For her first 16 years, Koffee’s life was an insular one that rarely took her outside of Spanish Town, a Jamaican city about 10 miles west of Kingston. “I lived there, and my school was there too, so I really didn’t travel out of there very much,” she says. “What was in my direct environment, and the feelings I experienced there, were what I translated into my lyrics.”
The past five years have been an entirely different matter. After first coming to the reggae world’s attention in 2018 when she made a brief but exciting appearance during veteran singer Cocoa Tea’s set at the Rebel Salute festival, Koffee (real name Mikayla Simpson) has become one of the most popular and hyped Jamaican artists in decades. Now 22, she’s earned a Grammy for her debut EP, a deal with Sony, a slot at the Coachella festival, and late-night TV appearances — all things that have eluded other reggae artists who have been recording for decades. And while many reggae acts spend years playing small venues while they build up their audience, Koffee’s first US headlining tour is taking her to large clubs like Big Night Live in Boston, where she appears on Monday night.
“When I started doing music, the way everything took off surprised us,” says Koffee, speaking on the phone from New York after performing on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.”
“We were pleasantly surprised, but we got super busy, very fast. In fact, when the pandemic hit, that would have been our first break. So although everything slowed down, we actually found some peace in it.”
Jamaica’s nighttime COVID curfew inspired “Lockdown,” one of the tracks on Koffee’s first full LP, “Gifted.” The album demonstrates Koffee’s lyrical bent toward songs with a positive, upbeat, and fun-loving vibe. Speaking of the title track, Koffee says that “if you are alive you have a gift. But everyone has a talent, something we’re good at, and it’s about remembering to celebrate that gift.”
While Koffee’s vocals could only be Jamaican, the music underneath adds to the long-running dialogue between Caribbean music, American R&B, and African music. There’s a heavy dose of Afrobeats, the West African rhythms frequently heard in Jamaican dancehalls. Koffee says her love of Afrobeats stems from hearing Nigerian Mr. Eazi’s “Skintight” around the same time she was checking out the catalogs of modern reggae stars Sizzla, Chronixx, and Protoje. Koffee also calls the far-less-known British lovers-rock singer John McLean a key influence. “I just love how relaxing his music is, and how it inspires love all around the world,” she says.
“One thing that is pretty clear about this project is that there are different sounds, there’s a mixture across the board,” says Koffee. “One of the things I tried to accomplish was accounting for all of my fans. I have had different sounding songs over the years, and I have some fans of [the 2018 song] ‘Raggamuffin’ who are not necessarily fans of ‘Lockdown,’ so I tried to mix it up so that each of my fans could find their specific little flavor.”
The Boston radio broadcaster known as Reggae Robin, who has been hosting the “Raggamuffin International” show on WZBC-FM for more than three decades, can only remember a handful of reggae artists who blew up as fast as Koffee — and none of them were female. “There’s a lot of talent in Jamaica, but they don’t always get noticed, and she was in the right place at the right time and had the talent and also the savvy, and it just kind of rolled from there,” she says. “It’s a hard road for women in reggae, which is a male-dominated genre. So a lot of women really fight to get that recognition.”
Asked about that struggle for women both inside and outside of reggae, Koffee says she hasn’t “experienced that specifically. Maybe I will, maybe I won’t. So I’m grateful, but also very aware that for other women [that challenge ] is very real.”
When the subject of women in reggae comes up, Koffee is quick to mention her adoration for Sister Nancy, whose 1982 “Bam Bam” has in recent years become ubiquitous everywhere from sporting events to hip-hop samples. That’s led to an increased profile for Sister Nancy, who plays Bill’s Bar in Boston June 26 along with pioneering Boston reggae artist Lady Lee.
“Sister Nancy, I love her style, I love her attitude, and the way she does her thing, and how years and years after she made her song, it’s still being sampled, so she can smile at that,” says Koffee.
As for Koffee’s own impact, it was seen in comments made last year by Shaneil Muir, a rising dancehall artist with several Jamaican hits and a May 21 show at Kay’s Oasis in Dorchester. When asked by a Jamaican TV interviewer about her goals, Muir said she was looking to follow the roadmap laid out by Koffee. “Koffee has won a Grammy at a tender age. When I look at that and see how young she is and how talented she is to be in that position, and to be rewarded for such hard work that she has done, I’m like I need to know what’s going on behind that business right there,” Muir said.
With Buju and GENRUS. At Big Night Live, May 9 at 8 p.m. www.bignightlive.com