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Is reggae classic ‘You Can Get It If You Really Want’ ‘conservative’? Jimmy Cliff weighs in

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Exactly 40 years ago, reggae legend Jimmy Cliff was introduced to the wide world as the hard-scrabble country boy Ivan Martin in the Jamaican crime film "The Harder They Come." The movie (now revered as a landmark of independent film) and its soundtrack album (now seen as a crucial early beachhead for "world music" in the U.S. market) made Mr. Cliff, and reggae, international commodities.

"The Harder They Come" also birthed one of the most popular campaign songs of the past few decades.

"You Can Get It If You Really Want," a bouncing classic from the film's soundtrack, has been appropriated by everyone from the Sandinista National Liberation Front on the left to conservative British Prime Minister David Cameron and President Reagan on the right.

Mr. Cliff, who stops at D.C.'s 9:30 club Thursday night on his first extended U.S. tour in two decades, says that while some people get their hackles up over the use of his music, it seldom surprises him.

"The political parties in Jamaica have realized that reggae was the music of the people, and so they were the first political people to take music and use it in their political campaigns," he said in an interview this week with The Washington Times. "It's not so strange to me that it's happening internationally."

Over the years, some on the right have embraced "You Can Get It If You Really Want" as an anthem for the can-do optimism of the individualist success ethic dear to economic libertarians. Citing lines like "You can get it if you really want, but you must try, try and try, try and try - you'll succeed at last," they have interpreted Mr. Cliff's international hit as an exhortation to old-fashioned "conservative" virtues such as perseverance, self-reliance, and working for what you want.

(To be fair, liberals might point to other lyrics as justification for redistribution: "Persecution you must bear, win or lose, you got to get your share." Then again, the song's not called "You Can Take It If You Really Want.")

So ... is it fair to claim the ditty as a bootstrapping anthem for the market right?

We asked Mr. Cliff himself, and ... he didn't say it wasn't.

"Perry Henzell, the writer and director of 'The Harder They Come,' came to me," recalls Mr. Cliff, "and said, 'Do you think you could write some music for a movie I want to make?' And I said, 'What are you talking about? I can do anything.' "

And at that point, it really did seem as if Mr. Cliff could do anything. He had his first hit in 1962 at age 14 with "Hurricane Hattie." Two years later, at age 16, he was named Jamaica's representative to the World's Fair. At 20, he had his first international album.

But it was Mr. Henzell's movie that would put Mr. Cliff, and reggae, on the map. Perhaps he had a premonition, because after Mr. Henzell asked him to score "The Harder They Come," Mr. Cliff says, "I went off by myself to write 'You Can Get It If You Really Want,' and it became a deep spiritual song, which is why it touches everyone across the political spectrum."

Mr. Cliff's new EP "Sacred Fire," produced by punk legend Tim Armstrong of Rancid and Operation Ivy, also has a good dose of politics.

"There is a song called 'Children's Bread,' " Mr. Cliff says. "The lyrics are, 'They take the children's bread, and give it to the dogs.' That is the most political of the songs on the album. It's very different from the politics of 'You Can Get It If You Really Want,' because it's about injustice and imbalance in society." (Which, incidentally, means - at least as a matter of logic - that "You Can Get It If You Really Want" is not about those things. In other words: Redistributionists better find their own Jimmy Cliff song. Which, let's face it, shouldn't be too hard.)

As for his coordination with Mr. Armstrong, Mr. Cliff calls it "culture unity rather than culture clash, because, you see, reggae music influenced punk music."

As Mr. Cliff's D.C. concert date nears, it's worth asking: What hasn't the Jamaican legend influenced?

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