Born Calvin George Scott on March 9, 1959, in Rocky Point, Clarendon, Jamaica. Addresses: Record company--Shanachie Entertainment Corporation, 37 East Clinton St., Newton, NJ 07840, website: http://www.shanachie.com. VP Records, 8905 138th St., Jamaica, NY 11435, website: http://www.vprecords.com. Recording studio--Roaring Lion Music, Vereman Enterprises, Lot 274 Hollywood Dr., Hayes Newton Phase 2, Clarendon, Jamaica, website: http://www.roaringlionmusic.com.
One of the primary figures of the roots/reggae scene, Coco Tea has expanded his professional career to include the operation of a recording studio, publishing company, and even a wholesale food distribution and vegetarian food retail operation. A native of Jamaica, Coco Tea has also built an international fan base by performing concerts in North America, Europe, and the Far East. Rare among reggae artists, Coco Tea scored a major-label deal with two releases on Motown Records in 1997; he decided, however, to focus his energies on developing his own businesses in Jamaica, despite the opportunities elsewhere. As he said in an interview with Jamaica's Sunday Gleaner in 1998: "I couldn't have made it back then, there was nothing to leave a burden on my mind, and give me the impetus of wanting to know how to write a song. I wasn't thinking about a career, just the joy of hearing my own voice on the radio was enough for me.... I suffered a lot, had to leave town, come back to the country."
Born Calvin George Scott on March 9, 1959, in the fishing village of Rocky Point in Clarendon, Jamaica, the future singer earned the nickname "Coco Tea" for his love of hot cocoa, called cocoa tea in the rural areas of his homeland. While attending Savannah Primary School in his hometown and Bustamante Junior Secondary School in nearby Lionel Town, Coco Tea began singing with school and church choirs. When he was 14 years old, his talent came to the attention of producer Willie Francis, who asked the teenager into the studio to record "Searching in the Hills." Although the single's release marked the start of his career, it had little impact on the reggae scene. For the next several years, the fledgling musician worked as a part-time fisherman and also earned money as a jockey. All the time, however, his heart was set on returning to music as a profession. "Even back then," he remembered in an interview with the Sunday Gleaner, "Dem use to call me 'singer' at the track. It just wasn't ordained for me to ride horses for a living but for me to own horses."
Coco Tea never left the music scene entirely, though; he was, in fact, a regular performer in dancehalls. Like many other aspiring reggae stars, the improvisational nature of deejaying over tracks played on the sound system helped him refine both his singing style and his skill as a live performer. His approach to music differed from other dancehall deejays, however. In the early 1980s, dancehall music was dominated by "slackness," a style marked by crude, explicit, and even aggressive lyrics. In contrast, Coco Tea took a less-harsh tone that was better suited to his melodic voice. Although he wrote lyrics that worked the same terrain as other performers--concentrating on women and dancehall settings--his singing ability set him apart.
In 1983 Coco Tea relocated to Kingston to pursue his music career in earnest. With producer Henry "Junjo" Lawes he issued two singles, "Rocking Dolly" and "I Lost My Sonia," that proved far more successful than his recording debut almost a decade before. A full-length album, Rocking Dolly, followed. Released in Jamaica in 1985, it later appeared on the international market on RAS Records in 1986.
His next major career advance took place in 1989-90 with a string of hit singles in Jamaica: "Who She Love," "Pirates Anthem," and "Holding On." Recorded with an ensemble of musicians and producers that also were involved with reggae stars Shabba Ranks and Home-T, the songs put Coco Tea at the forefront of Jamaica's reggae scene. In the wake of the singles' success, the singer stepped out on his own with a series of releases that reflected his opposition to the Gulf War conducted by the Western allies against Iraq. One of the songs, "Oil Ting," was banned from airplay in Great Britain, while the other singles, "No Blood for Oil," "What's Gonna Happen After the War," and "Ruling Cowboy," reflected the singer's equally strong sentiments against the military action.
Although Coco Tea courted controversy with the songs, he clearly had taken a lyrical step forward from his simple dancehall songs about women and dancehall life. As he reflected in a profile posted on his Roaring Music website, "There's a lack of consciousness from what [the music] used to be, it's becoming what it is not to be. If one of my songs can be remembered or quoted and be of inspiration or guidance to anyone, then I shall be forever happy with my contribution musically."
