Rising Teen Star Koffee Gives Reggae a Jolt to the Mainstream

Koffee is the first female artist to take home the Grammy for best reggae album—at 19 years old.

Koffee Reggee singer
Koffee performs at O2 Shepherd's Bush Empire on November 9, 2019 in London. Photo by Joseph Okpako/WireImage/Getty

Koffee, the 19-year-old wunderkind out of Jamaica's Spanish Town, became the first female artist ever to take home the Grammy for best reggae album at this year's recent awards show. Her Rapture is a quiver of just five songs that are remarkable for their lyrical ingenuity and positive messaging. The track "Toast" even landed on the Obamas' summer playlist. But her acceptance of the award didn't even make it on to the main broadcast.

That's par for the course, though. Reggae music, like a shunned stepchild, is too often sidelined—not just from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, which is working with its Diversity Task Force amid a spate of recent criticism, but by American DJs and audiences alike.

Koffee may be the greatest hope to change that, and she's seeing some momentum.

One afternoon at Miss Lilly's on West Houston Street in New York, while she was hurtling along on her stratospheric rise, Koffee took a rare breather. Coming off an interview with Sirius XM, she was set to do a recording session at famed studio Jungle City that evening before flying to Los Angeles the next day to tape a performance on Jimmy Kimmel Live! that would air in July.

Fresh off her selection as an Apple Music "Up Next" artist and amid rumors that she will perform on and help write Rihanna's much-anticipated R9 reggae album, Koffee, along with other reggae artists, is seeing popularity that is unheard of in recent times among American audiences. Billboard's Next Big Sound chart has three Jamaican reggae artists—Koffee, Shenseea and Skip Marley (Bob Marley's grandson)—a harbinger of what's to come. Chronixx, Protoje and Popcaan are perhaps the most prominent emissaries of the reggae revival, but other reggae artists like Jah9, Kabaka Pyramid, HoodCelebrityy, Govana and Vybz Kartel are also part of this movement, as are a deep bench of stars-to-be like Lila Ike and Sevana.

Koffee Reggae Singer
Koffee, winner of best reggae album, poses in the press room during the 62nd Annual Grammy Awards at Staples Center on January 26 in Los Angeles. Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for The Recording Academy/Getty

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The U.S. is a particularly tough market for reggae music, as DJs too often marginalize the music or limit it to hip-hop stations instead of exposing the music to a wider pop audience. Reggae consisted of nary 1 percent of music album consumption in the U.S. in 2018, according to Statista. That's on par with classical music and a figure hip-hop/rap (at 21.7 percent) dwarfs. But Koffee and crew are fighting to change that.

By summer, reggae streaming had seen a 36 percent gain year over year on Apple Music worldwide. "Toast," which was featured in Jordan Peele's Us, became the No. 1 streamed reggae song on Apple Music worldwide this spring, and throughout its release week in March, Rapture hit No. 1 on the Apple Music Reggae Album Charts in 39 countries, including the U.S.

"There are some popular artists—you would say they run Jamaica, like their songs are played everywhere in Jamaica, because everyone there is able to relate to it," Koffee said.

But not all artists are able to make the jump to the mainstream abroad.

Koffee Reggae Singer
Koffee was the first female artist ever to take home the Grammy for Best Reggae Album. Nickii Kane

"The positivity in my message, especially as a young artist, and the fact that I started out on a positive foot, I think that's what draws a lot of people to me and allows my music to reach a new level," Koffee said. "I want my music to break every border and reach every person. It feels good to be a part of what feels like or what other people say is a resurrection or a resurgence of strong Jamaican music."

Reggae's Rise

Reggae has resonated with Ebro Darden, Apple Music's global editorial head of hip-hop and R&B, who said his team decided unanimously—a rare occurrence—to make Koffee an Up Next artist, a monthly program that identifies and showcases rising star talent.

"Koffee is not only a lyrical genius—she represents the youth and is bringing positivity that uplifts and makes people feel good at a time when we are all feeling inundated with negativity," he said.

That positivity may explain the appeal of reggae more widely, Darden added.

"I think that's probably a lot of the reason why the sounds of Caribbean music, specifically reggae and soca, have really started to take over mainstream," he said. "We even see it with Latin Trap and reggaeton whose origins are in reggae music. The sounds just make you feel good."

Koffee's textured lyrics, which dispel of Jamaica as an island paradise and approach it through a realistic lens, help her cut a clear path through the rest of the noise. She's not about pumping out dancehall jams—though her songs are catchy—but rather she is focused on exploring her country's history and current struggles with poignant analysis.

