Koffee photographed by Lindsay Ellary for W Magazine.
Last Sunday in Los Angeles, the 19-year-old Jamaican musician Koffee was called to the Grammy stage. She approached the podium in a Thom Browne three-piece suit and flashed the crowd the smile of someone who just made music history. As she accepted her award for Best Reggae Album, both her silver braces and golden Gramophone shimmered in the spotlight. She is the first female artist to win the category, and its youngest victor to date. After thanking her accomplished contenders (including Julian Marley), she said: “This one is for all of us. This one is for reggae. This one is for Jamaica.”
Just 3 years ago, Koffee was Mikayla Simpson of Spanish Town, Jamaica: a high school student who dreamt of becoming a pharmacist. Raised by a single mother, Koffee had a quiet and sheltered upbringing. “It’s so strange. I used to walk by the same people every day and literally nobody knew me,” she tells me, speaking on the phone a few days after her win and a few hours before a trip to the orthodontist to get her braces tightened. Now, as one of the most potent cultural exports from Jamaica in recent decades, her presence on the island rarely goes unnoticed. “I’ve been handling what’s been thrown at me fairly well, I’d say. A lot of things are new to me, but I’m slowly but surely grasping my new life as an artist.”
In her short tenure, Koffee has established herself as an atypical star. The modest singer, who dresses in refreshingly practical and comfortable unisex looks (not unlike fellow Grammy sweeper, Billie Eilish), is directing all attention to her music and to celebrating her home country. “I want people to know that Jamaica is filled with youngsters with a lot of potential. Smart people who are talented across all boundaries: musically, artistically, athletically,” she says. “It’s an honor to have the opportunity and platform to elevate my country and inspire and empower my people.”
Koffee’s interest in music began with her faith. The self proclaimed “singjay” joined the church choir early in life, where she regularly expressed her devotion in the form of song. The self-starter soon branched out on her own. By 12, she taught herself how to play the guitar, and by 14, was writing rhymes. She got a major bump in 2017, when she posted a video of herself performing a song she wrote called “Legend,” an ode to record-breaking Jamaican Olympian Usain Bolt. When the sprinter shared it with his millions of followers, the digital world was taken aback by her bewitching voice and raw talent. The viral hit soon propelled her into the reggae world.
Things swiftly progressed, as Koffee’s musical heroes Protoje and Chronixx took her under their wings. After releasing the song “Burning” in 2018, she was offered a record deal with Columbia. In 2019, Koffee released not one but two hit singles: “Toast” and “W,” before unleashing her full EP, Rapture. The EP opens with an apt prophecy: “Koffee come in like a rapture/and everybody get capture/ Place lift up like a helicopter/When dem see di lyrical doctor.” As predicted, it wasn’t long before she was called a “sensation,” “icon,” “the voice of a generation” and the “future of reggae.”
While we can thank Anti-era Rihanna and “Passionfruit” papi Drake for warming the American market up to dancehall and reggae-infused pop, Koffee’s music is, rather, pop-infused reggae. Her songs update the genre’s signature sound with dancehall beats and infectious appeal, though her lyrics stay true to the genre’s socially conscious roots. It’s clear Koffee was conditioned on the power and passion of spiritual music. Her dedication to writing about gratitude, hope, positivity, and injustice is as authentic and undeniable as her star power.
Early on, Koffee expressed doubts as to whether reggae fans would embrace her distinctly modern take on reggae. But after the explosive success of Rapture, she’s more certain of her artistic identity. “I’m much more confident now with the way I approach music. I’m more comfortable expressing myself and trusting that people will receive my music the way they should,” she says.
Success in the internet age can be overwhelmingly immediate and often comes at a high price. When asked what she finds most difficult about fame, she boiled it down to one grievance: privacy. “Sometimes I would like to just do my thing and not have anyone know or care about it. But obviously people are concerned, interested, or curious, so I have to make a compromise.”
More rapid change is on the horizon for Koffee. While professed Koffee converts already include the Obamas, Lil Uzi Vert and Jordan Peele, who gave a nod to “Toast” in Us, more are sure to come. Last November, she announced she would accompany Harry Styles on the North American leg of his “Love On” Tour. She’ll perform on stage at Coachella in April.
New music is also on the horizon. “I think I’m even more nervous and excited than I was about Rapture, because this is a full-length album,” she says. “It’s a much bigger statement, so it’s like, ‘Wow, I need to get it right!'” When asked if listeners can “get excited” about her rumored collaboration with Rihanna, she laughed. “To be honest, I can’t really say much about it. But why shouldn’t you be excited about it?”
Top 40 hits are often tales of financial gain, sexual conquest, or revenge, which makes Koffee feel all the more vital a protagonist in this dystopian political landscape. Her ability to convey pure, wholesome messages in a sound that moves mainstream audiences—without seeming didactic—is exceptionally rare. Judging by her success in the past 3 years, it’s not outlandish to think that Koffee could one day be as big as Bob Marley. It’s only a matter of time before the rest of the world wakes up to the musical rapture.