He is one of the biggest names in Jamaican music. Born James Chambers but known professionally as Jimmy Cliff, the Jamaican singer, multi-instrumentalist and actor is the only living reggae musician to hold the Order of Merit, which may be conferred upon any citizen of Jamaica or distinguished citizen of a country other than Jamaica for achievements in the field of science, the arts, literature or any other endeavor.
Raised in the countryside, he started writing songs while still at primary school before moving to Kingston at the age of 14, where he would persuade a record shop owner to record him. Today, you may know him for hits such as “Many Rivers to Cross”, “You Can Get It If You Really Want”, “Wonderful World, Beautiful People”, “Reggae Night”, “The Harder They Come”, and “Hakuna Matata”. And of course, the controversial song, “Have You Heard The News”.
Here’s how the opening lyrics go:
Have you heard the news (News News News) 4X
I was in Africa. Down in Nigeria
Oh they threw me in jail
I had one hell getting bail
Indeed, that is Jimmy Cliff singing about an unfortunate incident that occurred while he was in Nigeria in the 1970s. In 1974, the music legend had arrived in Nigeria for a musical concert in what was reportedly his first visit to Africa. He was greeted by a massive crowd at the airport. The singer was enthralled by the scenery as at the time it was only the Beatles that had received such a rousing welcome from several thousand people at the airport.
Jimmy Cliff immediately got ready to give Nigerians an amazing performance. And so he did until a disagreement occurred and he was thrown into jail following claims made by an angry promoter.
“My first trip to Africa was Nigeria. It was a bitter-sweet experience,” Jimmy Cliff recently recalled in an interview with theartsdesk.
“Sweet because of the thousands of people at the airport awaiting me. I’d never had that adulation, I only saw it for The Beatles, so to have it for myself was really great. They lined the street from the airport to the hotel. It was amazing.
“The bitter part of it was I got thrown in jail for no reason at all. A man came and said, ‘I’m the one who was supposed to bring Jimmy Cliff to Africa. I had a contract with him in London and he didn’t turn up so now he’s here I’m taking out a civil suit against him’.”
Jimmy Cliff said he was put in jail for three nights in Nigeria. The singer was freed by the courts after the suit against him was dismissed for lack of evidence. “When I went to court, where’s the evidence? Nothing! So they threw it out,” he said.
There are claims today that other top musicians like Bob Marley, Diana Ross, and Michael Jackson avoided Nigeria because of Jimmy Cliff’s incident.
Even though Jimmy Cliff described Nigeria as “a pretty rough place” following his jail incident, he said he still “liked the energy.”
“My first time in Nigeria was not such a good experience! However, I still loved the country and when I went back it was great!”, he told reggaeville.com.
Perhaps one of his most memorable moments in the West African country was meeting with music icon Fela Kuti in Lagos in 1974. “He was a very intense person. He believed in what he was doing. But I loved his music. I wasn’t familiar with his music before I stayed at the Kalakuta [Fela’s compound] that night but I loved it. It was just the way he was – very intense – because he believed in what he was doing because he was a great artist.”
Reggae legend Jimmy Cliff has toured extensively, attracting fans the world over. When asked recently where has been his favorite to visit, he mentioned Africa. “…I really love Africa. Even before my consciousness of Africa, when I first went there I just loved the country, I just loved the feeling, I just loved the energy. Even though I had some bad experiences!”
Apart from Nigeria, the Jamaican star has visited other African countries including Mali, Sierra Leone and South Africa. In the 1980s, he performed to a mixed audience in South Africa, where his songs inspired people who were fighting against apartheid.
“For some reason they allowed all the people to come to my concerts so maybe that was the beginning of the breakdown of apartheid,” Jimmy Cliff told reggaeville.com in 2012. “It’s one of the memories in my career that stood out and will always stand out and impact on me.”