By Josephine Hill
Baltimore musician Jahiti of the rap group Brown FISH took to the stage of Busboys and Poets in Washington last December surrounded by images of social justice leaders.
At one point during the concert, Jahiti joined the audience and intensely strummed his guitar as he chanted his songs.
The audience roared when he stood on a chair at the climax of the song “Fish Bowl” in what appeared to be a message that was not only heard, but felt by everyone who was there.
“The lyrics had meaning, such beautiful meaning,” said Lydia Johnson, who attended the Dec. 30 concert. “It was something you could relate to. It wasn’t typical stuff about booty-bouncing. He was singing legitimate stuff that anyone from ages 5 to 100 can relate to. It is so relatable to everybody: men, women, boy, girl, no matter what your social class is, your age, your race – especially that Fish Bowl song.”
Jahiti’s music has become more relevant over the last few weeks in light of the protests and riots that rocked Baltimore in April and early May after the death of Freddie Gray. Although many of his songs were written 15 years ago, they touch on the current issues of police brutality, the murder of young black men and the cycle of drug use.
In addition, Jahiti released a new song two days ago called “The Protest Show,” which features the late Derrick “OOH” Jones, who performed with Jahiti as part of the influential Baltimore rap group Brown FISH. Jahiti will perform the song as part of a rally near the Gilmore homes, where Gray was arrested, at 1640 Balmor Court in Baltimore at 7 p.m. May 28.
“There was a murder in Baltimore” is the chorus in the song “Murder,” and the album served as a musical healing and platform for love, growth and expression for Jahiti.
“His music got me through college,” said Monique Tyson, Jahiti’s sister. “I would pop in his CD and get into my homework. It was a helping tool to get through a stressful time.I really got to understand the issues that he was talking about in the community through his music.”
Jones founded #SaveADopeBoy in 2009 as a movement to deter youth from relying on the streets as a means of support. The group was also designed to promote individual success through learning, doing and discussing what it takes to be an employable, responsible young citizen.
Music was not always the main focus of Jones and Jahiti, whose real name is Ian Smith. Both were teachers in Baltimore city. They organized and provided positive male guidance for an all-male class for students at Gilmore Elementary from 2004 to 2008.
Music was just their expression. The impact Jones had on the lives of students, community members and Jahiti was clearly visible through his works.
“He really is my best friend,” Jahiti said. “We worked together. We had a home and studio together. I’m the godfather of his daughter. We performed on stage for so many years. Each one of those compartments had to heal on their own.”
Jahiti is a first-generation Jamaican-American singer and songwriter of World County Soul. Jahiti has been involved in Baltimore as a graduate from Coppin State University, an educator and musician.
Jahiti spent his childhood summers singing and praying in Jamaica. At 6 years old, he would dance as if he was performing.
“I made music as a desire to share something,” Jahiti said.
Jahiti’s father was a truck driver. Although he did not spend much time with his father, Jahiti said his dad influenced him because his father sang country music from Willie Nelson and Kenny Rogers.
“I think it had an effect on me having an interest in country music,” Jahiti said. “I listened to Soca growing up, barely any reggae.”
“The standard you live as a young man will follow you through life,” said Jahiti’s mother, Judith Charles.“He was one that always listened to his mom. I was brought up with love, tenderness and strict guidance, so I wanted to pass that on to my two kids.”
“He has a political taste in his mouth, one day he might go a little further with that,” Charles said.
Jahiti participated in the 300 Men March in Baltimore city this April with community leaders. The march was an anti-violence movement that supported the peaceful protesters seeking justice for Gray, the 25-year-old man whose death while in police custody in April sparked protests in Baltimore.
On Instagram Smith had a #ThisIsBaltimoreToo movement, which he used to educate his followers that there is more to Baltimore than what is reported in the news media.
“I’ve been involved with the 300 Men organization for two and a half years,” Smith said.
Every Friday evening, 20 to 50 men walk through the most violent communities in Baltimore city as a caring presence that the community trusts. Jahiti said residents trust the 300 Men as authority figures because of the respect they have for them.
“Being seen and letting the neighborhood know that they haven’t been forgotten has been the most rewarding and effective way to give back to my community,” Jahiti said. “I’m really passionate about being a support and an assistance to my community. The people who need that the most are going to always be the children, and after them women and lastly men.”
Jahiti said that as an independent artist, he believes the Baltimore poetry scene is supportive of local musicians. He performs at restaurants, lounges and festivals throughout Baltimore. He also sings in weddings, prisons and venues along the East Coast.
Jahiti said he enjoys live performances where he can connect with the audience.
“I make music that is socially inclined,” Smith said. “People ask me to support because I’ve already been involved.”
“It is not until 2014, really, that now I can say that I’m really taking this thing serious in terms of it being a career,” Jahiti said. “I had a beautiful 14-year career of just being an artist and not caring whether you bought my CD or not. I think if I just spend as much time working for somebody else, working on myself, I think I can make it.”
“Most of my songs are not written in an intellectual process,” he added. “It just happens. I don’t like to predict the song I’m going to perform ahead of time. I look at the audience first. It is powerful for someone to doubt you, then remove all doubt.”
Johnson, the audience member who was so touched by Jahiti’s music last December, may be one of those people.
“It lets you know that we’re all brought together under one common thing,” Johnson said of Jahiti’s music. “We’re all not different, we’re all experiencing the same thing, no matter who we are, what we are, where we’re from, we’re all experiencing the same stuff in our lives. We’re all in a fishbowl.”