Remembering Mikey Smith: 'One of the most original poetic voices in late 20th-century Caribbean poetry'

This article is from 2019

Reason to believe

Linton Kwesi Johnson. credit: Speaking Volumes

Influential poets and creators are coming together to celebrate the late Mikey Smith at a special Edinburgh International Book Festival event

'Lord de oppress an' de dispossess cyaan get no res', what nex'?' Decades on, these lines from Mikey Smith's classic poem, 'Mi Cyaan Believe It', still resonate. The late dub-poet, who met a tragically early death at the age of 28 in 1983, documented the struggles of the poor, oppressed and working-class people of Jamaica. In a special Book Festival event, fellow dub-poets Linton Kwesi Johnson and Roger Robinson remember Smith's life and work, alongside BAFTA-winning filmmaker Anthony Wall and Jamaican-raised author Leone Ross.

Widely recognised as one of Britain's most significant poets, Johnson broke through in the late 1970s with his highly politicised fusion of performance poetry and dub-reggae. He hails Smith as 'one of the most original poetic voices in late 20th-century Caribbean poetry', noting that as a performer he was unrivalled among his peers. 'His critique of the conditions of existence for the poor in post-colonial Jamaica is equally eloquent today.' Johnson first met Smith in Jamaica in 1979, recognising a kindred spirit. He went on to co-produce, with British reggae visionary Dennis Bovell, Smith's debut album Mi Cyaan Believe It in 1982.

Smith was born in Kingston in 1954, the son of a mason and a factory worker. He came to poetry in his teens, performing at community centres and political rallies, before representing Jamaica at the World Festival of Youth and Students in Cuba. He graduated from the Jamaican School of Drama with a diploma in theatre studies in 1980, by which time he had already cut his first record, 'Word', a 12" featuring the Afro-jazz-roots collective The Light Of Saba and Count Ossie's nyabinghi drummers.

Reason to believe

Roger Robinson

Smith's fame soon spread beyond Jamaica. In 1982 he gave a scintillating reading at the International Book Fair of Radical, Black and Third World Books in Camden, and starred in the BBC Arena documentary, Upon Westminster Bridge, excerpts from which will be shown at the Book Festival event. The film's director, Anthony Wall, recalls, 'It was an honour to be introduced to Michael by Linton and to work with them both. I believe that Michael was one of the most powerful poets of the 20th century. As for his relevance today, I think the world is still catching up with him and his vision.'

Following the release of Mi Cyaan Believe It, Smith toured with Black Uhuru, before returning to Jamaica in 1983. Politically, Smith was on the left, with Rastafarian sympathies. On 17 August 1983, Smith attended a political rally marking the birthday of the great Jamaican-born activist Marcus Garvey. The following day, he was approached by three men who objected to his heckling of the right-wing Jamaican Labour Party's culture minister. As the argument escalated, Smith was hit on the back of the head by a stone thrown by one of the men, and later died. Due to a lack of witnesses, the case remained unsolved.

Robinson, who has collaborated with industrial strength dub maverick The Bug in addition to releasing several excellent solo albums, draws much inspiration from Smith: 'Mikey Smith, like all the best artists, taught me about the importance of being a junction-maker. He made connections between literature and music, Rastafarianism and liberation, slavery and colonialism, suffering and utterance. Many times I think about what's important for me to create as an artist now, and Mikey Smith always reminds me to make connections, to be a junction-maker.'

Ross, who chairs the event, stresses Smith's continuing importance: 'Any artist who expresses himself with the kind of uncompromising skill and unflinching challenge to power structures as Mikey did, remains relevant for all time.'

Linton Kwesi Johnson, Roger Robinson & Anthony Wall: Remembering Mikey Smith, Charlotte Square Gardens, 18 Aug 9.45pm, £12 (£10).

Linton Kwesi Johnson, Roger Robinson & Anthony Wall

Political poet Johnson is joined by BAFTA-winning filmmaker Anthony Wall and dub-poet, musician and performer Roger Robinson.