Koffee Made Grammy History, But There’s Far More to Celebrate
- Words: Ariel LeBeau
- Photography: Drew Escriva
FRONTPAGE is Highsnobiety’s weekly online cover story exploring the people, moments, and ideas shaping culture today. For the latest edition of our series, Koffee, fresh off a historic Grammy win, indicates what we can expect from her hugely-anticipated debut album.
Koffee is the first to tell you that her blessings are abundant. “Blessings all pon mi life,” she sings on her breakthrough single “Toast,” the buoyant dancehall earworm that has willed even greater blessings into existence for the young Jamaican singer/songwriter since its initial release in 2018 and reiteration on her debut EP Rapture, released last year. Although she doesn’t need anyone else to spell them out for her (and anyway, “We nuh rise and boast,” as the song says), some of those blessings have recently included: her first Grammy nomination and win (she became the youngest person and first ever woman to win Best Reggae Album), a successful first tour of North America supporting Daniel Caesar, performances lined up at Coachella this spring and with Harry Styles in the fall, impeccably stylish collaborations with the likes of Gunna and J Hus, a cosign from Rihanna, and, before the year is up, she’ll be dropping her debut album.
In an airy Los Angeles apartment with customarily bountiful plants and natural light, Koffee and I sit at a dining room table and discuss some of the ways life has changed for her over the past year. A wide, braces-tinged smile warms and brightens her face like one of the sunbeams saturating the room. “I’ve definitely gotten a lot busier than I used to be!” she says with pride. “I think I’ve fallen even more in love with music now.” It’s the Thursday before the 62nd Grammys, where Rapture will go on to a historic win for the 19-year old.
The next milestone on Koffee’s calendar is coming up in April, when she will play Coachella for the first time — the biggest solo performance of her career so far. Although nerves would be more than justified, she only expresses eagerness. “[I’m] excited. We’re really, really preparing. We’re going in,” she says. “This is why I do my music: so I can be recognized, and get to places like this, so I’m really happy.”
Koffee has a soft disposition, but she’s not shy. She emanates the ease of a veteran artist (as opposed to what you might expect from someone who began making music just a few years ago while still in high school) as well as the youthful vibrancy of a teenager whose appetite and energy are destined to attract excitement. If Koffee has fears or doubts, they are not apparent. But above all, she is incredibly humble; the composed demeanor of a woman with a real faith in who she is and who she will be.
Born Mikayla Simpson, Koffee grew up in Spanish Town, Jamaica, raised as an only child by an encouraging — albeit protective — mother. “I was somewhat of a sheltered child,” Koffee says. “[My mother] always tried to take care of me and make sure I was at home in the house, not getting in trouble.” They were active in the church, which is where Simpson’s relationship with music began. “Ever since I opened my eyes, I’ve always been going to church every week,” she tells me. “I learned music there. I fell in love with music there.”
“Ever since I opened my eyes, I’ve always been going to church every week. I learned music there. I fell in love with music there.”
Once she began attending high school in Kingston, city life broadened her creative horizons. “I started listening to reggae music while in high school, writing my lyrics, playing my guitar,” she says. Kingston’s music scene allowed her to connect with other artists and gain access to studios for the first time. “The whole Kingston scene added to my perspective of reggae music and helped me to be the artist I am today.” Koffee accredits her musicianship to a combination of influences from both Spanish Town and Kingston: “Half small town, half city.”
At the end of summer 2017, Koffee shared an original tribute song she penned for Usain Bolt titled “Legend,” a sweet acoustic recording that succinctly shows Koffee’s budding strength as a songwriter in just two minutes. The song nabbed the attention of Bolt himself — Koffee was ultimately invited to perform it at Bolt’s statue unveiling ceremony at Kingston’s National Stadium — and since then, one thing has swiftly led to another. Producers immediately emerged looking to collaborate, which gave way to Koffee’s debut single “Burning” just weeks later. She followed it up with “Raggamuffin,” “Toast,” and, ultimately, the full five-song Rapture EP, which garnered such fans as Barack Obama, Jordan Peele, and Lil Uzi Vert, among others.
