“Cocoa Tea” is a popular Caribbean drink, but music fans know it’s also the name of one of reggae’s sweetest singers and best live performers. After more than four decades in music, Cocoa Tea is an uncompromising reggae legend. A worldly citizen-activist, his music has consistently advocated the upliftment of the poor, relief for the downpressed, for love, and for clean, conscious living rooted in the teachings of Marcus Garvey and Haile Selassie I, the Emperor of Ethiopia from 1930-1974.
It is a lingering stain on the persons and entities charged with celebrating and promoting Jamaican music and cultural heroes that Cocoa Tea – and so many other foundational Jamaican musicians, too – have not received official recognition from the Jamaican government for their many multi-faceted contributions to reggae, and by extension via reggae’s massive global influence, to virtually all popular music genres.
On May 5, for over forty minutes at the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach, California, I was honored and blessed to speak about this subject with Cocoa Tea. Also we spoke about his new Coco Robics line of athletic clothing and the related tour he’s on; Rastafari; valuable lessons he learned as a fisherman and horse jockey; the inspiration behind his international chart-topping song “Rikers Island”; his new album coming out with Walshy Fire, and much, much more. What follows is a transcript of the interview, modified only slightly for clarity and space considerations.
Q: Great show!
Cocoa Tea: Yeah man, give thanks!
Q: Your performances are always so energetic. The crowd responds to you so well – and they loved you tonight. Anyone who hears you sing wants to dance. The joy and the love that you bring to the music is infectious. And you have this new song that generated this tour –
Cocoa Tea: “Coco Robics.” Yes.
Q: You really had the crowd sweating to that song tonight!
Cocoa Tea: Yeah. (laughing)
Q: And this is also a new clothing line?
Cocoa Tea: Right.
Q: Now I know you’ve always been a sportsman and into fitness. You run several miles a day –
Cocoa Tea: Definitely.
Q: But why did you write this song? How did the idea for “Coco Robics” come to you?
Cocoa Tea: The first time I was on tour with [Booking Agent/Tour Manager] Robby [Oyugi], I was out here last year in California. And after we started performing the energy was so high that the people are saying to me: “Cocoa, you have to do something about this fitness. ‘Cause we have seen a lot of performers come through. And ain’t nobody [else] have us feeling this type of way – this type of energy, man.” And I was saying to [these] people, well I run ten miles in the morning, you know? It’s my pleasure to be fit. Because when you’re out there on the stage, you want the audience to be feeling and you want them to be interacting with you. Yeah so we were doing this last year. We started calling it “Reggae Robics.” But when we tried to trademark it –
Q: That name was [taken]?
Cocoa Tea: Yeah, so we had to change it.
Q: But “Coco Robics” is more natural anyway.
Cocoa Tea: (Laughing) Right. It’s more natural; it’s me.
Q: In August of last year, the Gleaner reported on a study showing a massive increase in obesity in boys and girls in Jamaica. And when I interviewed Sister Carol last year at the first ever L.A. Reggae Vegan Festival, she said it’s not just the food but also a lack of exercise, physical activity, and not being outdoors due to an addiction to technology. And I wondered whether this new focus on fitness that you have [in your music] is due to your concern about this issue in Jamaica –
Cocoa Tea: Definitely! And not just in Jamaica, but around the world. Take for instance a little kid growing up right now: They want to be inside. Playing the PlayStation. And they never want go outside and focus on energy. When we was little kids, we always play. So look at me right now. I’m still weighing 125 pounds.
Q: I don’t know how you do it, Cocoa.
Cocoa Tea: (Laughing) See what I’m saying. I try to eat the best, healthiest way I can. I try to drink a lot of water. I try to get rest. And I do a lot of exercise.
Q: Even when you’re on tour, right?
Cocoa Tea: Even when I’m on tour. It’s the same. I find a way to do it. You are what you eat and the way you live.
Q: Cocoa, you’ve always been a very sporty and snappy dresser throughout your career –
Cocoa Tea: Yeah.
Q: Are you personally involved in the design of this new line of Coco Robics clothing? Are you consulting –
Cocoa Tea: Definitely. Definitely.
