Thu | Jan 24, 2019

David 'Hillsman' Henry: Power in words

Published:Sunday | February 15, 2015 | 12:00 AM

Keisha Hill, Gleaner Writer

Believe it or not, dub poet David 'Hillsman' Henry started out wanting to sing! However, realising that he wasn't going to make it in the singing world, he turned his attention to poetry writing and recitals. But it's not accidental, 'Hillsman' will be the first to tell you, that he writes from experience.

According to him, he has had his struggles, and his materials are derived from them, and the rest from his observance of his environment or through the experiences of others. Many poets, he said, speak to music or at least a beat, but many others prefer to rely on the beat that is found in the sounds and words themselves. "The performance of a piece, as much as the words and the sounds, has a lot to do with how it is understood," Hillsman said.

Dub poetry is a form of performance poetry consisting of spoken word over reggae rhythms that originated in Jamaica in the 1970s. Oku Onuora, Mutabaruka and the late Mikey Smith were the pioneers in Jamaica, with Linton Kwesei Johnson at the forefront of the British scene.

Poet Oku Onuora was the first to coin this poetry as 'dub poetry'. He said the term referred to "a poem that has a built-in reggae rhythm; hence, when the poem is read without any reggae rhythm 'backing', so to speak, one can distinctly hear the reggae rhythm coming out of the poem."

Hillsman said during the recovery period after an accident two years ago, he found himself writing more.

"I want to revolutionise the art of dub poetry and create an interesting spin on it as it relates to certain issues. I also want to create a listenership with the audience, and I intend to put myself in the position where persons can relate to the message in my poetry," he said.

Words, he said, have extreme power and influence, and the spoken word even more so. He claims that proof of this can be found all over the history of Jamaica - from religion to social conflict to music and literature.

"The Bible speaks to the power of words: 'And God said, let there be light. And there was light.' From the chanting down of Babylon to the arts of folk healing, words have been known to hold divine power for man (and woman)," Hillsman said.

According to him, Jamaicans had a certain gift of "using rhythmic and linguistic subversion" to fight the forces of oppression and of doing so in very unique and successful ways. "I grew up in a Christian home where my mother was a school teacher and my father a devoted pastor, herbalist and farmer. Music, however, has always been an integral part of my life growing up, in my home, church and community. It was (because of) my love for the rich Jamaican culture that I fell in love with dub poetry," Hillsman said.

His latest work, dubbed 'In a Letter to My Wife', pays tribute to his wife, who he said has been a source of strength and inspiration for him: "I tell her I love her, all the days of my life ... all when me bruck an nuh have nuh money, she still a call me honey."

Hillsman said he is now working on another project as a tribute to phenomenal and pioneering Jamaican and Caribbean women. "Despite the celebration of International Women's Day and the fact that women have made positive gains over the years, the world is still unequal," he said.

"Some of these women are well known, while others are unsung heroines. However, they have all continued in the long tradition of strong Jamaican and Caribbean women who have worked hard and sacrificed to bring about changes that have not only benefitted their families and communities, but also the wider society," he added.

For more information on David 'Hillsman' Henry, visit