“Me? I’m just down to earth.” 18-year-old musician Mikayla “Koffee” Simpson may be small in stature and disarmingly unassuming but her modesty – and height – belies huge amounts of talent. The 5’0, self-described “sing-jay-guitarist” is one of the most exciting, forward thinking, globally focused teenage talents to emerge in 2018.
Born in Spanish Town, just outside of Kingston, Jamaica, Koffee was bought up alone by her hard working mother, her father having left for New York when Koffee was an infant. “Mummy struggled so I didn’t have to,” remembers Koffee. An occasional actress who works for the Ministry of Health and who gives sex education and body positivity talks to young people, Koffee’s mum sheltered her daughter from a lot of the violence that afflicted their community. “I was aware of curfews and shootings growing up but it wasn’t necessarily a reality for me because I didn’t experience anything directly,” she says. “I would hear about gunshots over in [neighbouring] Gordon Pen, but where I live, in Eltham View, it’s a mellow vibe. It’s a pretty friendly community, we know each other for the most part and we get along well.”
Though she was able to avoid explicit scenes of bloodshed, the socio-political problems that permeate parts of Jamaica have seeped into her music, helping to make Koffee the artist she is today. “With a lot of my music, it’s about entertaining people while highlighting problems in order to try and find a solution. I genuinely want to make the world a better place.”
Koffee – who got her name after ordering a coffee on a boiling hot day while everyone else opted for soda – began her musical life as a child in the church choir. Here, she learnt melody and harmony; at the age of 12, she taught herself guitar after a friend lent her his spare one. She began writing lyrics in her bedroom after being inspired by the reggae singer Protoje – just a few lines here and there, initially, a chorus or a verse. In 2016, she accidentally auditioned for her school talent show – and won. “They had a show in the cafeteria one day and people were going up to perform poems and songs. My friends encouraged me to go up and perform so I did and the place loved it. I had no idea it was an audition until my name got called over the intercom.”
Koffee’s following started to build and was further enhanced in 2017 when she jumped on Upsetta Records’ Ouji Riddim, made popular by Jamaican legends Busy Signal and Luciano. Her version was Burning, which you can hear being played all over Jamaica right now. Burning utilises a heavy bassline and features a beautifully hypnotic chorus. “Burning came from a disappointing experience,” remembers Koffee. “I applied for 6th Form but I didn’t get in and I felt really disappointed by that. So Burning was an inspiration to myself, to push myself forward to say, ‘You can’t let this out your flame’. Literally it was me parking a fire within myself to go forward and excel in something else, because education didn’t look like it was working out. I say ‘Me have a burning sound, me a burn the city down’; I meant, like, lighting a fire in Kingston, bringing that energy.”
She quickly caught the eye of those in the know; in January 2018, reggae hero Cocoa Tea bought Koffee onto the stage at Rebel Salute; her idol Protoje also asked her to perform with him, while Chronixx, one of the island’s biggest contemporary reggae stars, invited Koffee to join him on Seani B and Mistajam’s recent 1Xtra shows broadcast from Big Yard studios in Jamaica. Now Raggamuffin is lighting up Jamaican airwaves, with Koffee preparing her debut EP.
Describing herself as sitting somewhere between a singer, a rapper (known as a DJ in Jamaica) and a guitarist, Koffee’s current output has tended towards the more traditional Jamaican rhythms. But while reggae is on the agenda at the moment, Koffee intends to take in the many artists who have influenced her over the years, from Protoje and Super Cat to St Louis rapper Smino and UK Rap star Giggs. “I learn a lot from flows – when I listen to music, that’s what I’m tuned into, that’s what I want to continue to experiment with. I can see myself doing bashment, dancehall, everything.” The possibilities are endless for this talented songwriter and singjay-er. “I’m not going to limit myself. I see myself doing many things in the future, I’m not going to narrow myself to one thing. I want to try it all.”
Indeed, there are no restrictions to this teenager’s talents. This isn’t someone making music for “likes” and money; success holds much more weight to Koffee than followers and brand deals, accolades and awards. “I want to bring positive change to the world because I think the world needs that more than just individual success,” she points out. “My personal success could be ten cars and a big house but that doesn’t influence many people other than myself and the people around me who that benefit from that. I want to be a positive movement and make a positive movement, at the same time. I want to bring vibes and positive change. I want to impact the world.”Rapture won a Grammy Award at the 62nd Annual Grammy Awards, making Koffee the youngest person and only woman to be awarded in the Best Reggae Album category.