Q: Now I know you have clothing for women, but [at some point soon] there’ll also be clothes for men and children too?
Cocoa Tea: Yeah.
Q: Where is this clothing line being made?
Cocoa Tea: They’re made in China. We do the design and send them to the manufacturer. And they build them and send them [back].
Q: If [Coco Robics] becomes a “thing” and you stick with it, do you think someday you could manufacture Coco Robics in Jamaica?
Cocoa Tea: I would like to. But we have to start from somewhere. And I mean there [are] so many red tapes in doing things in Jamaica that you have to be outsourcing right now. But I think hopefully in the future I would like to do it in Jamaica and get a lot of people employed and things like that.
Q: Where can folks purchase Coco Robics?
Q: And is it accurate you’re also making a video for this?
Cocoa Tea: The video is already made. It will be released very soon.
Q: Now although you’ve been interviewed many times, there are a few basic questions about your background and coming of age I couldn’t find the answers to. I know you’re from Rocky Point, Clarendon, and that that’s a small town on Jamaica’s southern coast, right?
Cocoa Tea: Yes. It’s a small fishing village.
Q: You have many times told the story about how you recorded your first song at age 14, “Searching in the Hills,” for Willie Francis. And that was as a result of your connections with a [singing] group called “The Rockydonians.”
Cocoa Tea: Definitely.
Q: And you actually left school and moved to Kingston and lived with Willie Francis. And you did this at the age of 14.
Cocoa Tea: Right.
Q: And you tried to make it for a long time in music, but it didn’t happen.
Cocoa Tea: It didn’t happen.
Q: I read somewhere that your father had left for the United States. So was it your mom who was raising you primarily?
Cocoa Tea: Definitely. My mom alone. My mom was a single mom.
Q: Me too.
Cocoa Tea: She passed last year, and now, I’m still, I’m still – I just can’t get over the feeling. The day when I saw my mother go into the grave that’s [when] I [understood] people really die.
Q: Yeah. Respect. I saw tonight even when you were singing and talking about Mother’s Day there was a lot of emotion –
Cocoa Tea: I’m telling you man, when I lost my mom last year, I just cannot get over the feeling.
Q: How did your mom support you when you were growing up?
Cocoa Tea: She was a domestic helper.
Q: In the resorts?
Cocoa Tea: No. Like [in the] neighborhoods and things like that. She did everything to support me.
Q: You’ve often said you began singing in church. Were you raised in a strictly Christian household?
Cocoa Tea: Definitely.
Q: And [at] what age approximately did you discover Rastafari?
Cocoa Tea: I discovered Rastafari from about 1980. I’ve always been around Rasta people, but I used to go to church. But when I used to go to church, the thing that draw me to Rastafari – the difference is when I go to church and some people [said], “Let us go to the Nyabinghi.” And so we go to the Nyabinghi. There is a thing in the church called “Harvest” where everybody brings something to the church. And they would take those things and they would sell it to other people. They said they were selling it to support the church. [But] [w]hen I go to the Nyabinghi, everybody bring things and just share it with everybody. Nothing was sold. So I said this is the livity I like –
Q: That spoke to you.
Cocoa Tea: Yeah. It awoke something in me. And I said this is the kind of livity I would like, you know?
Q: Respect. Was it just going to the Nyabinghi or were there also particular people who led you in the direction of Rastafari? People who influenced you –
Cocoa Tea: Yes. Because I had a cousin called “Rasta Doctor.”
Q: Rasta Doctor?
Cocoa Tea: Yeah they call him “Ras Dockie.” And he really liked me because we used to go fishing together and things like that in Rocky Point. He was one of the top fishermen in Rocky Point.
Q: You’ve done many interviews. But in 2007 you did an interview with “Rebel Base” in Belgium.
Cocoa Tea: Right.
Q: And you said: Being a Rasta “means more than everything else in the world because without Rastafari, I probably would have been a gunman.”
Cocoa Tea: Exactly (laughing).
Q: And when I read that that was moving to me and I wanted to ask: Do you think if Rastafari history and livity were taught more in Jamaican schools and promoted more in Jamaican society, that there would be less gunmen, and as a result, less violence and less crime in Jamaica?
