September 14, 2006
Happy Birthday, Mikey Smith
The first time I met Mikey, I was attending a poetry workshop at the Jamaica School of Drama in Kingston, Jamaica. As we read, discussed, and critiqued each other’s work, a slender stranger wearing a knitted cap, and a khaki pants with an exercise book in his back pocket limped into the room. He went quietly to the rear of the room and sat on one of the benches. As the evening progressed, one of the writers asked if anyone had heard the poem, “Mi Cyaan Believe It,” on JBC’s “Grounding” and if we did, what we thought about it. A lively discussion ensued. It was during the discussion that Mikey opened his mouth and said, “Ah me write de poem.” We asked him to read the poem and he obliged. It was pure magic. He lived the poem as he read/performed it.
A few months later, I enrolled as a part time student at the drama school because the police force wouldn’t grant me study leave to attend full time. I studied with Oku Onoura, Mikey Smith, Noel “Godfather” Walcott, Jean “Binta” Breeze, Mata, Eva Gordon, “Poets in Unity” members (Chris Bailey, Tomlin Ellis, Clive ‘Uzo’ Anderson, Roy Rayon, Clyde Walcott, Delores Robinson, Hope Blake, Anita Stewart, Calvin Mitchell, Peter Sutton, Buxton Shippy, Oliver Smith and Tommy Ricketts), Orville Simmons, and Kenny Salomon. Drama school was a beehive of intellectual and political discourse. Mikey was at the forefront of this movement of young writers, theatre personnel, and political activists--mostly left-of-center--who mingled and argued about national and international events. The energy of the period was generated primarily by the election of Michael Manley to the office of Prime Minister. As a programmatic, socialist democrat, Manley’s elevation created an environment for radical political change and transformation of the Jamaican society.
It was during this time that the newfound liberation that Mikey Smith and other contemporary poets discovered became a part of our poetry. The dub poets, as we came to be called, emerged as social commentators and advocates for the dispossessed and oppressed of Jamaican society and the world, and particularly for our African brothers. We became voices for change and of resistance to downpression. Mikey became one of the leading and true voices of the movement.
What made Mikey so special was/is that he was a powerful voice driven by a passion for real changes of the status quo. He also was very conscious and preoccupied with the plight of underclass and exploited women, particularly domestic helpers and women who found themselves in the constructs of tenement yards. Unlike some dub poets who had tendencies of sounding alike and setting for low-level rhyme, he took the art form of dub poetry to a higher level with his brilliant metaphors while not losing the language of his constituents. His rhyme, rhythm, and delivery were all deliberate--just right--and he had the uncanny ability to enter an area and exploring it totally and poetically before departing. Sometime in 1982, Mikey released his only album, Mi Cyaan Believe It, for Island Records and toured England and other countries successfully. Unfortunately, when he returned to Jamaica, many thought he was mentally ill or had suffered a nervous breakdown. To the best of my knowledge, no one is sure what happened to him on tour that caused his illness, but many in our community became concerned for his well-being. A meeting was held with Dr. Freddy Hickling, Ibo Cooper of Third World, and others to discuss the best way to approach Mikey’s illness. We wanted him to get some kind of treatment because a few days before our meeting, a passing musician had rescued him from an angry mob that was threatening to beat him. Still, despite all his adversities, Mikey Smith gave a masterful performance at Reggae Sun Splash that year.
The last time I saw Mikey alive, I was standing at the entrance to the drama school. I watched Mikey limping along the concrete walkway. I was waiting to congratulate him on his Sun Splash performance. He appeared lost. I said to him, “Mikey, mi hear seh yuh mash up Sun Splash!” Mikey replied, “Ah so dem seh. Gi mi a money, Malachi, mi waa go watch a movie.” All this time, he kept on snapping his fingers as if performing to keep his timing. I gave him $5.00 and watched him limp away. At his funeral, Ibo Cooper played a bawling piano as Dr. Freddy Hickling in his eulogy asked out loud: “What type of society are we that stone our poets to death?” At the cemetery, I gave him a gun salute.
When that brutal rock-stone fell from johncrow sky that midday and fractured Mikey’s skull on that old Stony Hill Road, he was chanting his best known poem, “Mi Cyaan Believe It.” When I heard the newsflash that day, I was standing in the yard at the Half-Way-Tree Police Station, and mi couldn’t believe it.
Malachi Smith, Miami, Florida