Last spring, Koffee was looking forward to a pivotal year in her career. At 19 years old, she’d just won the Best Reggae Album Grammy for her 2019 EP, Rapture, making history as the first woman and the youngest artist ever to take home that award. Next up, she was slated to play Coachella in April 2020, finish recording her debut album, and perform for huge pop audiences in Mexico and South America as one of Harry Styles’ opening acts in the fall.
A year later, Koffee isn’t too disappointed about the way things turned out after stay-at-home directives kept her grounded in Jamaica instead. Thankfully, the island hasn’t been hit as hard by Covid-19 as many other countries have been, and her family and friends have been safe and protected. She got to spend time with them while finding other ways to stay creative, like learning how to play piano and sharpening her music-reading skills. Even though her timeline for recording an album was pushed back, that didn’t stop Koffee from sharing new music with the world — including the irrepressibly upbeat jam “Lockdown,” on which she looks forward to the joys awaiting us after the pandemic ends (“Where will we go/When the quarantine ting done and everybody touch road?”). “It’s been a spiritual kind of year,” she says over Zoom. “I’ve learned a lot.”
Born Mikayla Simpson in Spanish Town, Jamaica, Koffee describes her childhood as “sheltered.” Her mother is a Seventh-day Adventist, so Koffee grew up attending church weekly. “She always tried to keep me safe,” she says. As a kid, Koffee wasn’t very social, but knew she wanted to be a singer. Her love for music was born in the church choir, where she learned to sing. When she entered high school in Kingston, she considered pharmacology as her career. But her musical taste was beginning to change, shifting from gospel to a soulful, conscious brand of reggae that was beginning to gain popularity. Artists like Protoje, Chronixx, and Lila Iké inspired Koffee to teach herself how to play the guitar; the first song she learned was Protoje’s “This Is Not a Marijuana Song.”
At the time, Koffee’s connection to reggae felt different from her peers’ listening habits; their tastes were more mainstream, but the teenager felt deeply connected to the history and roots of the genre. “I took to reggae and just made my own path,” she says.
Her career began after she entered a singing competition by chance. Thinking it was a casual talent show, she signed up and performed a bit of music for her classmates. At the end of the day, she was brought to the school’s music room with four other students, who were told that they were auditioning against one another. The competition became a formative experience in teaching her how the industry works and how to self-promote, as she rallied votes through social media and learned how to perform onstage for the final show: “I was really, really nervous when I went out, but the crowd really responded, so that helped me to glide along the earth.”
Soon Koffee was writing her own songs, inspired by courses in poetry and literature that she was taking in school. The first one she ever wrote, “Legend,” ended up changing her life. Inspired by Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt, it became a viral hit once Bolt himself heard and then shared the song on his Instagram.
With “Legend” gaining traction, the singer took on an old childhood nickname as her stage name. Friends had been calling her “Coffee” since the time she brought a cup of coffee to school on an unusually hot September day, at age 12. (The “C” turned to a “K” to mirror the spelling of her given name, Mikayla.) She followed her first hit with the single “Burning,” in 2017, swiftly becoming an international success; her 2018 follow-up, “Raggamuffin,” earned her a deal with Columbia Records.
For her upcoming debut LP, Koffee wants to focus on the idea of unity. “I want to speak of a solution and of a way that we can come together and get along, even when things are going wrong,” she says. “Positivity is definitely a theme. It will be a very interesting twist for people who knew my music before, and also for people who will discover me. I think it will be really awesome.”