Cocoa Tea: Oh yes. Absolutely. Without any doubt.
Q: And maybe the answer to this is too hard or too obvious, or both, but: Why isn’t it? Why won’t the government and society – the uptown people in Jamaica – if they realize that Rasta livity would promote peace, why wouldn’t they promote that in the schools? And educate the children about Leonard Percival [Howell] and all these things.
Cocoa Tea: Well there’s a two-prong answer to that question. First, the government – any government, not just the Jamaican government – any government in the world, they are the ones that benefit from the crime. They are the ones mak[ing] money from the courthouse. And all of the money that benefits from the proceeds of crime. The Bible – alright, they give us the Bible as our guidance to life. And the Bible says, if a man should steal from you, that man is supposed to pay you seven-fold. That means he’s supposed to give you back seven times the [amount of] things he stole from you. Now the government of the world make[s] a different law. And they would say [if] a man steals from you, [then] lock him up and take him to the courthouse. And then they charge him. Say the judge fines that man one hundred dollars. The government takes that hundred dollars and tells [you], you have to go sue the man a-courthouse. That’s not justice. How is that justice? He never stole anything from the government.
Q: Right. So why do they profit?
Cocoa Tea: (Laughing) The [government] is making profit from the proceeds of the crime. Now in terms of the “uptown people” and those type[s] of people. They are the ones that own the funeral parlors and all these things. Most of them are the lawyers. And the judges. And how do they get paid? Through the courts and the proceeds of crime. So there’s a two-prong answer to the question. Now if you say that outright, ‘nuff people would be upset about it. I’ve got a daughter and a son who are lawyers.
Q: In Jamaica?
Cocoa Tea: My daughter –
Q: First, respect and congratulations also!
Cocoa Tea: (Laughing) Yeah, give thanks. My daughter graduated from Norman Manley law school. She went [first] to the University of the West Indies. And then she went to the University of London law school. And graduated from Norman Manley law school. But she is now living in Toronto. My son, he went to Humber University – Humber College in Toronto. And he became a paralegal. But not one day did he work as a paralegal because he’s [working] with Apple right now. So I’m telling you this from the perspective of someone who has lawyers in his family. Still I wouldn’t have to tell you no lie. Because I have to speak the truth. These people benefit from the proceeds of crime. (Laughing)
Q: So they’re not trying to fix it anytime soon?
Cocoa Tea: (Laughing) They’re not gonna want it to be fixed.
Q: Did your mom immediately accept your decision to follow Rastafari?
Cocoa Tea: Nah (Laughing).
Q: Did you fuss with her about it?
Cocoa Tea: No. She told me: never come to my house.
Cocoa Tea: Most youths who become Rasta in Jamaica have a problem with that. Your mom will not accept [it]. Your dad will not accept you.
Q: Did there come a time though later where she did accept it?
Cocoa Tea: Yeah, later they’re gonna accept you. But for them it’s so odd to not hear you saying “Jesus.” ‘Cause these people want you to be saying “Jesus.”
Q: And what about your decision when you were 14 years old to go to Kingston? Was your mom supportive of that? Or did she question your decision?
Cocoa Tea: She questioned my decision.
Q: But you went anyway?
Cocoa Tea: I want anyway because that’s where my talent led me, you know what I mean?
Q: Cocoa Tea, many of your fans know you didn’t break into the music business right away. That it took some time.
Cocoa Tea: Right.
Q: Before you hooked up with [now-deceased producer Henry] “Junjo” Lawes, you worked both as a fisherman and, at the Caymanas Park, as a jockey.
Cocoa Tea: Right.
Q: Now a big fan of yours in the San Francisco Bay area, she goes by the name Nicki or Nicola, she said on social media I should ask you about your horse jockey days. And what I most want to know about that is: Are there any lessons or important things that were later valuable for you in the music business that you learned from all this time you spent in the stables and with the horses?
Cocoa Tea: Definitely.
Q: What are some of the[se] things?
Cocoa Tea: The first thing that comes to mind is, when I want to the racetrack, it’s the first time I learned how to sleep outside.
