Cleveland Smillie, a laid-back Jamaican reggae singer known as Jah Hammed whose beloved Brownsville bike shop anchored the corner of Pitkin Avenue and Mother Gaston Boulevard for nearly 40 years, passed away earlier this month. He was 68.
Smillie’s store, the Brownsville Bike Shop, was not just one of the only places to buy or repair a bicycle in the area; it was also a mini-arcade, a place for musical collaboration and creativity, and perhaps most importantly, a refuge.
“For neighborhood kids, it was a safe place to come to,” said Smillie’s son, Patrick Smillie. “No violence, no crime, none of that was allowed in the shop.”
Over the years, the shop attracted a multi-generational customer base, and Smillie became a well-known Brownsville staple. In a 2011 video profile created by the arts organization BRIC, Smillie told host Deven Clarke (himself a long-time customer) that a 10-minute walk down the street often “takes me like an hour, because I gotta stop here, and say ‘hey brother’” to so many people along the way.
Smillie was born in St. Thomas, Jamaica in 1953. He got his start as a musician at the age of nine singing in a school choir, according to fellow reggae artist Fabrizio Lagana. As a young adult, Smillie recorded with the group The Outer Limits and later as a solo artist; his most well-known song, the breezy “Ordinary Natty,” was released In 1977.
He came to New York in the late 70s, his son said, “to build and establish his life and his family, while chasing his dream” of creating music. With his wife Inez, he had two boys—Patrick and Leon—and two girls—Neesa and Natasha—as well as another daughter, Jannamichelle, with another partner. All the while, he continued to produce a steady stream of reggae, lovers rock and roots rock recordings.
While most of his earlier releases were singles, Smillie eventually produced three full-length albums: The Many Phases Of Jah Hammed (2009), Real Love (2012), and Champion Sound (2019). Those recordings were released by the record label Total Satisfaction, which was created by Leon. A music video for the single “Finding My Way” was released in January 2020.
But music alone was not enough to make a living. Smillie told BRIC that when he first settled in Brownsville, he considered opening a video store. But there were already several such stores nearby, and Smillie wanted to offer something “that’s not in the neighborhood, that can benefit the kids, older people.”
A bike shop fit the mission. “Brownsville is a community where a lot of people cannot afford to buy cars,” Patrick told Bklyner. “But the best way to get around that’s affordable and also healthy is a bicycle.”
Smillie took his shop’s role as a community resource seriously; he donated bikes to youth groups, and he set up a television in the shop with video games like Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat for neighborhood kids to use. He told BRIC that the business wasn’t particularly lucrative, but that “my lotto is the happiness that I can bring to the children.”
“He was a philanthropist,” said Quardean Lewis-Allen, the Founder and CEO of Youth Design Center (formerly Made in Brownsville). “He cared deeply for the community and mentored youth in bike repair.”
Smillie was also close with another Brownsville staple, Greg “Jocko” Jackson, a former professional basketball player and longtime manager of the Brownsville Recreation Center who sometimes purchased Smillie’s bikes for his students. After Jackson died in 2012, Smillie said in a memorial video that even if a customer was struggling to afford a purchase, “I still try to work with them, because that’s the spirit of Jocko.”
Smillie’s passing was announced on February 12th; soon after, a memorial appeared outside his shuttered shop, and messages of mourning and gratitude popped up in Brownsville Facebook groups.
One poster said Smillie was “talent in motion and always helping others.” Another called him “the heart of Brownsville.” Even the local NYPD precinct acknowledged Smillie’s passing in a Facebook post, writing that his shop and presence “were cultural mainstays” and that “the entire community will miss him.”
Smillie is survived by his children. Patrick declined to share information on the cause of death, but said it was not related to coronavirus.
Patrick, who now lives in Virginia, said the family had not yet decided the future of the bike shop. But he did say he planned to release additional Jah Hammed recordings through his Sons of Rasta record label.
“Brownsville knows what they lost,” Patrick said. “A brother, a father, an uncle, a friend. Somebody who stood up and represented Brownsville everywhere he went. But it’s not a loss because he will always be around. His music lives on and we as his kids will continue to work in his honor.”