist John McLean. She continues, “After the love song, it’s getting late, you’re getting ready for the party so that’s the energy that comes with ‘Pull Up’.” Gifted transcends just the day-to-day instead it reveals a philosophy of life, embracing the seemingly forgotten moments of contemplation that prelude action.

Experimenting with a more pared-back acoustic sound, Koffee’s album traces back to where her journey began – her love for the guitar. “I’ve been experimenting a bit more with this album. I’ve been incorporating other genres I like.” Gifted is rooted in Jamaican pride, but also captures a more global diasporic sound – ‘Where I’m From’ strikes a moment of recognition for the Caribbean diaspora in the UK, while ‘Pull Up’, a track produced by the British-Ghanaian JAE5 draws on Afrobeats riddims. With different influences feeding into each other, her tracks possess a distinctive sound, one composed of Black pride that transcends a singular root – instead, she is here, there and everywhere. 

Not only exploring genre, but texture, I ask her about her other talents as a beatboxer on ‘Gifted’, and she beams at me, brows shooting up, “Yo, you heard that! That’s dope! Frank Dukes produced that song, he produces for Frank Ocean. I loved working with him.” On the track, she sings about her Mama’s prediction of her destiny. Although strict, Koffee’s mum’s unwavering belief in her never faltered. In ‘Gifted’, you hear Koffee celebrate her mother’s relentless optimism, passed down to her through this stream of inheritance that is now trickling down to us.  She tells me, “When I was young my mum always said to me ‘The way you behave, you have to be great.’” She laughs, “I never took it to heart, but then, the way my career happened was a little unexpected for me. I looked at it as a prediction because there was no way I could tell.” 

Koffee’s greatness is not just a prediction, but a full-blown reality. Lyrically and sonically, Gifted is surprising in its open vulnerability, in the act of choosing to open one’s heart. “I know yah scared to give your heart, but yah got to get to know me,” Koffee professes in ‘Lonely’ and you wonder, when did we all get so fearful? Her self-confidence is crystal clear as she sings, ‘show mi a way, mi eyes cyaan see’. More than just seeing, Koffee’s eyes glint with curiosity as she wanders down untrodden paths to test out her talents.

Koffee’s debut album, Gifted, is out now on all services.