Q: Oh. Wow. Why did you have to do that?
Cocoa Tea: Because whenever it’s gonna be a race day, there are always people who want to come inside to do something to the horses. So –
Q: So you have to keep guard of the horses?
Cocoa Tea: (Nodding) So we have to sleep outside with the horses. We have to sleep at the horses’ stall door. That taught me how to sleep outside. I’d never slept outside in my life. It taught me to be strong. To be tough. It taught me toughness. So when I went to Kingston and start to work with Junjo Lawes, I used to sleep on sound boxes in the dancehall.
Q: It didn’t matter to you?
Cocoa Tea: It didn’t matter to me because I was used to it.
Q: Because I know that you have raised horses, and I believe you still own some horses –
Cocoa Tea: Yes, I still breed horses.
Q: Did you watch the Kentucky Derby yesterday?
Cocoa Tea: (Shaking head) Boy. I’m so upset. I’m so sad about it.
Q: What did you think about that?
Cocoa Tea: For real? The winner made a lot of mistakes – made some mistakes.
Q: Do you think he should have been disqualified?
Cocoa Tea: I don’t think he should have been disqualified, and I’m gonna tell you the reason why. Even though jockeys make mistakes. Mistakes happen in a race. But they’re young horses. A three-year-old. Now there’s no human being on the face of this earth that can control a horse. Those horses a-weigh 2,000 [pounds]. How can a man weighing 115 [or] 110 control a horse that weighs [so much]?
Q: It’s the first time in history that [there was a disqualification at the Kentucky Derby]. Now people are going to see this interview and they’re gonna want to know: Did you lose money on the race?
Cocoa Tea: No, I didn’t lose money on the race. But at the same time I felt it for the owners because those people have been breeding the horse for so long and spending so much money. And it’s the first time they [won] the Kentucky Derby. Now last year I won 1,000 guineas. That’s my first classic race I’ve won.
Q: In Jamaica?
Cocoa Tea: In Jamaica. After breeding horses for so many years. And owning horses.
Q: Where is that race held in Jamaica?
Cocoa Tea: Caymanas Park. In Portmore. St. Catherine.
Cocoa Tea: Yeah I won the thousand guineas last year with a horse named “Disability Charm.” And I just wonder how I would have felt to know that [I lost] my first classic due to disqualif[ication]. That I lost it that way (Laughing). So, I think, at the same, it’s the right decision. I’m saying it’s the right decision though because the horse really did [interfere]. What I felt bad about is the jockey that object, there was no interference caused to that jockey. So I don’t think that [particular] jockey should have won.
Q: Because we mentioned fishing, there’s another guy who’s a big fan of yours, his name is Donald King. And he said I have to ask you: Do you still go deep sea fishing?
Cocoa Tea: Of course! I still go fishing. I take [a] boat. I live in South Florida. And I take the boat, [and] go down to Miami beach. And I would pay like one hundred dollars. And they will give you line and fish and bait and all those things. And a lot of people come on the boat. And I still go fishing.
Q: Since I asked about lessons learned from horse racing, might as well ask you [the same] about fishing.
Cocoa Tea: Yes. It’s the same thing. It teaches [you] to be tough.
Q: Patience too?
Cocoa Tea: And patience because, when you’re out there fishing, you have to know when a fish bite on your line. There’s a lot of people who go out there and never catch a fish – the fish [takes] away all of the bait. So the first thing you have to know is, you have to be able to feel when the fish is nibbling at the line. Cause some fish, the bigger fish, will come and grab the line like this (gesturing). But a smaller fish will just nibble. So you have to be able to identify when they’re doing that.
Q: I’m one of those people who’re gonna need help from you –
Cocoa Tea: (Laughing) Yeah. You got to be able to identify that [when the fish are nibbling]. So you will be out there all day, and they’ll take all your bait, and you’ll never catch a fish. (Laughing)
Q: (Laughing) I’ve been through that. Since I have this chance – you have so many famous songs. You sang many of them tonight. And there are just a few questions I want to ask about them. You sang the song “Rikers Island.” And that became the title track to one of your very successful albums. In 2011, you told the Gleaner’s Mel Cooke there’s no way you can do a set without “Rikers Island” in it.
