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



Geoffrey Philp said...

I had inadvertently left out a few important names that must be included because they were all important players in the movement. They are Claudette Richardson, Joe Ruglas, and Nordi who used to pass through frequently to critique and help shape the word sounds. And, of course, mentors Dennis Scott, Tom Cross, Honor Ford Smith, and Lloyd Record.

Also I intend to add what I heard about why and how he died. Basically, the day or sometime in the week before he passed, the member of parliament for the area was visiting her constituency and was addressing a group of citizens. Mikey was in the crowd and he began heckling her saying words to the effect that, "Yuh naa gwaan wid nutten fi help poor people." Members of her entourage didn't like this and threatened Mike on the spot.

The day he was murdered, August 17, 1983, Mikey was walking by this same member of parliament's office when three of her activists who had threatened Mikey saw him and rushed him. Mikey ran and hid into a nearby church, the same church where his funeral service was held. After he thought his pursuers had left, he ventured out the church again and they attacked him again. The second time a rocksone flung by one of his assailants fractured his skull.

His death was even more personal to me because several people thought that it was me who had died. A close friend of my family was in Grand Cayman and heard the news over the radio and called my relatives in New York and Chicago. My aunt who was visiting in Chicago 'dropped down' and ended up in intensive care.

When I saw the sadness on his face lying in his casket, I made a pact with him there and then to carry on the work with more vigor. And, since that day I have performed with more intensity. I also often start my performances with a slow, sad chant, "We are going Heaven knows where we are going, we know we will." I got this from Mikey.

Anonymous said...

Hi Mali,

I meant to write to you from yesterday to commend you on that fitting tribute to Mikey Smith in Geoffrey's blog. Its very touching and so we written with all the emotions pouring out...I felt like I was there in the present.

You are so talented and multitasking its not funny. Keep the vibes alive...the rewards will come one day.

God bless


Anonymous said...

Malachi—thanks so much for sharing the memory of my /our dear friend and fellow writer / actor / activist Mickey Smith. Mi seh mi still cyaan believe it. Michael was a force to be reckoned with. Dem days at drama school wi di just have di drums and the voices that would resonate through the amphitheatre. You could hear Ras Leghorn pan di Akete as you coming up Arthur Wint Drive and Mickey jus a chant. “An dem a beat / An dem a beat / an dem a chant / an dem a chant.” His was a revolutionary voice for change. He was a deep thinker. A voice that challenged us to take a good hard look at the way we measured ourselves against the rest of the world. Such dastardly acts of cruelty must never happen again to our poets let alone at our hands.

Andrene Bonner

Geoffrey Philp said...

Dear Indi and Andrene,
Mikey was/is--for he lives on in his words--a great poet of passion for the lives and dignity of the poor.
And for those sticklers for English only in Jamaica, how else could you describe the horror of the teenemnet--and Jamaica by extension--except by saying, "Mi Cyaan Believe it!"

Anonymous said...

Geoffrey - thanks for this post on Mikey. I grew up in Washington DC , as a first generation Puerto Rican where eventually our community in the city eventually left for the suburbs of Maryland and Virginia. In the late 70s our family eventually did as well. I can't really recall exactly how I came to hear reggae music but for sure not from my friends but my interest peaked thru the radio station WHFS - back in the day when they were commercial free and the djs played what they like and on sundays they played reggae by a man who called himself Dr. Dread - he had the most dryest radio voice ever - a white mon for sure but he sure introduced me to alot of artists (he eventually started RAS records) and styles such dub and the earlier forms of djaying . One night he played Mikey's "Mi Cyaan Believe It" and since I was usually taping his show - well I was really taken by that track - my first encounter with dub poetry and it opened me to how poetry can be transforming as... well WORD, SOUND & POWER!
I was now for sure hooked on its imagery and content and the delivery this poets took - LKJ's "Sonny's Letter" is another example. I eventually read about this initial group and of his passing. Many years latter I found his record and recall how when I was young coping with my identity how poets of Jamaician descent expressed themselves in ways I could relate. By the mid 80s I eventually was in a reggae band in DC - composed of members like myself first generation, only they were my Jamaician brothers -
That you were in their company and part of that environment and continuing with the work and I look forward to reading your novels.Thank you again for this post and incredible blog. Ache -Joseito

Geoffrey Philp said...

Welcome, Joseito!
Actually the post was written by the dub poet Malachi Smith, who now lives and works here is Miami.