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Reggae fans probably know the Jamaican-born, London-based Linton Kwesi Johnson best for his protest albums, classics such as Dread Beat An' Blood (1978), Making History(1984) and the more recent More Time(1998). But Johnson is as well-known for his poetry as he is for his contributions to reggae music. Evidence of this came earlier this year, when the British division of Penguin Books selected a retrospective of his poetry, Mi Revalueshanary Fren, as a new title in its prestigious Modern Classics series.
For the reggae poet, it seems a bit ironic to be embraced by one of the UK's most revered literary institutions. After all, this is a man who wrote the poem "Inglan Is a Bitch," and whose critics in Margaret Thatcher-era England proclaimed that his words incited riots and other acts of violence.
"A radio station asked me how did I feel becoming a part of the literary establishment now, and I had to laugh, really. I'm only the second living poet to be published in this particular series, the only other person being a Polish poet [Czeslaw Milosz] who is 91 years old," Johnson says, speaking from the office of his London-based label, LKJ Records. Usually, institutions like Penguin wait until authors die before bestowing such an honor upon them, a fact not lost on Johnson. "I don't know whether or not I should go make my will now," he jokes.
Some gatekeepers of British culture might regard Johnson's inclusion with such traditionalists as Robert Graves and Rudyard Kipling as heresy. How, they may ask, can a verse that's steeped in a deep Jamaican patois and seems to mock and mangle the King's English have a place in the canon of British literature? But others are likely to regard Penguin's selection as commendable, in that it suggests the company is willing to expand the parameters of what is considered meritorious British literary expression. Penguin's choice honors Johnson as someone who has given a voice to black Britons who migrated to the U.K. from the West Indies.
Johnson is a public poet in the best sense of the word. He delves into both the personal and the political; at its core, his verse reflects a desire to speak directly to the people. Divided into three parts, Mi Revalueshanary Fren compiles his best writing from the past three decades, from the '70s through the end of the '90s. Early poems from the '70s, such as "Dread Beat An' Blood" (which appears in song form on the album of the same name), brilliantly capture the mood of Brixton, the section on the south side of London in which Johnson still resides and where residents persevere in a brutally oppressive environment. The poem "Five Nights of Bleeding" (which also appears on Dread Beat An' Blood) talks about the wars between rival sound-system factions that erupted into violence in the streets of London in the late '70s. The classic "Sonny's Lettah" is a narrative spoken in the voice of a son writing a letter to his mother as he sits in jail for a crime he didn't commit; it sounds as relevant today as it did when Johnson penned it. Having first appeared in print and, later, in spoken form on his 1980 Forces of Victoryalbum, "Sonny's Lettah" is a protest against Britain's "sus" laws, which at the time directly targeted black youths in much the same way that American police have used racial profiling to question and apprehend suspects.
Almost all of Johnson's work from the '70s and '80s provides provocative accounts of events and issues that affected black communities during that era. It is apparent, from his work of the past decade, that Johnson has not mellowed over the years; he still shows an incisive passion for issues that threaten to shackle humanity, but he also addresses more personal and global concerns. Poems like "New Word Hawdah," according to Johnson, "deal with how we dehumanize language by talking about ethnic cleansing." And "More Time," which appears on an album of the same name, "talks about the revolution in new technology, and what potentials are there in it for contemporary working people to be liberated from the man-hours we put in everyday work." In the '90s section, we see a side of Johnson that he rarely reveals. He credits the poem "Hurricane Blues" as his "first attempt at writing love verse."
Johnson's poetry has its roots in the styles of seminal African-American writers such as Paul Dunbar and others who have utilized dialects as a form of expression in their poetry. He speaks in a native polyglot tongue that is a blend of English, Jamaican jargon and Caribbean Creole. In describing his poetic lineage, Johnson says, "I'm part of the African Caribbean tradition, which spawned people like Louise Bennett, the mother of Jamaican poetry, to people like Kamau Brathwaite, who engendered the poets in the post-colonial revolution in Caribbean verse, to people like the Black French surrealists to poets like Jane Cortez and Amiri Baraka."
Johnson's style of verse has often been called "dub poetry." The description is apt in that like dub music, which strips songs of their original vocals and down to their basic elements, Johnson's verse boils words down to their essence. Johnson himself is credited with coming up with the term, although he first coined the phrase as a reference to the DJ toasting styles of people such as U-Roy and I-Roy, who would rap over instrumental dub tracks. "What the phrase really means now is Jamaican oral poetry that has been influenced by reggae," he explains.