Mikey Smith by Mervyn Morris
by Mervyn Morris
When Mikey Smith died in Jamaica on August 17, 1983 – “Stoned to death on Stony Hill”(1) – he was not yet 29. At a political meeting one evening in Stony Hill he had heckled a Jamaica Labour Party cabinet minister. Walking in the vicinity the following day, he was confronted by three party activists. According to Jamaica’s Daily Gleaner he was “hit on the head by a stone thrown by one of three men who had attacked him… An argument between Smith and the men at about 11 o’clock led to his death.”(2) In spite of some of the initial public responses, there seems to be no evidence that Mikey was killed because he wrote poetry, or because of the poetry he wrote.
Michael Smith (“Mikey”) was born in Kingston, Jamaica, on September 14, 1954. He came from a working class background: his father was a mason, his mother a factory worker. Though he claimed that much of his education was acquired on the street, he attended a number of schools, including Jones Town Primary, Denham Town Primary, Kingston College Extension and St George’s Extension. He began writing poems in the late 1960s. The first success he recalled was a poem provoked by a news item about Ian Smith, Prime Minister of Rhodesia (which had declared itself independent of the United Kingdom). “One morning me did get up and just see ‘Smith Seh No To Black Majority Rule’, and me just write a poem.”(3) The audience responded warmly when he read the poem at a Community Centre in Golden Spring (in rural St Andrew). Selected from a Social Development Commission workshop, he became a student at the Jamaica School of Drama, where he received training which he valued and of which he made good use. By the end of the 1970s he was performing before large crowds at political and cultural events. Two of his poems, “Me Cyaan Believe It” and “Roots”, were well known in Jamaica even before they were recorded. He graduated from the Jamaica School of Drama in 1980 with a Diploma in Theatre Arts.
Linton Kwesi Johnson gives the following outline of Mikey’s international success. “In 1978 Michael Smith represented Jamaica at the eleventh World Festival of Youth and Students in Cuba. That year saw the release of his first recording, a twelve-inch forty-five titled Word [“Me Cyaan Believe It” and “Roots”, accompanied by Count Ossie’s Rastafarian drummers]… . In 1981 Mikey performed in Barbados during Carifesta (a Caribbean regional cultural festival), and was filmed by British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) Television performing “Mi Cyaan Believe It” for the documentary From Brixton to Barbados. In 1982 Mikey took London by storm with performances at the Camden Centre for the International Book Fair of Radical, Black and Third World Books and also at the Lambeth Town Hall in Brixton for Creation for Liberation. Whilst in Britain, together with Oku Onuora, Mikey also did a successful poetry tour and recorded a reggae album which Island Records released under the title Mi Cyaan Believe It. And the story did not end there: the BBC’s Anthony Wall made a television programme about Mikey for the flagship arts series Arena. Entitled ‘Upon Westminster Bridge’, the programme was broadcast on BBC2 that year [on November 23, 1982] and again after Mikey’death in 1983. In November 1982 Mikey performed in Paris for UNESCO and went on to do a reading in Milan. He returned to Jamaica briefly and then came back to London for another tour, this time as an opening act for the reggae band Black Uhuru, to promote his recently released album. He returned to Jamaica soon after.”(4)
In History of the Voice Kamau Brathwaite characterized Michael Smith as “an intransigent sound poet… not concerned with written script at all.”(5) But Mikey wanted to be in print. He asked me to help. The poems he showed me in manuscript were difficult to read because of inconsistent spelling and punctuation, and because the line breaks were often at odds with the rhythms as Mikey performed them. We agreed on a working procedure. Mikey would read the poems into a tape recorder; then I, listening to the tape while examining the manuscript, would suggest a representation on the page. Then Mikey would look carefully at what was suggested, and would make decisions.
When Mikey left Jamaica in the middle of 1982 for a tour of the UK the work had not yet been completed. He nevertheless offered a collection to Race Today Publications. In July 1983 I was asked by Race Today to edit the poems, and Mikey died the following month. But we had worked together on some of the poems, and I followed the directives of his voice. It A Come is “Mikey’s words in Mikey’s order… presented for the convenience of readers.”(6) The book earned a UK Poetry Society Recommendation.
Mikey’s work is most fully appreciated in performance. He saw publication as complementary. “Both of them go together,” he said. “It’s very good for documentational purposes to have it in book form, but also to hear it is another experience.”(7) “Only occasionally,” writes Laurence Breiner, “does a hint of the freedom and sophistication of [Mikey Smith’s] performance survive on paper.”(8) Kamau Brathwaite has noted Mikey’s “quite remarkable voice and breath control.”(9) Mikey was, for Linton Kwesi Johnson, “the quintessential performance poet, gifted with an unrivalled talent for mesmerizing his audience.”(10) Honor Ford-Smith, who was one of his tutors at the Jamaica School of Drama, has remarked on the seriousness of Mikey’s preparation:
he would work hours and hours, sometimes the whole day, with his tape recorder which would have the backing tracks for the music, trying out different variations of rhythm. He was very very conscious of the variety that he could get in his voice. And you hear it in the voice, and you hear his consciousness of pace, when you listen to his recording, and when you hear him perform you would hear that he had worked for hours on the pacing of his poetry, you know. So it wasn’t just something that he improvised when he got on stage.(11)
To compare various recordings – the Light of Saba or LKJ as against the Island Records versions of “Me Seh Me Cyaan Believe It” and “Roots”, for example – is to be made vividly aware of alternative performance choices, not necessarily to the disadvantage of either. It is a pity that Mikey Smith’s records are not more widely available.
