By Al SpicerAlthough his time in the spotlight was relatively brief, reggae singer Smiley Culture (known to his parents as David Victor Emmanuel) punched above his weight both at home in the UK and on the wider world musical scene due to his combination of lyrical dexterity and keen observation.
Born and raised in Stockwell, near Brixton in South London, Smiley grew up with and absorbed influences from streetwise kids in one of the city's most deeply-rooted social melting pots. Picking up the nickname 'Smiley' through the success of his favourite chat-up line, his confidence made him an ideal front man. His technique of interspersing cockney London slang with West Indian patois was by no means exclusive – it's part of any black kid's education, and with the growth of 'jafaican' as the lingua franca of the capital's youth, is increasingly employed by white kids – but he made it his own musically. While most musicians drilled down towards 'roots' or similarly spurious authenticity, Smiley's work brought the similarities between Britain's youth tribes into the light.
British reggae enjoyed one of its irregular surges in popularity during the 1980's, as rival sound systems challenged one another with ever more impressive productions. As the archetypal 'rebel music', it was the ideal format for disaffected youth to protest poverty, prejudice and state-sponsored oppression. Against a backdrop of strike-breaking stooges defended by a politicized police force, with mass unemployment, industrial unrest and a radical reconfiguration of the workplace to deal with, '80's reggae in the UK covered the emotional spectrum from the dismal gloom of UB40 to the upbeat cheery cheekiness of Tippa Irie, with Smiley's input neatly weaving sharp social comment into a relentless if generally realist positivity somewhere between the extremes.
He cut his teeth, learned the ropes and paid his dues mainly as part of the Saxon Studio International – arguably London's premier sound system – working alongside Tippa, Maxi Priest and Papa Levi at the city's top black events, becoming a star on that scene while remaining unknown to the wider multi-cultural audience.
His track-crossing background finally led to his first hit, 1984's "Cockney Translation." Released on the Fashion label, it delivered a reasonably accurate pamphlet of mutually-obscure phraseology of assistance to both the newly-arrived West Indian immigrant and his home-grown next-door neighbour. Concentrating on aspects of street life in the big bad city, it dealt with Police (Old Bill/Babylon), Thieves (tea leaf/sticks man) and Money (wedge/corn). While superficially treating the differences between one culture and another, it slyly showed off the similarities they shared.
Smiley's second chart hit, "Police Officer," drew equally sly attention to the high proportion of black guys driving fancy cars selected for 'random' stop and search by the Metropolitan Police. In this infectiously appealing story-telling jam, Smiley escapes a bust by slipping the cops an autograph.
Further singles performed less well, and although he continued in show-business for some further years – appearing at 1985's Sunsplash in Jamaica, hosting a network TV show and sneaking a cameo appearance in the movie Absolute Beginners - at the end of the '80's, Smiley ducked out of public view to enjoy a surprisingly lucrative retirement in suburbia. It was only the unexpected and bizarre nature of his death in 2011 that brought him back to the media's attention.
Interviewed in 2010, Smiley had claimed his luxury lifestyle was funded by judicious investments in diamond and gold mining operations throughout Africa. The authorities were more of the opinion that he'd become involved with a cocaine-smuggling operation, and he was arrested, charged and bailed to appear in court.
On March 15 this year, just a week before his trial was due to begin, Smiley's home was raided by police. In a difficult-to-swallow chain of events, he was allowed to go unaccompanied into his kitchen, stab himself once through the heart with a knife and die as a result. The resulting wave of stunned disbelief and protest meetings died down swiftly - despite rumours of high-level establishment involvement in both the smuggling organization and the singer's death - with the whole story summed up by a couple of local TV news slots and hand-wringing pieces on extra-judicial punishments in a few of the papers.
Smiley's legacy - a brace of classic pop songs and a deliciously cheeky grin – was undoubtedly dirtied by his alleged involvement with drugs and the dark side. Pity he never had his moment in court to prove things one way or the other. Though no great leader of Britain's fight for racial equality, he did his bit and will be missed by fans, friends and family alike.
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