Malachi D Smith – The Gathering. APS Books, 2018.
Malachi Smith was born in Westmoreland, Jamaica and joined the Jamaican Constabulary Force in the mid-1970s. He was a founding member of the group Poets in Unity, started by Chris Bailey and Tomlin Ellis in the late 1970s at the Jamaica School of Drama. The group soon acquired a solid reputation as performers and appeared on the 1983 Heartbeat album Word Sound ‘Ave Power. Malachi’s poem “Victim” was featured on this album.
Malachi worked in Jamaica as a police officer and as a dub poet, an unusual combination, and he migrated to Florida in 1987, where he has continued to work in these two capacities.
Over the years he has released several CDs (Throw Two Punch, 1998 ; The Blacker the Berry, The Sweeter the Cherry, 2001 ; Middle Passage, 2003 ; Luv Dub Fever, 2008 ; Hail to Jamaica, 2010) on which he performs his poems to the accompaniment of reggae music or a cappella.
In 1998 his tribute to the late reggae singer Garnett Silk, “Psalm of Silk”, appeared in Kwame Dawes’ anthology of reggae poetry (Wheel and Come Again : An Anhtology of Reggae Poetry, Leeds : Peepal Tree Press, 1998).
In 2003 Malachi won the International Dub Poets of the Year Award in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and his presence in southern Florida as a dub poet is firmly established. Malachi has kept alive in Florida a tradition of performance poetry which goes back to Louise Bennett, one of his influences, and also to the dub poetry tradition in Jamaica.
Professor Mervyn Morris wrote in the liner notes to the Luv Dub Fever CD that Malachi’s performance was “strong and subtle”, and that his “speaking voice – his chanting on most tracks – played comfortably agains tthe various music rhythms and the discreetly enhacing background singers”(Mervyn Morris, liner notes to Luv Dub Fever).
The Jamaican poet Geoffrey Philp wrote that “Malachi’s collection Hail to Jamaica combined nostalgia and social commentary in a distinctive voice that urges compassion for the downpressed. Ever a witness to injustice, an undercurrent of loss runs through many of these poems” (Geoffrey Philp, liner notes to Hail to Jamaica).
2014 saw the release of the album Scream on the 4-M Music label, hailed by Dr Heather D. Russell as “a Jamaican jeremiad, […] an urgent cry against suffering, against poverty, against political corruption, against the relentlessness of a Jamaican society plagued by the murder of innocents and the death of innocence” (liner notes to the CD). The CD contained powerful tracks like “Concrete Jungle”, “Cry for Liberty” as well as two tributes to Jamaican icons, Professor Rex Nettleford, and Michael Manley.
Malachi’s latest CD, Wiseman, was released in 2017 on the Upstairs Music label, featuring a mixture of topical pieces like “Breakwaway” and “Brexit” and more nostalgic poems like “Return My Sundays”, “Yard” and “Concrete Rose”. The track entitled “Dance Nice” addressed the theme of the power of Jamaican music and embodied it too.
The collection entitled The Gathering, contains love poems (“Mi Amor”), tributes to famous Jamaican icons (“Psalm of Silk”, a homage to the late Garnett Silk, “Rod Man”, another tribute to Michael Manley which is loosely based on the song “Michael Rows the Boat Ashore”, “Hit Maker” , which celebrates the greatness of Cedric Brooks), and deeply nostalgic pieces about the Jamaica Malachi left behind when he migrated to Florida (“Every Now and Then”, “Old Tunes Have Magic”). Music is often present in these pieces, constituting a kind of umbilical cord, a link with the poet’s home island.
There are also pieces addressing the themes of poverty in the land of plenty (“Broadway”) and battered women (“Is She Anybody’s Child ?”), as well as a moving tribute to Caribbean poets (“Expiration”).
The reggae tradition is of course heavily present in this collection, with the tributes to the late Dennis Brown (“Farewell Minstrel”) ,Garnett Silk and Cedric Brooks, but also references to famous reggae hits like Culture’s “Stop the Fussing and Fighting” and Bob Marley’s “Misty Morning”.
In “Open Mike”, the poet feels confident enough to challenge all the greats of English and Caribbean literature in order to stand his ground and defend his own brand of spoken word poetry. With this collection, which is indeed a fine gathering of poems, Malachi Smith does just that.