Available on this website, however, are two outstanding examples of Mikey in performance. He is doing “Say, Natty-Natty” and “Goliath” (titled “I an I Alone” in It A Come) at the Camden Town Hall on March 30, 1982, at An Evening of International Poetry presented at the First International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books. “Sáy, Natty-Natty”! The emphatic entry commands attention, and the whole poem is powerfully delivered. It lectures Rastafarians and those who look like Rastas (for, as Jamaicans know, not every dread a Rasta) against sniffing cocaine and selling their bodies to tourists. Do not throw away your culture, it exhorts. Do not let down your mother, do not forget your Jamaican girlfriend. If you service a woman from abroad, people will tell others you are for rent (“a dollar-a-day dread”). They will spread your shame in “Boo York”. The tourist woman is imaged as a piece of American media. If you “lick out pon de beach / an ejaculate / between a Time magazine[,] / Dem will spread it…” You should cut off your locks rather than let that happen. Be serious about your culture (which should be a source of self-respect). Do not be like the politician who will seduce your daughter in the name of culture. Be aware of the cultural smuggler. Do not take our Rastafarian revolution and turn it into a tourist attraction. The poem, a simple set of exhortations, is made memorable in the compelling energy of Mikey’s performance.
After the rhythmic insistence of “Say, Natty-Natty”, the beginning of “Goliath” is (by way of contrast) carefully underplayed, quietly suggesting psychic isolation in the midst of overwhelming odds. “I an I alone / a trod through creation. / Babylon on I right, Babylon on I lef” (like the doomed soldiers in Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade”). In “I an I alone in the middle / like a Goliath wid a sling-shot” the Goliath image suggests that the persona is a conspicuous challenge to opponents, but the sling-shot implies that he, like David, will win. A version of this refrain returns in the middle and again near the end of the poem. There is also a pattern of commentary on the struggles of poor people: “Everybody a try fi sell something” etc, “De people-dem a teck everyting meck a muckle” etc, “Cyaan meck blood outa stone” etc, “Dem waan meck love pon hungry belly” etc. But the bulk of the poem sketches the teeming life of the market in a series of dramatic impersonations, which allow the performer to display a range of tones and attitudes. The voices register various personalities and roles – seller, buyer, thief, preacher, seducer, political activist, sceptic, and so on. “I an I alone / a trod” through this threatening confusion, grateful to find even a ten cent piece, a basis for desperate optimism. “Lawd, we naw go get no sentance.”
Mikey Smith saw poetry as “a vehicle of giving hope. As a means of building… awareness… Poetry is part of the whole process of liberation of the people,” he said. “I just want them fi understand wha I a deal with: describe the condition which them live in but to also say, ‘Boy, don’t submerge yourself under the pressure.’”(12)
He said his writing came “first and foremost, from a process of observation… And it seem to me that what happen is that I observe a lot, and I listen a whole heap, so I will all go stand up at a bus stop and spend all two hours, no because me a wait pon bus or so, but because me waan hear what them a seh.”(13)
He has described how some of his pieces were developed. Sometimes, listening to people, he was struck by a phrase and chose to build on that. Sometimes he began with a rhythm.
A man seh, “Boy, me can’t believe it, that the thing gone up, you know.” Me seh, “Rahtid, a it that, you know! We can’t believe it. And when you can’t believe it and you look and you see the things that you can’t believe!” And then me go home now and me seh, “Yeh. Poem now. I waan get a poem. ‘Cyaan believe it’. That’s the poem I want.” And then it slowly evolve. It might work out. You might jot it down – line, piece a line – and you go weh and you leave it, and then you come back an you build on it. Or it might come roops, right out. The whole intensity just come right out and you just really – it release. Or sometimes a rhythm come to me first. You know, is a rhythm, and me seh, “Dah rhythm-ya feel nice, you know, feel nice.” And then me try remember the rhythm… and then I build under that, build up under that. Build under that and catch me breaks and the bridges. Just like how musician work out.(14)
Mikey was happy to be called a “dub poet”. “Dub poetry”, which is written to be performed, incorporates a music beat, often a reggae beat. Often, but not always, the performance is done to the accompaniment of music, recorded or live. Dub poetry is usually, but not always, written in Jamaican language; in Jamaican Creole (dialect, vernacular, nation language). By extension, it may be written in the informal language of people from anywhere. Most often it is politically focused, attacking oppression and injustice. Though the ideal context for dub poetry is the live performance, it also makes itself available in various other ways: on radio, on television, in audio recordings, video recordings and on film. Many dub poets also publish books.
