A wave of new talent is bringing a jolt of energy to reggae culture. Names such as Royal Blu, Lila Ike and Runkus have been making noise with major hits, but leading the pack is 19-year-old sensation Mikayla “Koffee” Simpson. Born and raised in Spanish Town, Jamaica, she counts icon Bob Marley as an important influence. After quietly writing songs for years, in 2017 Koffee released “Legend,” a tribute to track-and-field superstar Usain Bolt, one of the island’s favorite sons.
The song went viral, earning the artist props and cosigns from veteran musician Cocoa Tea and fellow young stars Chronixx and Protoje. The 5-foot-tall singer’s ultra-infectious single “Toast” has garnered accolades from fans across the globe, including the former First Couple Barack and Michelle Obama. They had the song on repeat all summer. Rapture, her EP, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard reggae charts, making her the youngest female artist to accomplish this feat. “For Cocoa Tea and others to bring me out [at Jamaica’s annual Rebel Salute music festival] was a huge opportunity for me to be saluted by a great artist and featured on an amazing platform,” says Koffee during a break from touring with Canadian-based entertainer Daniel Caesar.
“For reggae, this means we don’t see a generational or gender gap but only unity in the music regardless of these things.” The industry’s acceptance of Koffee has been gratifying in part because of how infrequently women have been championed inside and outside of the business. In the 38 years since the Grammy Awards established the Best Reggae Album category, there have only been four female nominees: Judy Mowatt for Working Wonders in 1986, Rita Marley with We Must Carry On in 1992, Sister Carol for Lyrically Potent in 1997 and Etana with Reggae Forever this year.
Everybody contributes to reggae differently. I will offer as many positive messages to the youth as I can.” – Mikayla “Koffee” Simpson
None of them went on to collect the grand prize. “I think it is refreshing for a lot of people to see a woman stepping up and showing that it’s possible to do things that are typically male-dominated,” Koffee reflects. “I think the mere thought that it’s uncommon is what a lot of people are thrilled about.” While studying at Ardenne High School in Kingston, Jamaica, 14-year-old Koffee wrote lyrics in her downtime. Her mother wouldn’t learn about her daughter’s secret passion for another two years.
“She already knew what I was capable of by the time I said, ‘Look, Mommy, this is what I want to do,’ because I’d already built that confidence in myself,” Koffee says. The rising star’s gratitude-fueled sound is further proof she’s driving modern roots reggae forward into the history books. “Everybody contributes to reggae differently,” she notes, “and I will offer as many positive messages to the youth as I can. I only hope that other artists will also play their part.”
This interview originally appeared in the November 2019 issue of ESSENCE magazine, available on newsstands now.