This is an old piece published in Woofah magazine issue 4 in 2010 but written in 2008 to mark 25 years since the death of Michael Smith. *Note 2021 – I have made a small alteration in italics to one line of the original piece which I feel did not do Michael’s legacy full justice*
On Friday 19th August 1983, the Jamaican Daily Gleaner carried a report on the death of a Kingston performance poet. An incident had taken place two days earlier in Stony Hill, to the north of the capital, as Jamaicans celebrated the birthday of political activist, Jamaican National Hero and Rastafarian prophet Marcus Garvey. Michael Smith had been approached by three un-named men, who objected to him heckling the JLP government’s minister of education at a nearby meeting. As the argument escalated, Smith was “hit on the head by a stone thrown by one of three men” and died.
At the time, Jamaican political violence was in decline following the infamous elections of 1980. In its pointless and wasteful snuffing out of a young life, this murder was no different from all those that had gone before. What marked it out was that only one year previously, Michael Smith had cut his debut album of music and poetry for Island Records. It had been produced by the Brixton poet Linton Kwesi Johnson, engineered by Matumbi mastermind and lovers rock pioneer Dennis Bovell, and backed by a UK reggae supergroup comprising members of Aswad, Matumbi and The Dennis Bovell Dub Band.
The album was called Mi Cyaan Believe It and had not made a huge impact commercially. Compared to the accessibility, political singularity and unchanging voice of Smith’s mentor Johnson, it was a sprawling mixture of words, sounds and music, delivered in a variety of styles and wildly differing voices – and spoken in defiantly thick patois. Yet for those willing to embrace its thorny language and jagged, contrary nature, it stands up as one of the strongest debut records ever made.
Michael Smith was born in Kingston in September 14th 1954, the son of a mason and a factory worker. He began writing poems in his teens, performing them in community centres and later at political rallies, before representing Jamaica in the World Festival Of Youth And Students in Cuba. He attended the Jamaican School Of Drama, graduating in 1980 with a Diploma Of Theatre Arts. By that time he had already cut his first record, Word, a 12 inch featuring the afro-jazz-roots collective The Light Of Saba and Count Ossie’s drummers. The songs featured, Mi Cyaan Believe It and Roots, would reappear in a different form as two of his LP’s more abstract creations.
The European poetry scene beckoned. In 1982 Michael gave an electrifying reading at the International Book Fair Of Radical, Black and Third World Books in Camden. He also appeared in an Arena documentary entitled Under Westminster Bridge, and toured with Black Uhuru to promote Mi Cyaan Believe It before returning to Jamaica, indelible success seemingly within his grasp.
After his death, Michael was quickly forgotten by the mainstream music industry. The album was never reissued, and both It A Come, a posthumously published book of poems edited by the Jamaican poet and academic Mervyn Morris, and Morris’ own Making West Indian Literature, which contained an interview with Michael, are now out of print. No one was ever tried for his murder, and in January 18th 2002 The Jamaica Observer interviewed the JLP spokesperson for culture, Olivia Babsy Grange who downplayed any political motivation for its occurrence. The same piece also stated “there have also been charges that Smith was set on by members of the community after news of the sexual assault of a minor surfaced”. No further evidence of this was supplied.
In an attempt to celebrate his life, 25 years after his tragic end, I spoke with both Linton Kwesi Johnson and Dennis Bovell about Michael, his art and what might have been had he lived.
LINTON KWESI JOHNSON
How and where did you meet Michael?
I met him in Jamaica. I went there to do a couple of gigs with Peter Tosh in 1979. He had heard about me and came to the house where I was staying to see me.
What were your first impressions of him?
He seemed like a kindred spirit. Some one who was very serious, socially engaged, politically non-committed, but socially engaged and generally on the left of politics in Jamaica.
Was he Rasta? A Marxist?
Well he identified with Rastafari but he saw himself more as an anarchist really. I think he identified with anarchism. He was anti-authoritarian. He identified with Rasta but I don’t think he would have called himself one.
How did you come to work with him?
Well he saw me as this big time poet in England who had the keys to open the doors of success for him and he tried to morally blackmail me to help in whatever way I could to get him over here! So the first opportunity I had I got some of his poems published in Race Today magazine, released his first record he had put out in Jamaica in ‘78 – Mi Cyaan Believe It and Roots – and got him invited to the International Book Fair: Radical Black and Third World Books.
