Michael Smith - Mi Cyaan Believe It
At around 11am on the 17th August 1983, 96 years to the day after the birth of Marcus Garvey, the 28-year-old Jamaican poet Michael Smith fell into an argument with three men in Stony Hill. The previous evening he had heckled the minister of education at a political meeting, and the trio who approached him were JLP activists, angered by his words. In the struggle that followed one of the men struck him with a stone and the blow lead to his death (1). Friends and colleagues of Smith know the names of those involved, yet no witnesses were prepared to come forward and so no case against them could be made (2).
Of course, politically motivated violence and young men cut down before reaching their full potential were sadly nothing new in Jamaica at the time. But what made this loss all the more tragic was that just one year earlier Michael had released his first LP Mi Cyaan Believe It on Island Records. According to the record’s co-producer Linton Kwesi Johnson, Island’s owner Chris Blackwell was reluctant to market a second dub poet on the label and, consequently, Island did little to promote the album (3). A quarter of a century later, this rare and conceptual set remains one of the strongest debuts Jamaican music has ever known. One can only speculate as to what Michael could have achieved had he lived.
The record begins with a short spoken word piece Black And White, where Smith (or perhaps one of the myriad characters he plays) describes his background “an all black school with an all black name… black principal, black teacher…” and experiences “went to a show and saw our struggles in black and white” culminating in a deep throaty rumbling “laaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaawwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrdddddddddddddd have mercy!” Compared to the grounding, immutable voice of LKJ, which serves as a constant in his music, Smith’s range of vocal expression and fearlessness in using it are remarkable things to hear.
A trained actor at the Jamaican School Of Drama, Smith’s many voices populate the album creating some disorientating changes in volume and mood. On the title track, another spoken poem, he takes the flabbergasted high-pitched persona of an older Jamaican, incredulous at the cruel and unusual permutations of human life in poverty. Yet at other times in the piece he becomes the low, mocking tones of people this protagonist has overheard, even becoming the rapid-fire patter of a crowd responding to a fire in Orange Street.
The players used on the project were a UK reggae super group comprised of Aswad and the Bovell band. Michael’s voice matches their work at every step, intermingling or contrasting as and when the record’s theatrics require. Over the dynamic, building Mi Feel It, with Dennis Bovell’s slap bass coming in off the beat, a reverb soaked Smith broadcasts his savage critique of a system that fails young people with a strident urgency. On the slow brooding Trainer he radiates quiet, guttural malevolence; It A Come is limitless in its breezy defiance (with its nonchalantly dismissive line “Maggie Thatcher? You better watch yah!”); while for Roots he spits forth an unearthly, Antinomian stream of consciousness over a mixture of military and Grounation drumming, stretching his throat to almost unbearable lengths (both for him and us!). During the catchy, danceable Long Time, and the swinging, heavily LKJ influenced Picture Or Picture he pares down his delivery to a Linton style stoicism. But where his themes of youthful pleasure seeking in a world with no prospects are akin to his mentor’s, the patois is thicker, the language tricksier, thornier, more oblique - without the roadmap of socialism (Linton describes Michael as “an anarchist” (4)) to demand conformity, plain speaking and a common destination.
This is not music you would hear or play at a sound system. Nor is it an album you’d put on to cure the blues or relax after a hard day’s graft. This is a self-contained work of art - one that constantly challenges and reveals new depths – that stands up and holds its own against any other you may care to mention. And it is a rank injustice that Michael never had the chance to create anything like it again.
(1) Mikey Smith by Mervyn Morris, www.57productions.com
(2) Interview with Linton Kwesi Johnson by the author
(3) Interview with Linton Kwesi Johnson by the author
(4) Interview with Linton Kwesi Johnson by the author