Jimmy Cliff: 'No peace without justice'
By Norm Dixon
Jimmy Cliff is today the standard bearer of politically conscious Jamaican reggae. He came to fame as part of the classic generation of reggae freedom fighters led by the now-deified Bob Marley and the great Peter Tosh. On the eve of his latest Australian tour, Green Left Weekly spoke to Jimmy Cliff in Japan and found that he remains committed to the goal of liberation that helped to define reggae music.
"My main themes I've always written about, and I am still writing about, are love and justice. Not necessarily love in the one to one sense but the higher form of love — love of life, love of humanity, love of the planet. And justice in the social conditions of human beings, and of people coming together. These are my themes."
Cliff's latest album Breakout — and his more than 20 previous albums — demands justice for the Third World. "I think it is one of the main issues that really has to be highlighted in the world because these so-called 'Third World' countries have contributed a lot — are still contributing a lot — to the world and are really not given any kind of justice."
The coming of the "New World Order" does not alter at all the need for these vital themes to be highlighted, Cliff told Green Left Weekly: "I think they are just as relevent now as they were when I wrote 'Vietnam'. There is a song on [Breakout] called 'Peace'. What I am asking is how is there going to be peace when there is no justice. Even if you don't have a full-scale Vietnam War, what is causing these wars in Bosnia, South Africa, Somalia and other places all over the world is the political injustices of governments ...
"In 'War A Africa' I'm saying that the so-called 'developed' countries are after the wealth of Africa and that is why there so much war. They don't really care about the people, they prefer to get the material wealth that is there. They divide the people and subject them to sub- human conditions, take the wealth and go."
The welfare, history and culture of Africa remains one of Cliff's lasting concerns: "I've always emphasised Africa, but what is more significant on Breakout is that I've got a lot of African- orientated rhythms. Not only lyrics about Africa, but musical things."
The new album and his recent concerts feature a fabulous mixing of influences from three of the African diaspora's most important cultural centres — Bahia in Brazil, the Caribbean, and Zaire and the Congo in central Africa. "We have a lot African descendents in South America, in the Caribbean, in North America, and Africa itself. I've brought together the music and sentiments of these people and put them on this album."
Cliff told Green Left Weekly that he wanted to highlight the hese widely seperated regions: "Historically, through the slave trade they were taken to these different places. And in a lot of these places they still maintain our African culture."
He does not agree with the views of some music commentators that Jamaican reggae had lost its emphasis on the message of liberation but agreed that many younger artists were less conscious politically. "The music has evolved like any other music ... That is not to say that no-one is saying anything conscious anymore. I'm still saying it, and there are many others. But record companies usually promote other things that they think are more saleable than more conscious reggae."
He agrees that there is much more reggae with sexist and anti- homosexual lyrics: "A lot [of the younger artists] are getting swayed by the decadence of the times rather than being positive."
There was also some truth that African reggae artists like South Africa's Lucky Dube and Cameroon's Alpha Blondy were now playing the role that Jamaican reggae played in the past in terms of politically concious lyrics, Cliff said, but predicted that in the next few years a new generation of politically conscious Caribbean reggae artists would come to prominance.
Cliff has been a long time campaigner against apartheid. He told Green Left Weekly while the coming of majority rule in South Africa came with a very high price in terms of bloodshed he was optimistic that majority rule would be in place in 1994.
Another issue that he is obviously passionate about is the environment: "I have written a song called 'Save Our Planet Earth'. We human beings have the resources to correct the wrongs that have been done the planet like the ozone layer ... If all the scientists focused their energies into doing that, rather than putting them into things like making more destructive weapons, I think we will find a way to redeem the earth. I am very much concerned about what is happening to the environment because this the place I want to live!"
Cliff promised that his coming Australian concerts would be "high- energy and exciting ... I will do some of the classics that I know reggae fans will expect. Then I will do some of the present stuff, then I also do some future stuff."
[Jimmy Cliff's tour dates are: Brisbane — Wednesday August 18, Transformers Nightclub; Tweed Heads — Thursday August 19, Seagulls Leagues Club; Sydney — Saturday August 21, Selinas; Melbourne — Sunday August 22, Metro.]