Story and photos by Stephen Cooper
“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] Robbie [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: 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.