Cocoa Tea: Never. Never.
Q: And you said that song was a real break for you because it was how most people in America got to know Cocoa Tea?
Cocoa Tea: Exactly. Most definitely.
Q: Now, of course, “Rikers Island” is a cautionary tune. You’re basically doling out advice to fresh arrivals in New York: Don’t mess around. Get a job and stay away from crime – or you’ll find yourself on “Rikers Island” [and] doing ‘nuff time upstate. What was it that sparked [you to write “Rikers Island”?] I know you had moved to New York after your early success with Junjo Lawes –
Cocoa Tea: Yes, yes.
Q: But why did you decide to write the song “Rikers Island”? How did it come to you?
Cocoa Tea: Well in those times, I don’t know if you remember, there was a thing called a “Shower Posse.” And another posse called the “Spangler Posse.” And all those guys were firing a lot of gunshots and dealing in drugs.
Q: In New York?
Cocoa Tea: In New York City between [the] Bronx and Brooklyn. The first time I went to the United States they were the ones who brought up Junjo Lawes from [the] Volcano [sound system in Jamaica]. I went to New York, my first trip ever. And I used to be around a lot of these guys. See [their] kind of living and knew that, as a person who really cared for some of those guys – ‘cause some of them are very good people dem – you know? And these people find themselves caught up –
Q: In the street life?
Cocoa Tea: Right, in the street life. And I just wanted to give them some idea[s]. Like be careful, you know? ‘Cause I was seeing a lot of them going to prison and jail and things like that.
Q: And Rikers Island is a terrible place. They’re still trying to shut it down.
Cocoa Tea: Terrible place. I never been there, but I heard about it. And I read about Rikers Island. And I read about Alcatraz and all those places. So I was saying to myself, what can I do you know, to make a difference?
Q: You sang that song [“Rikers Island”] at the Apollo theatre in Harlem. Do you still remember that performance?
Cocoa Tea: How could I not? Remember, the Apollo theatre is one of the iconic [venues] in America. If an artist is from Jamaica, and you have never performed in the Apollo theater, you haven’t made it. You haven’t made it.
Q: Do you remember the other entertainers at the Apollo with you that night?
Cocoa Tea: Yeah it was Shabba Ranks, Home-T and these [other] guys.
Q: Another song of yours that’s known all over the world is your song about (and named for) former [U.S.] President Barack Obama. Did you ever get a chance to meet Barack Obama and find out what he thought about the song?
Cocoa Tea: (Laughing) Never, never.
Q: In an interview you did in 2014 on WETVHD, you seemed to express some regret about that [“Barack Obama”] song.
Cocoa Tea: Yes.
Q: You noted that Barack didn’t end the military conflicts the U.S. was [embroiled] in, and you said “politicians always let you down.” That they are “no good to I and I.” And, that: “People have to stand up for themselves.” You also said in that same  interview that Marcus Garvey is your “real national hero.”
Cocoa Tea: Definitely.
Q: Marcus Garvey’s family petitioned the Obama administration to pardon Marcus Garvey. I wrote an article about this, before Barack Obama left office, urging him just like [Garvey’s] family did, to pardon [Marcus Garvey posthumously] because of the outrageous and unjust felony mail fraud convictions Marcus Garvey picked up in the United States. For which he did time [in prison for] in the U.S. And then was deported for. Convictions that were later proven to be the result of a racist prosecution and bias by the FBI director at the time, J. Edgar Hoover.
Cocoa Tea: Exactly!
Q: Were you disappointed that Obama didn’t issue a pardon to Garvey before leaving office when he could have?
Cocoa Tea: Most definitely.
Q: Can you think of any reason why he wouldn’t have done that?
Cocoa Tea: I don’t know. Because the system works in a different way in every [part] of the world. If I could do it again, live my life over, I would never do a song like [“Barack Obama”].
Q: Do you think that Donald Trump – who has not been shy about handing out pardons to people alive or dead – that he should consider issuing a pardon to Marcus Garvey?