Protoje noted that some of the political turmoil in the U.S. and around the world could have listeners increasingly seeking positivity. Since Bob Marley sang, "So much trouble in the world," back in the '70s, reggae audiences have tried to latch onto positive vibrations. Political strife could be reggae's gain.

Koffee on Notion cover
Spanish Town sensation Koffee on the cover of Notion magazine. Jan Philipzen

"The world is going through lots of crises right now, and reggae music is always a platform that talks about these things and puts social consciousness at the forefront," Protoje said. "That to me has always been the main thing that reggae music brings. And I think that people can connect to it, because they're understanding that we all face the same problems and issues as humans, no matter where you live or grow up. Sometimes, people get up and say something doesn't feel right. I think those are the people that are searching for alternative ideologies."

Koffee's team at RCA Records is emphasizing her positivity and her ability to distill her country's essence into her music and lyrics in promoting her.

"Koffee embodies the soul and the rich legacy of the Jamaican culture, and you can hear those influences in her music," said Theola Borden, senior vice president of publicity at RCA Records. "Her lyrics reflect the spirit, joy, pain, hopes and pride of her country, and the results so far have been refreshingly addictive. As a young woman, Koffee is breaking through the male-dominated reggae scene, because her perspective, along with her delivery, resonate with so many. People are quickly taking heed, which verifies that her voice, her presence, is necessary—now and for years to come."

Jamaican music is seeing momentum it hasn't encountered in more than a decade, according to Tiffany Mea, founder of lifestyle and music publicity firm With Love PR.

"At the very start of my career in 2005 at VP Records, Sean Paul's 'Temperature' was No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, and his Trinity album peaked in the Top 10 of Billboard 200 album chart," Mea said. "He was making straight dancehall from Jamaica, and it was hitting markets outside of U.S. markets that didn't have large West Indian communities. He was reaching middle America, where there was not a beach in sight."

Reggae hasn't quite hit those heights on the Billboard charts, but the momentum in other metrics—"Who Knows," Protoje's track featuring Chronixx has more than 124 million views on Youtube, and "Toast" has more than 98 million—highlights its potential. Being featured on Apple Music playlists like Run Tings and Breaking Reggae is also important.

"I am hopeful we are now reaching that point once again, where a Jamaican artist will hit these types of numbers and do it with reggae/dancehall music out the gate," she said. "And there is a good chance this will be a female artist."

Koffee Reggae Singer
The breakout female solo star Koffee is giving reggae music a jolt to the mainstream in the U.S. Frank Fieber

Mainstream listeners, of course, are exposed to reggae in their regular music consumption. Rihanna and Nicky Minaj are international superstars repping Caribbean countries (Barbados and Trinidad, respectively) where reggae, dancehall and soca are the dominant sounds, but though they sample elements of those genres into their music, their fans know them for pop and R&B in Rihanna's case and hip-hop in Nicki Minaj's. Mea said for reggae, "all these mainstream artists that incorporate the sound help move the genre forward," but artists who come from reggae originally can help give reggae an organic boost.

Reggae hasn't ever really had a breakout female solo star who originated in reggae and not another genre. To find a comparison, you'd have to go back to Spice, a Jamaican artist who never really took off stateside, or Lauryn Hill, who never did reggae exclusively (and is, admittedly, from New Jersey). For Koffee, the heir apparent to the reggae momentum and the female artist with the most potential to take off with staying power, and the other reggae stars to continue their ascent, they may need to creep over to other genres.

Distribution Channels and Genre Crossover

Of course, getting reggae artists to the next level relies on a concerted effort to distribute their music and images out there across all platforms. Shani Fuller-Tillman, vice president of urban marketing at RCA Records, is steering Koffee's rise from a promotion standpoint and having her cross over from her built-in audience to those from other genres of music.

"We've curated our marketing strategy to break Koffee into the U.S., by amplifying the existing foundation of fans that she's built here," she said. "This will be a transition from the core reggae U.S. scene to core R&B/hip-hop, then finally breaking through to mainstream. Our multitiered marketing plan will focus on digital marketing initiatives, inclusive of positioning on a social/influencer side, as well as playlisting on streaming music platforms, experiential/fan events and last but never least, radio."