The fluidity with which each milestone has led to the next tells Koffee what she needs to know. “When I realized that it [has been] non-stop, I realized that this must be for me,” she says. “No breaks. It just keeps going and growing. So therefore this must be my journey, my purpose.” That deference to natural momentum is validated by the strength of each offering; every song improves upon the range of the last one. She imagines sticky melodies and invigorating flows, raps with as much agility as any MC on the Billboard Hot 100, and her lyrics show the acuity of a writer in touch with her voice.
Koffee’s path is materializing quickly, but with precision. Rather than fall prey to the industry’s fickle machinations that enthrone stars as quickly as they forget them, her aspirations are in service of sustainability. Koffee appears to instinctively understand the value of staying grounded and building a sturdy foundation. She’s not in any rush.
“It just keeps going and growing. So therefore this must be my journey, my purpose.”
While some young artists might celebrate such successes as Koffee’s in more materially lavish ways, her immediate impulse is to give back. Last year, in between stints on the Daniel Caesar tour, she embarked on the first leg of what she dubbed the “Haffi Mek It” tour, on which she performed for students at a number of high schools in Jamaica and Antigua. The idea was helmed by Koffee’s manager, Tammi Chang, who runs the Mentoring and Training Leaders For Tomorrow Program, which is an extension of her non-profit organization Families Rule. “I’m happy to be a part of her vision, of something so good. And it’s something that I’ve always wanted to do,” Koffee says of the work Chang does through her program to educate and empower students interested in the arts.
“I think now is a perfect moment for me to engage with the youth, in schools especially,” she continues. “I feel like it’s important for me to do it while I’m still close in age to them, because they’re relating to me. They’ll listen to me, cause they feel like I know what they’re going through.” Koffee and her team plan to bring the tour to the United States and United Kingdom eventually — “We plan to take it worldwide” — but visiting the rest of the Caribbean is their first priority.
Koffee’s engagement with her community and interest in humanitarian work likens her to another Caribbean artist who, incidentally, got her start at the same age Koffee did: Rihanna. Fans have been calling for a collaboration between the two ever since a video circulated of the Bad Gal jamming to “Toast” during a visit to Jamaica last year, and it was reported soon after that Koffee had been tapped to write for the superstar’s maniacally-anticipated 9th album. Koffee explains that, although they have been in touch, she and RiRi haven’t linked up in person just yet. “I’m looking forward to meeting her and being in the studio with her,” Koffee says. Along with feeling connected via their island roots, the singer admires Rihanna for her down-to-earth spirit, creativity, and business acumen: “She’s really a go-getter. I like that she goes for what she wants and she’s successful at it.”
Koffee has her sights set on other collaborators as well. “I’ve been tuning in to the Afrobeat scene for a while now,” she says, mentioning that she would love to work with Burna Boy and Rema. “I’ve met Kendrick Lamar and I hope to work with him in the studio as well,” she adds.
It’s exceedingly easy to root for Koffee and to believe in the good fortune she’s manifesting for herself; a wealth that is spiritual as much as it is vocational. She has a true gift, adorned with a ribbon of gratitude that runs throughout the music and beyond. The positivity she evokes is not a ploy, nor does it ever infantilize; an organic desire to give thanks and to give back is simply in Koffee’s code, and a natural part of her process. “It’s always been in my nature,” she says. “But I do still make it a conscious decision, because you have to know what you believe in and know what you stand for.”
It’s improbable that Koffee will lose sight of herself or her values as her star continues to rise, but she admits that she has challenging days, just like anyone else. In the moments when levity eludes her, Koffee knows where to turn: “My mom is a huge encouragement and inspiration for me, so sometimes when I’m feeling down, I speak to her and she helps me to lift my spirit.” She also remembers to look ahead: “I try to think of the ultimate reason why I do the things I do; the impact that it will make, ultimately, in the future,” she explains. “I try to think of those things to keep me going now, so that later on, I will see that my hard work [has] paid off.”
At a time when the idea of optimism — and art that leans heavily on it — can often feel phony at best or be repressive at worst, it gets tempting to abandon it altogether. Koffee’s music, spirit, and mounting pile of wins are each a warm invitation to stay and let some light in.
- Words: Ariel LeBeau
- Photography: Drew Escriva
- Styling: Karolyn Pho
- Producer: Klaudia Podsiadlo
- Hair & Makeup: Nadia Braz
- Photography Assistant: Ryann Snook
- Casting: Kegan Webb