Cocoa Tea: I think he should. As a matter of fact, one of [Trump’s] guys, a guy called Roger Stone? He’s a man I heard make remarks one time. Somebody asked him, “Will you advocate for Donald Trump to pardon [you]?” And he said: “The only person [I] would advocate [for] to get a pardon is Marcus Garvey.”
Q: Roger Stone said that!?
Cocoa Tea: Yes!
Q: (Laughing) Wow! I have a whole different –
Cocoa Tea: (Laughing) Respect for that man! [Roger Stone] said the only person I would advocate for a pardon is Marcus Garvey! My head grow like this (Indicating with hands). And I said: This man Roger Stone is a good person (Laughing).
Q: Now Cocoa Tea, you have a famous and lovely song called “Africa Here I Come.”
Cocoa Tea: Yes.
Q: Have you ever had the chance to tour or to visit Africa at all during your career?
Cocoa Tea: You know I’ve only been to Africa once in my life.
Q: On a tour?
Cocoa Tea: On a tour. I did a show in a place called Zimbabwe. And I stopped in South Africa. I went through England.
Q: Did you visit Shashamane?
Cocoa Tea: No, I didn’t get a chance. And the Kenyans, they are killing me. The Gambians, they are killing me. The Nigerians, they are killing me. They say, why are you not coming to Africa!? Every African is asking –
Q: I want to ask for them: Why can’t you tour in Africa? What are the obstacles –
Cocoa Tea: Most of all it is about [the] financial situation. Because I don’t want to go to Africa without my band. I want to know that I can bring my whole crew to Africa. And what they’re offering me to come to Africa – it’s not feasible for me. And I would really want to do it. But it is hard to do it on the promise of what they want to offer me to do it. When I went to Zimbabwe, I went there with [extremely influential Jamaican music producer Philip] “Fattis” [Burrell] before he passed away. We went with the same band, Firehouse. And the stadium was packed. Mugabe’s wife was in attendance. Her remarks were: “I’ve never seen an entertainer perform like this.” She said she was very, very impressed.
Q: You once said that the Japan Splash 1991, where you and Buju Banton, Shabba Ranks, Maxi Priest, Beenie Man –
Cocoa Tea: Beres Hammond. And Ninjaman.
Q: – and you performed to a crowd of over 100,000 people was the greatest highlight of your career. Is that still true?
Cocoa Tea: Still true.
Q: Do you think Jamaica could ever hold reggae festivals of that size?
Cocoa Tea: Absolutely not.
Q: This leads me to my next question. Because just a few days ago the Gleaner ran an article called “Great Future for Reggae Music.” And in the piece, [veteran reggae star] Freddie McGregor is quoted saying: “Recently, Cocoa Tea and I bucked up at the Austin Reggae Festival and we hold a reasoning session about how well the music is doing, especially outside of Jamaica.”
Cocoa Tea: Yes.
Q: But when [Freddie McGregor] said “especially outside of Jamaica,” it made me think, what about inside of Jamaica? So I wanted to ask you: What are the things that the government ministers and other authorities in Jamaica can do to more successfully and effectively promote reggae music in Jamaica? What can they do to make reggae grow in Jamaica? To foster young artists in Jamaica, and to foster the music industry, and also to support veteran artists like yourself? What should the government ministers – if you were in a room with them, what would you tell them to do?
Cocoa Tea: Well the first thing I would tell them to do is to educate the younger generation. Because there can’t be children growing up in Jamaica who don’t know about Burning Spear. Who don’t know about living legends like Bunny Wailer.
Q: It needs to be taught in school?
Cocoa Tea: It needs to be taught in school. Music education. The only museum you will find in Jamaica is [the] Bob Marley museum. And dem have a makeshift one for Peter Tosh.
Q: A small one.
Cocoa Tea: Jamaica cannot be like that. Because there are so many people who [built] the music before Bob Marley. What about Millie Small? Count Machuki? King Stitt? Just to name a few of the people who made the music what it [is]. How can you have a place like Jamaica where there is no museum where you can go and read and learn about Gregory Isaacs, Dennis Brown, Alton Ellis, Bob Andy, and all these great people?
