The first major international ambassadors of reggae music were actually a man and a movie. The man was Jimmy Cliff and the movie was ‘The Harder They Come’.
The historical fact about this movie that a lot of people, even some reggae fans, don’t know that this movie and its star Jimmy Cliff were what really introduced reggae to an international audience. The movie was released in 1972 and it along with its main star took reggae to an international audience. In fact, Jimmy Cliff was really the first international pioneer of reggae music before Bob Marley.
Jimmy Cliff had three big hit songs on the soundtrack for the movie. He had the title track along with “Sitting in Limbo” and “Many rivers to cross”. As the movie was being shown to good response around the world, especially the United States and Europe, Jimmy Cliff was also touring and performing his hit songs. College students and hippies were being introduced to Jamaican culture and a musical genre called reggae from the tiny island.
Jimmy Cliff, made a very disastrous move in his career however. While spreading reggae worldwide, Jimmy Cliff decided to perform in apartheid South Africa. That was at a time when Blacks all over the world were calling for boycott against the apartheid regime. The decision proved detrimental for Cliff, the negative backlash was huge and Cliff’s career came spiraling down. Soon after his contract with Island Record’s terminated, Chris Blackwell signed Bob Marley and The Wailers and the rest is history.
Years later, Jimmy cliff has had no regret for his apartheid supporting decision. In fact, when asked recently about some of his favorite career moments, Cliff responded:
The time I went to South Africa. It was during the apartheid years, and I played in Soweto, I played in Durban, I played in Cape Town, and it was the first time people of all races came to that concert, particularly the one in Soweto. So that was a part of the beginning of breaking down the apartheid system. I met Nelson Mandela once, and he said that we in Jamaica with our music had helped to overthrow apartheid!
Whether or not Jimmy Cliff’s tour of apartheid South Africa helped in overthrowing apartheid, that’s debatable. What is not, debatable, however, is the fact that Jimmy Cliff, the movie ‘The harder they come” and the soundtrack for the movie, are the first pioneers and ambassadors of reggae music.