Earlier today I was listening (again) to Jimmy Cliff’s brilliant album Rebirth, released last year. The record is a “comeback” of sorts, but it seems less a nostalgia show than an honest attempt by Cliff to demonstrate the continued importance of reggae music in the world today. Notable in this regard is his new song “Reggae Music,” which narrates the story if Cliff’s own development as a musician. The trick, though, is that Cliff’s autobiographical story is told as the story of reggae: his start in ska music, the move towards a more laid back rocksteady beat, and finally arriving at reggae proper. This is a rather interesting narrative technique, particularly for audiences whose experiences with reggae might be confined to (for example) Bob Marley’s Legend record.
There is some remarkable original material on Rebirth. In addition to “Reggae Music” (ironically, a song whose style is more readily identified as ska than reggae), there is the poignantly beautiful “Cry No More,” a wonderful encapsulation of Cliff’s vocal virtuosity; and there is the socially conscious protest song “Children’s Bread.” But the songs that continue to haunt my dreams are the album’s two covers: “Ruby Soho” (by Rebirth producer Tim Armstrong, of Rancid and Operation Ivy fame) and “Guns of Brixton” by the Clash.
The latter song seriously flexes my brain when I think about it. The song first appeared on the Clash’s 1979 album London Calling, and it was a complex statement about Britain’s postcolonial relationship with the West Indies and the social conflicts that resulted from the influx of Caribbean immigrants into the U.K. “Guns of Brixton” refers to the neighborhood of south London, traditionally home to a significant black population, and the site of gang and police violence. The song opens with part of its refrain, immediately referencing the violent conflicts between neighborhood residents and the police: “When they kick out your front door/how you gonna come?/With your hands above your head/or on the trigger of your gun?”
But the song hits its dramatic peak in the second verse: “You see he feels like Ivan/Born under the Brixton sun/His game is called surviving/At the end of The Harder They Come.” The song makes reference to the 1972 film about reggae star and gangster Ivanhoe Martin—a character based loosely on, and portrayed by, none other than Jimmy Cliff. The film is an iconic moment in Jamaican culture and reggae music, and it was largely responsible for spawning a global interest in reggae. This interest extended into Britain, of course, and provided the background for the racial clashes and conflicts over the “true” Britain in the 1970s. Ivanhoe is repositioned in the U.K. by the Clash, and Cliff’s noble gangster character was the centerpiece with which the British punk rockers declared their affinity for reggae and their stance against racism.
It is an amazing song, both in its original form and in the remake by Cliff. Still, the recursive loops here hurt my head a bit. Cliff singing a song by the Clash about a fictional reggae musician portrayed by Cliff? Cliff’s own social advocacy is well known, and this cover enhances his reputation as a musical activist. There is more truth in Ivanhoe Martin than we might have realized.by