Q: Now you mention, of course, these very important legends in Jamaican music history. But to [turn] to some of the [young artists] in Jamaica who are coming up, an article in Vibe [magazine] in February about Original Koffee noted that she got her big break when you brought her up on stage [and introduced her to the crowd] during the 2018 Rebel Salute [annual reggae festival in Jamaica] –
Cocoa Tea: Yes.
Q: I think you also did the same thing that year in Spain at Rototom Sunsplash [reggae festival], true?
Cocoa Tea: Yes.
Q: How did you first become acquainted with Original Koffee, and what did you see in her that made you want to take the steps that you did to [help] break her into the music business?
Cocoa Tea: Well the first time I met her it was in December 2017 in Florida. Through Walshy Fire from Major Lazer. And they was at the studio, voicing some songs with her. And I’m doing an album with Walshy Fire that’s supposed to be released very soon. Walshy Fire and I have done a really, really wicked album. Trust me, it’s one of the best albums I’ve ever done.
Q: Cool. It’s coming out soon?
Cocoa Tea: Coming out soon. So they was voicing something with Original Koffee and they said, “Cocoa, we have this little girl, you want come listen to her?” So I went down to the studio and the first song they played for the little girl [to sing] I said, “What!?” This little girl – nothing can stop her. She is off of the hook. She has the talent. She has everything. She has the whole package. And I said, she’s gonna buss, and I’m gonna help this little girl to buss. The rest is history.
Q: Cocoa, some people are speculating that you are actually Original Koffee’s father. Is there any truth to this?
Cocoa Tea: (Laughing) Nah, nah. She is not my child. There is no truth to it.
Q: In March, VP Records released a new album called “Cocoa Tea: Music Is Our Business.” It features 15 previously unreleased singles and 5 unreleased master recordings from your time working with producer Bobby Digital between 1987 and 2003. Did VP Records consult with you about this release, and why were all these songs sitting on the shelf, unreleased for so long? And are you making any money from this?
Cocoa Tea: I was upset about it.
Cocoa Tea: Because the way they did it – I mean, Bobby is like my brother. Chris from VP is like my brother.
Q: Chris Chin?
Cocoa Tea: Yeah, Chris Chin. And even his mother, Ms. Pat. From way back in the music we are coming [together]. They know me very well. There is nothing I wouldn’t do for them. But the way it was done, I was very, very upset about it. The album is on the Billboard charts right now.
Q: Are they giving you money from the album [proceeds]?
Cocoa Tea: Well, I’m in direct consultation with them right now. And my lawyers and I are in talks about it. I was very upset about it. More so because I have this new album coming out from Walshy Fire, and I know that this album is great –
Q: And you don’t want the [VP release] to [distract from] that –
Cocoa Tea: Exactly.
Q: In 2012, you did a very extensive interview with Large Up and you said that Dennis Brown was a mentor to you.
Cocoa Tea: Definitely.
Q: When you think of Dennis Brown, are there any personal memories of time that you spent with him that immediately come to mind – memories that you have of Dennis that you’ll never forget?
Cocoa Tea: One of the last shows he did [was] in South Florida. He was so sick, I had to hold him up on stage.
Cocoa Tea: I had to hold him up on stage. Same thing with Gregory Isaacs. Those were two of my greatest inspirations in the music business. I remember when Dennis Brown did his last show in Florida, tears came to my eyes. Because we were on stage, and I had to be holding him up. He was so sick. We did it and the people loved it. I’ll try to find the photo and send it to you and you’ll see what I’m talking about. I think that man is one of the less recognized artists in Jamaica.
Q: Dennis Brown?
Cocoa Tea: Yes. Dennis Brown is not treated good.
Q: Even though he’s viewed as the “Crown Prince of Reggae?”
Cocoa Tea: Yeah he’s viewed as “Crown Prince,” but not appreciated. Not recognized.
Q: He’s somebody there could be a museum for, too?
Cocoa Tea: Exactly, that’s what I’m saying. How can there not be a museum [in Jamaica] for Dennis Brown and Gregory Isaacs!? It’s a sin.
Q: You also said in 1989 – a long time ago – that Bunny Wailer has influenced you more than any other artist “in yard.” When was the last time you saw Bunny Wailer, and do you know how he’s doing?
