Profile of Jahiti of Brown FISH by Maddie Scharff
While this is the third time we have met it is the first time outside of an event Jahiti is headlining. As we are talking I notice his speaking and singing voice are the same. It is strong; he projects and clearly annunciates every word. It is convivial; he looks into your eyes while speaking to you with a toothy smile. And it is spiritual in the way he opens and closes his eyes, taking time to connect with himself and his audience.
He attended Coppin State University starting in 1991; after graduating he decided to remain in Baltimore and has lived here since. He says he rarely misses his previous home in Brooklyn but may one day move to Jamaica where his grandparents are from. That said, he has no plans to leave Baltimore anytime soon. “This city made me a man,” he says reopening his eyes. He had closed them upon saying the word “city”, perhaps in introspection due to the profound effect the city has had on him. “The people here are loving people but they can be cautious and at times they can be real rough to people they don’t know.” He knows this because of his dedicated involvement to helping bring positive thoughts to the Baltimore community.
I first met Jahiti two months ago at a community pop-up event called Love on the Line: Stories of a Baltimore Worth Living presented at the Spin Cycle Laundromat. As I sat listening to him end the evening with three original songs, the room felt intimate and grew quiet. People who were previously washing clothes, walking around looking at student artwork, and chasing their children, gathered close to hear the words of his most well known song, “Fish Bowl” which includes the lines “freedom, freedom, is the only life worth living for, so come on with me, jump and just be free.”
He is a passionate man, with an intimate connection to the people of Baltimore. “Jump out, out, out, out, out of this fish bowl” he sings. His guitar moves closer to his body and his body moves closer to the audience as he sings each “out,” which sound more like “ah-uh,” giving the melody a reggae vibe.
The second time I met Jahiti was at the Play Hookah Room in Baltimore, where he performed with Sean Martial, Chuck Maddox, David Buckholtz, and guests from the audience. The same intimacy was present that night; almost everyone there knew each other and stayed long after the show, puffing shisha, a molasses-based concoction, from hookahs and sharing stories of their past week. Jahiti understands how to bring people together. He can bridge gaps between individuals who might not otherwise have anything in common.
Not only does he bring people together through music, he is involved with the 300 Men March, which has an annual 10-mile public walk across North Avenue in Baltimore City. The march brings awareness to the violence present in that area, in hopes that at least for the day there will be no crime or hate. He also participates in Save a Dope Boy, a grassroots organization that promotes community involvement and employment readiness for Baltimore City youth, as well as Boy Scouts of America. “If you’re going to support something it needs be the children. Children, women, and men last. It’s harder to work with broken men,” he says.
He encourages everyone to join organizations such as churches “not because you believe its righteous or the right thing but because now you have a group of people that can decide where you’re going to focus your energy.” You can find Jahiti playing for free at many children’s associated programs and community pop-up events.
Before he was a performer, he wrote poetry although he claims with much laughter, “It was nothing intelligent” and that it “just kind of happened.” He came to be a singer and songwriter in the same way—naturally. When he was young he spent every summer with his grandparents and aunts in Jamaica. They were strict about church and prayer. “I was always singing,” he remembers. He is grinning widely, signifying it was not an annoyance. He initially started song writing to Jamaican dub, a beat heavy music with no lyrics. He would buy the music and then write his own lyrics to the beats. He progressed from there to play in a group, Brown FISH, years later in Baltimore. During his time in Brown FISH he also evolved from chanting to singing solo while playing guitar.
“I almost never write a song off the top of my head. I need the music there and then I can get started. Once there’s an energy behind the song I use everything I know to figure out what needs to be said in the most direct way.” Yet, deciding what message to send out to his audience has not always been easy. His personal musical style has come a long way.
“In the boot leg mixes, which focus on chanting, I was very young, lacking male energy. There’s some aggression when you listen to it. I’m way calmer now and it’s just not very serious. My albums Fishbowl (2003) to Manifest (2014) have big differences in the musicality and some of the language is different too. I’d rather tell you what I like and love rather than what I hate and dislike. That’s the major different now.” He says, “telling people what you hate and dislike is a lot of unnecessary information. Reinforce the appropriate thing and not the negative thing.”
One of Jahiti’s songs, I Pledge Ft. OOH, a mixture of chanting and singing, is one that all citizens should take the time to listen but especially Baltimoreans in light of recent Freddie Grey protests. The song begins with a little boy’s voice: “All the kids want to go outside and play but they cant, because they’re shooting, we gotta stay in the house because they always trying to kill another black men. I wish black men stop acting like children, children are acting like grown men,” which is an emotionally charged message all Baltimoreans need to reflect on. Jahiti takes over the chorus with, “when I look up in the sky, cross my heart and hope to die, I pledge to be the man that I’m supposed to be” and each word is chanted tersely, in a deep voice, as if he is begging his listeners to do the same.