Malachi D. Smith. Tick Off (4-M Music/BMI, 2020).
Malachi D. 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, Scream, 2014; Wiseman, 2017) on which he performs his poems to the accompaniment of reggae music or a cappella.
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.
Malachi’s latest album, Tick Off, came out in October 2020, and shows that the Jamaican dub poetry tradition is alive and well in southern Florida. The album was produced and mixed by Marlon Smith at his own studio (4-M Studio) and contains ten tracks which take dub poetry into the 21st century. This album is firmly rooted in the Jamaican reggae tradition with the song/poem entitled “Bawling For Justice” which updates the classic U-Roy track “Everybody Bawling”, itself a version of The Melodians’ eponymous track. So we learn that white birds are chirping for love, while black birds are bawling for justice. The theme of justice runs through the whole album and crops up again in the poem entitled “Tick Off (We Can’t Breathe)” which references the George Floyd affair and deals with the burning issue of reparations too :
Tick tock, tick tock
Can’t hold it any longer
Going to blast
Away your oppressive monuments
Is that we a defend.
“Beat Down Zion’s Door” updates Bob Dylan’s “Knocking On Heaven’s Door” in a plea for justice , this time asking God why there is so much suffering in the world in the name of religion.
The poem entitled “The Blacker The Berry” addresses the issue of skin bleaching which is unfortunately prevalent in some black communities. Malachi makes the point that such an attitude would be an insult to his grandmother and anchors the song firmly in the Jamaican oral tradition with this proverb. In fact the late great Joseph Hill, lead singer with the harmony trio Culture, used that proverb on stage to make a point.
The a cappella and allegorical poem “The Mississipi Sings For Me” looks at the issue of black unity in a Pan-Africanist perspective and builds bridges between the Jamaican community in the USA and the African-American population. The poet hears that the Mississipi river sings like “Billie all day” and “Gladys all night” and at first does not believe he is concerned. But after looking at the river’s “brown and drawn face”, he comes to the conclusion that they are all Africans.
The poem entitled “Forgotten” reinterprets the Gospels in a modern setting with the figure of Jesus reincarnated in a South Florida “Home Depot”, facing poverty and the general indifference of the people who should support him:
I see Jesus in a Home Depot Parking lot
Willing to work for a dollar, and his disciples
Drive by and didn’t stop, too busy
Thinking about their 401K and stocks
And the poppy show on dumb see TV.
As the passage quoted above shows, Malachi does not hold back and tells it like is ,with the Jamaican expression “poppy show” (used to make fun of something ridiculous or absurd) having a particularly forceful impact here.
Overall, a very satisfying dub poetry album, with hard-hitting lyrics, great musical arrangements, and Malachi’s powerful voice. Who said dub poetry was dead ?