Listening to Mikey perform (with or without a backing of music), one can hardly fail to notice his firm sense of structure and of rhythmic patterning. The rhetoric of preachers and politicians, the cries of pedlars; allusions to proverbs, nursery rhymes, children’s games, the Bible, Rasta talk, reggae, and to flashpoints in Jamaican and international news – they are pulled together or set against each other in what are usually well articulated structures.
Linton Kwesi Johnson, generally acknowledged as the most famous dub poet (though he does not like the term) pays eloquent tribute to Mikey Smith: “He was a gifted wordsmith who could deftly negotiate the verbal contours of Jamaican speech, creating memorable poetic discourse that spoke to the conditions of existence for the “oppressed” and “dispossessed” in their everyday language. He drew from a wide range of oral sources, always on the lookout for the ironic and the paradoxical. Mikey was essentially a political poet, a people’s poet, who wrote about the dehumanization of the poor and their struggle against poverty an injustice. He wrote with conviction and performed with passion.”(15)
for 57 Productions
All Rights Reserved
It A Come: Poems by Michael Smith ed. Mervyn Morris (London: Race Today Publications, 1986). Reissued by City Lights, San Francisco, in 1989.
Word (Kingston: Light of Saba, 1978). [“Me Cyaan Believe It” and “Roots”.]
Me Cyaan Believe It/Roots (London: LKJ Records, 1981). [Reissue.]
Mi Cyaan Believe It (London: Island Records, 1982). [Nine poems.]
“Building Awareness: Mikey Smith Interviewed”, in Mervyn Morris, Making West Indian Literature (Kingston: Ian Randle Publishers, 2005), 96-106. Interview previously published as “Mikey Smith, Dub Poet”, Jamaica Journal 18, no. 2 (May-July 1985), 39-42, 45. Part of the interview reprinted in E.A. Markham, ed., Hinterland (Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe, 1989), 275-283.
Edward Kamau Brathwaite, History of the Voice: The Development of Nation Language in Anglophone Caribbean Poetry (London: New Beacon Books, 1984).
Laurence A. Breiner, An Introduction to West Indian Poetry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).
Paula Burnett, ed., The Penguin Book of Caribbean Verse in English (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1986).
J. Edward Chamberlin, Come Back to Me My Language: Poetry and the West Indies (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993). Reissued by Ian Randle Publishers, Kingston, 2000.
Carolyn Cooper, Noises in the Blood: Orality, Gender and the ‘Vulgar’ Body of Jamaican Popular Culture (London: Macmillan Caribbean, 1993). Reissued by Duke University Press, Durham, 1995.
Eric Doumerc, “Michael Smith (1954-1983)” http://www.allinfoaboutpoetry.com/michael_smith.html
Christian Habekost, Verbal Riddim: The Politics and Aesthetics of African-Caribbean Dub Poetry (Amsterdam-Atlanta, GA: Rodopi, 1993).
Linton Kwesi Johnson, “Remembering Michael Smith (Mikey, Dub and Me)”, in Annie Paul, ed., Words, Sound and Power (Kingston: University of the West Indies Press, forthcoming ).
Pamela Mordecai, ed., From Our Yard: Jamaican Poetry Since Independence (Kingston: Institute of Jamaica Publications, 1987).
Mervyn Morris, ‘Is English We Speaking’ and Other Essays (Kingston: Ian Randle Publishers, 1999).
Julie Pearn, Poetry in the Caribbean (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1985).
Gordon Rohlehr, “The Shape of That Hurt”, Introduction to Voiceprint: An Anthology of Oral and Related Poetry from the Caribbean ed. Stewart Brown, Mervyn Morris and Gordon Rohlehr (Burnt Mill: Longman, 1989). Also available in Gordon Rohlehr, The Shape of That Hurt and Other Essays (Port-of-Spain: Longman Trinidad, 1992).
1. Edward Kamau Brathwaite, dedicating History of the Voice (London & Port of Spain: New Beacon Books, 1984).
2. The Daily Gleaner, Friday, August 19, 1983.
3. Mervyn Morris, Making West Indian Literature (Kingston: Ian Randle Publishers, 2005), 98. “Building Awareness: Mikey Smith Interviewed”, 96-106. Interview previously published as “Mikey Smith, Dub Poet”, Jamaica Journal 18, no. 2 (May-July 1985), 39-42, 45. Part of the interview reprinted in E.A. Markham, ed., Hinterland (Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe, 1989), 275-283.
4. Linton Kwesi Johnson, “Remembering Mikey Smith (Mikey, Dub and Me)”, in Annie Paul, ed., Words, Sound and Power (Kingston: University of the West Indies Press, forthcoming ), 153.
5. Brathwaite, History of the Voice, 45.
6. Michael Smith, It A Come ed. Mervyn Morris (London: Race Today Publications, 1986), 11 (“Editor’s Notes”).
7. Making, 104.
8. Laurence A. Breiner, An Introduction to West Indian Poetry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 191.
9. Brathwaite, 46.
10. Johnson, 152.
11. It A Come, 10. Honor Ford-Smith, interviewed by Mervyn Morris, May 18, 1984.
12. Making, 99.
13. Making, 101.
14. Making, 101-102.
15. Johnson, 152.