And how did you come to work on his LP Mi Cyaan Believe it?
Well he bought a cassette with him with some stuff he had been working on with Ebo Cooper from the group Third World, and more or less asked me to get him a recording contract. So I went to Island and I spoke to Chris Blackwell who was the owner of Island Records in those days and persuaded him to sign up Michael to the label. He was reluctant at first because he figured they couldn’t really handle more than one poet on the label and he had me already. He thought that that was enough but I persuaded him and then Dennis Bovell and I produced the record.
What was the process of making record like?
Very trying at times. Because I didn’t realise at the time that Mikey was mentally ill. He would be very suspicious of people, suspicious of my co-producer Dennis, suspicious of the percussion players, and at one point he almost wanted to fight me in the studio. I just put it down to his eccentricity. But I found out later he was ill. Later people realised. He was friendly with Jamaica’s top psychiatrist and that’s how we knew. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia I think.
Did you find out much about his writing process?
No not really no. At the house where he was staying in London he left bits of paper all over the place but I don’t know what his writing process was like. He did write things down and he would also talk into a tape machine but Mervyn [Morris] would know more about that than I would.
How do you think the album stands up today?
I think it’s a great album, it’s a shame Island didn’t do anything with it. They were so bloody stupid that the guy died and they just let the record die with him. It would still be selling now. People are always phoning up my office or sending us emails asking how they can get hold of it. It was really very stupid not to see that they were onto something that could make money.
What was your personal favourite of the tracks he made?
I guess it has to be Mi Cyaan Believe It because that’s his classic poem.
How did you feel on hearing of his death?
I was shocked. I was completely shocked and very saddened by the news you know? It came like a bolt from out of the blue. I don’t remember where I was… I think I was in London actually.
Why weren’t his killers brought to justice?
They did find some people… they did find the killers but they couldn’t prosecute them because no one would come forward to give evidence. But nothing came of the case I think because of a lack of witnesses.
What do you think actually happened and why?
I think he must have had an argument with these guys and stones started flying and he got hit by one and died. I don’t think it was an assassination though. I think it was just a confrontation that ended in his death.
What do you think Michael could have achieved had he lived?
Well God knows really because he was certainly one of the most extraordinary poetic talents to have come out of the Caribbean at that time! He could definitely negotiate the verbal contours of Jamaican speech in a way like nobody else could. And he was a brilliant performer – a very electrifying and engaging performer. He had huge potential.
He had so many voices in his poetry…
He was coming from a drama background. He studied at the Jamaican School of Drama. Some 20 years after his death I met some guys who were at drama school with him who claimed to have co-authored a couple of Mikey’s poems but who knows? I know that Mikey as a drama graduate was therefore able to bring a dramatic theoretical dimension to his poetry. He was an immensely talented person who had a lot to say about the human condition in Jamaica at that time.
“I first heard of Michael from Linton. It was Linton’s idea to do a collaboration with Michael’s poetry and music.
My impression of him during our meeting was that he was extremely knowledgeable about poetry and was able to make comparisons between life in Africa, Europe and the Caribbean that were striking…
Making the album Mi Cyaan Believe It we had the LKJ formula as a foundation to build on. We had different sections of the London Brotherhood of Session Musicians. Mixing members of groups like Aswad and Matumbi with the likes of Rico Rodriguez, Steve Gregory and also members of The Dub Band – John Kpiaye, The Tenyue Brothers (Patrick and Henry). The project was realised in my own Studio 80 where we had hit upon a new reggae sound during the LKJ Making History album. I think around that time I had also been working with Fela Kuti in the same studio and Ruyichi Sakamoto of Yellow Magic Orchestra. Compared to other projects, this album has to be the one we were obliged to compete with the composition of the music for ‘Trainer’ which was demo’d by Third World. We loved it so much that we copied the original bass line and drum pattern before adding Steve Gregory’s flute lines. ‘Trainer’ is my favourite track on the album. My memories of my contribution are faded but I remember constructing bass lines and horn lines together at LKJ’s house before going to studio.
The album stands in the top five of all reggae-poetry albums alongside those of LKJ, Mutabaruka and Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze. Excellent poetry!!!
When I heard of his death, I was horrified. Had he lived he most certainly would have been part of the change the world for the better movement.
The one thing that the world should know about Michael Smith is that HE WAS BARBARICALLY MURDERED and his MURDERER(S) are sadly STILL AT LARGE !!!! May he rest in peace”.