Bobby Konders, famed Jamaican-born and New York–based reggae Hot 97 DJ who brought reggae mainstream through Massive B Soundsystem starting in the '80s, spins Koffee and other thriving reggae artists and says they're are finding synergy with each other to get a strategic boost.

"These artists all got a push from other artists, social media and great management, support by DJs globally, and proper placement of their songs — streaming sites' playlists etc.," Konders said. "Popcaan was linked with Vybz Kartel—then he did the song with Drake. Koffee got endorsed by Cocotea, then Chronixx. HoodCelebrityy got a push from Cardi B on social media."

And Skip Marley took off in 2017 as the featured artist on Katy Perry's "Chained to the Rhythm." Koffee and Chronixx collaborated with Justin Bieber and Ed Sheeran on the poppy summer-jam remix of "I Don't Care," a surefire way to extend their fanbase and enter the ears of those who otherwise might not get exposed to their music.

Amazon Music's One Love Party
Skip Marley, Stephen Marley, Koffee, Wyclef Jean and Melissa Etheridge perform onstage during Amazon Music's One Love Party at The 1 Hotel West Hollywood on January 23, 2020 in West Hollywood, CA. Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic for Amazon Music/Getty

Some social media endorsements may prove particularly valuable. In a viral Instagram video, Rihanna on her way to a Buju Banton concert in Barbados asks the driver to turn up Koffee's "Toast" as she sings along, a move that helped boost the Jamaican artist's profile.

Koffee could cement that valuable association by collaborating on Rihanna's R9, as she will, according to rumors that are swirling.

"To be honest, I haven't met [Rihanna] or spoken to her officially just yet," Koffee said at Miss Lilly's. "But we have spoken indirectly through our managers.… We have plans to connect and work together in the future. It could be [on R9]. Just no confirmations yet."

Would she sing and write lyrics for R9?

"I wouldn't mind doing both to be honest," Koffee said. "I have a few ideas. I can't specify just yet. I will hear [Rihanna's] side of what she wants her accomplishments to be. And then we can collaborate in a mutual way and work things out."

In addition to an attachment to a big star, reggae artists can wrest some of the market share from other artists by gravitating toward other genres can be a strategic way to reach more ears while maintaining a reggae soul. That's how discovery can happen more organically and then draw fans to other tracks.

"Reggae—dancehall has always been here," Konders said. "Pop and other artists have always taken a slice of it."

But the door is opening to more hybrid music. U.S. audiences are more genre agnostic, Protoje said, which is a boon for reggae.

"America is a fascinating market—it's so not genre based now, in my opinion," he said. "So a song like 'Toast' that is, I would say, the benchmark of crossover Jamaican music right now—it's not really traditional reggae music. It's just a blend. It's just consummated from Jamaica. It just has a Jamaican flavor on the song. It's kind of abstract. It's just great music. And it has been able to catch on. And that's where music is leaning towards now."

Reggae's popularity in the U.S. hinges on not being pigeon-holed, Protoje said.

"You're not saying, 'Oh, that's that or that's that,'" he added. "You're just saying, 'This is a dope song.' Even with hip-hop, you're not sure if it's rap or just pop or a blend.…Now I think everything is blending together."

That's something Koffee is mindful of in creating an album she's set to release by the end of the year—one that will feature a suite of international blue-chip artists.

"The album will be about diversity," she said. "It will be about exploration in the form of music. So not just doing one thing or sticking to one genre or one type of track but spreading my wings and trying different styles of music. But it will definitely show the different sides of me moving forward into my career. If different people from different places, especially artists, know that Koffee is able to do this or appreciate this kind of music, it will expand the possibilities of working with anyone anywhere."

Koffee plays guitar and is working on piano, cello, violin, and the steel pan, and she hopes to showcase a range of sounds to draw fans from other genres.

"I plan not to only be expressive creatively but to also be strategic in my music," she said. "By bringing in people from different genres, other artists will be able to understand, 'OK, Koffee's not afraid of trying this.' And people will able to appreciate their favorite kind of music in one song or two songs. And then they will become supporters of my music as a whole."

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Ross Kenneth Urken is an American journalist who has written for The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Paris Review, The Atlantic, VICE, Tablet, National Geographic, New York, Esquire, The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg Businessweek, Sports Illustrated, ESPN, The New Republic, Scientific American, the BBC, The Guardian, and Travel + Leisure. A graduate of Princeton University, he lives in Manhattan with his wife. He is the author of Another Mother.

Rising Teen Star Koffee Gives Reggae a Jolt to the Mainstream | Culture