While the Jamaican music market was dominated by the release of singles, not albums, Coco Tea managed to release several full-length recordings during the 1990s. Among his early album releases, 1991's Riker's Island, with the title track in reference to the notorious New York City prison, made the biggest impression in the United States. However, his biggest bid for success in the American market occurred with the release of two albums on Motown Records in 1997, New Immigration Law and Holy Mount Zion. Unfortunately, Coco Tea encountered the same dilemma that had prevented numerous other big-name reggae stars from conquering the North America market. With a language and lyrical content that sometimes were incomprehensible to listeners outside of Jamaica, Coco Tea's music had a hard time making it onto most urban-oriented radio play lists.
In 1995 two events occurred that marked a new direction in Coco Tea's life. First, he started to build his own recording studio, Roaring Lion Music, in his neighborhood in Rocky Point. Second, he embraced the Rastafarian faith with its practice of ganja (marijuana) smoking as a religious ritual and its call to African descendants for repatriation to Africa and restitution for crimes committed during the era of slavery. Although his embrace of Rastafarianism caused some problems--such as his arrest in Barbados for marijuana possession--it also gave his music a more roots-oriented approach, something especially noticeable in such songs as "Holy Mount Zion" and "Israel King."
The establishment of Roaring Lion Productions and the Roaring Lion record label in 1997 dovetailed with Coco Tea's musical change of direction. "Reggae is not selling what it's supposed to be selling because of the producers out there who don't have an ear for music," he told a Sunday Gleaner interviewer. "We here at Roaring Lion, come ... with a different motivation, we link back some original Studio One, but we try to be original as we can." Active as a producer at Lion King Productions, Coco Tea also committed himself to fostering a new generation of reggae roots performers such as Andrea Sawyers and Jesse Jendau.
Despite an aversion to travel, Coco Tea continued to tour on the international reggae circuit. With the expansion of his business activities in Jamaica under the Vereman Enterprises banner, the singer had become something of a business mogul by the late 1990s. Hearkening back to his own days as a fisherman, the company began a wholesale operation for seafood products; the business later added vegetarian food products to its lineup, which included snack food items. In addition to providing jobs for residents in Coco Tea's hometown, the businesses also became active sponsors of youth sports teams in the region.
By now regarded as one of the elder statesmen of roots reggae music--sometimes compared to the legendary Bob Marley--Coco Tea had another productive year in 2001 with the release of two albums: Feel the Power on VP Records and Can't Live Soon Shanachie Records. Although he had not achieved the mainstream crossover success outside of Jamaica that made Shaggy and Shabba Ranks international stars, Coco Tea seemed happier in the smaller arena of Jamaica's reggae scene. As he commented to an X-News profiler in October of 1998: "It gives me joy to give back something."
by Timothy Borden
Coco Tea's Career
Recorded first single, 1974; worked as jockey and fisherman; returned to recording career, mid-1980s; built production studio, 1995; released more than 15 records, including two with Motown Records, 1990s; released Feel the Power and Can't Live So, 2001.
- Selected discography
- Rocking Dolly , RAS, 1986.
- Holding On , VP, 1991.
- Riker's Island , VP, 1991.
- 20 Tracks , Sonic Sounds, 1991.
- Can't Stop Coco Tea , VP, 1992.
- Authorized , Shanachie, 1992.
- Kingston Hot , RAS, 1992.
- I Am the Toughest , VP, 1992.
- One Cup , VP, 1994.
- Good Life , VP, 1994.
- Sweet Love , RAS, 1994.
- Come Love Me , VP, 1995.
- Israel's King , VP, 1996.
- New Immigration Law , Motown, 1997.
- Holy Mount Zion , Motown, 1997.
- One Way , VP Records, 1998.
- The Lion Roars , Imaj, 1999.
- Feel the Power , VP, 2001.
- Can't Live So , Shanachie, 2001.
- Broughton, Simon, et al., eds., World Music: The Rough Guide, Vol. 2, The Rough Guides, 2000.
- Billboard, December 28, 1996, p. YE-82.
- Music Business International, June 1996, p. 45.
- Sunday Gleaner(Jamaica), November 29, 1998.
- X-News(Jamaica), October 30, 1998.
- Artists Only, http://www.artistsonly.com/Coco.htm (December 22, 2001).
- Learning Network, http://lifelong.learningnetwork.com/Partners/Rough_Guides/Arts_Music/reggae/24.htm (December 22, 2001).
- Roaring Lion Music, http://roaringlionmusic.com (December 23, 2001).
- Urban Ambiance Journal, http://www.uajournal.com/reviews/Cocotea-king.shtml (December 22, 2001).