Cocoa Tea: The last time I saw him was at Buju [Banton]’s concert, the “Long Walk to Freedom” [on] March 16th. He’s not as agile, but he’s doing well.
Q: Good to hear. Now Cocoa, you mentioned you have a new album coming out with Walshy Fire. Is there anything about that album you can tell fans about, in terms of collaborations and things to expect? Is there anything else you want to say to let them know about this new album?
Cocoa Tea: Well first of all, collaborations, I do one with Louis Culture called “Beat Them.” And we have another song we are working on with Protoje.
Cocoa Tea: And there’s a song I did called “Medical Marijuana,” it’s on the same album. There’s a song called “Madhouse.” That’s all we see in a-Jamaica right now. There’s also a song called “Sail Away,” and a song called “Lighthouse” with an artist from the U.K. called Randy Valentine. And there’s a song with Michael Rose. I’m telling you man, it’s an “it” album. Looking for big things from this album.
Q: Fantastic. Other than Coco Robics and this new album [you’ve just been discussing], are there any other projects or ventures that you want your fans across the world to know about, [things about] yourself, your music, life, or anything else?
Cocoa Tea: Well the most important thing I have right now is that I’m trying to do my best in my latter years that I have now – before leaving the business – to try to feature some young artists.
Q: Like Prestige?
Cocoa Tea: Like Prestige. There’s a girl from Canada called “Ammoye.” I think she’s very, very talented.
Q: This is on your Roaring Lion label?
Cocoa Tea: Yup. I did a song with a girl from San Diego here called Monica, she’s a Hispanic girl. I’m trying to do my best to get some young artists out there right now. What more can I achieve out of the business? There’s still more to be achieved, but I still would like to know that away from Koffee – I helped Koffee to be out there, and I’m so proud of that – but I need to see some more young people [succeed in the music business too].
Q: Respect. You used to hold a Jam Jam [dancehall festival], that’s something you don’t do anymore and –
Cocoa Tea: I want to start it up in South Florida now.
Q: Did the Jamaican government ever help to support the Jam Jam when you ran it – with vendors, or with supporting it [in other ways]?
Cocoa Tea: There’s something about me and the government in Jamaica. I don’t know what it’s all about. Maybe it’s because I’m always someone who advocates consciousness. I’ve never been a part of the government system.
Q: They aren’t trying to help you.
Cocoa Tea: No, they have never offered me any help in anything. If I tell you I have never received an award in Jamaica, you wouldn’t believe it.
Cocoa Tea: I’ve never received an award for any of my music from nobody in Jamaica.
Q: And I respect you so much because I know you’ve mentioned this before, and I believe you when you’ve said, you [care about the fans], you don’t care about awards –
Cocoa Tea: I don’t work for awards. It doesn’t matter to me. But I’m saying, if I could be recognized in New York City, if the governor could give me a [commendation] –
Q: Why can’t you get one in your own country?
Cocoa Tea: You understand what I mean!? I have a [commendation] from the city of Mount Vernon, from New York City, so how in the world –
Q: There are some new faces in the Jamaican government – there’s a guy named Floyd Green who really supports –
Cocoa Tea: And Floyd Green knows me very well. Because I have performed at a state show and he was there. All of them know. Every one of them knows how great Cocoa Tea is. They know of my good works. But listen to me now: They are never gonna be my fans. Because I am not gonna support their system. And my music is not about lies or compromise. I’m gonna be speaking the truth. They say I’m a controversial artist. But what is controversial about the truth? And why would you try to suppress it?
About the Author: Stephen Cooper is a former D.C. public defender who worked as an assistant federal public defender in Alabama between 2012 and 2015. He has contributed to numerous magazines and newspapers in the United States and overseas. He writes full-time and lives in Woodland Hills, California. Follow him on Twitter at @SteveCooperEsq
Photos by Stephen Cooper
Stephen Cooper is a former D.C. public defender who worked as an assistant federal public defender in Alabama between 2012 and 2015. He has contributed to numerous magazines and newspapers in the United States and overseas. He writes full-time and lives in Woodland Hills, California. His twitter is: @SteveCooperEsq