Ten years ago reggae, with its contagious Caribbean rhythms, was pop music's hottest new sound. Jimmy Cliff had just scored big in the 1972 Jamaican film The Harder They Come as a pistol-toting reggae singer. Two of his songs—Vietnam and Wonderful World, Beautiful People—had hit the charts in Europe. Then Cliff suddenly faded. What impact reggae was to make in America would focus on his Jamaican countryman Bob Marley.

What happened? "I wanted to satisfy my spirit," says Cliff, who first dropped out of the spotlight to go to Nigeria, visiting villages, speaking with tribal elders and exploring Islam. Says Cliff, now 37, of his hegira: "I realize the world is set up on publicity and propaganda, and the wise thing for my career was to use it. But if I hadn't gone to Africa, I probably would have gone crazy. I don't regret it."

Nor does he resent the ascension of Marley. "People would only give the music and the culture a certain amount of recognition," he says. "It was Bob's turn to take it to another level." But since Marley's death (of brain cancer in 1981), Cliff has reasserted himself: "My role has been as the shepherd who opens the gate. Now we're going into a different pasture."

Even in Marley's shadow, Cliff maintained a wide following. The Harder They Come, an entrenched cult film, plays continually London and Boston. Cliff's reggae, crisper than Marley's and "sweetened" with jazz, rock and soul, remains popular as well.

Cliff's new album, due out next month, contains upbeat reggae-rock with lyrics that mix folk wisdom and political overtones. (Peace Officer, Treat the Youth Right and Radical are three of the songs.) Cliff says, "I just tell the same old things about justice and truth. I was ever angry at the system."

Cliff, born James Chambers in rural Somerton, 12 miles outside of Monte-go Bay, is a descendant of the Maroons, a band of escaped 18th-century slaves who waged guerrilla war against the English colonists. His father, a poor tailor who also farmed, raised Jim and his brother after their mother, a domestic, left home.

Jim earned awards as a boy with dramatic presentations of folk songs, then, at 14, left the serenity of his hill town for Kingston, where he launched himself as a singer. He lived in West Kingston—"the ultimate ghetto," he says—surviving as a vegetable truck worker: "Sometimes I was so hungry, I thought I could steal. But I remembered my father and thought how ashamed I would be if he heard."

As an alternative, Jimmy began writing songs and taking them to producers. "Ska"—an early pre-reggae form recently revived by such British groups as the Specials—was his main interest, but he was excited, too, by R&B songs on stateside radio. "I used to sing songs of Fats Domino, Elvis Presley, Sam Cooke, Bobby Darin," he recalls. "We had no concept what color they were. We only heard the voices."

One Cliff song, Hurricane Hattie, clicked and put Jimmy—who had changed his name because he liked the association of "Cliff" and heights—atop the Kingston hit parade. At 15, he was local celeb, and after touring the Caribbean and America was invited to London by Island Records President Chris Blackwell.

In England Cliff achieved his first renown—and worst setbacks. First, authorities tried to deport him back to Jamaica. Then he faced discrimination from landlords. And the public seemed to be uninterested in West Indian music. Cliff was forced to take jobs doing backup vocals for pop groups. "There were psychic vampires who feed off my vibes in England," he says.

Eventually he formed a soul act a la James Brown to tour the Continent. His travails (among them heavy use of amphetamines) inspired his song Many Rivers to Cross, which brought him to the attention of Jamaican filmmaker Perry Henzell, then casting The Harder They Come.

The film proved the truth of Cliff's lyric You Can Get It If You Really Want. It helped launch him personally and reggae as a musical force. Many of its songs (as well as his later tunes) have been covered by artists from Martha Reeves to Linda Ronstadt. Despite the film's success, Cliff claims he never received more than $10,000 from it. "I gained what I wanted artistically," he notes. "But that is not to say that justice was done."

Cliff's growing racial consciousness and distaste for the music business led him in 1974 to take his first trip to Nigeria to study Islam. He found, he says, that "what I was seeking was not religion, but a knowledge of the life-style of my ancestors."

He also found his records were well known in Africa. Even today Cliff's biggest following is in Nigeria. He's also popular in Brazil, Sweden, the Soviet Union and South Africa, where his 1980 Soweto concert drew 75,000—a mixed crowd, at his insistence.

Today Cliff seems a far cry from the malcontent who wrote Number One Rip-Off Man (about a record mogul) and Material World. He lives a quiet life in Jamaica, with homes in Monte-go Bay, Kingston and Somerton. He all but chain-smokes "spliffs" of sensi, the local marijuana. (One former associate says, "Cliff smokes too much. He gets into the studio and starts smoking and wastes time and money.")

Cleaving to Muslim ethics, Cliff claims "many wives" around the world. Number one, in Jamaica at least, is Sheila Carby, an ex-cabaret dancer, by whom he has a son, Sayeed, 5.

Cliff is definite about his career goals: "I think I've been accepted artistically but not commercially, and now I want that." He expects reggae music to achieve the acceptance in America it has in England, where New Wave groups like the Police emulate it. "This is a new decade," says Cliff, as a cloud of sensi smoke fills the room. "Something new has to start. Reggae was always fresh and new—and so am I."