By Noah Hubbell
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The reggae bard's hypnotic deep baritone translates well on record -- many of his poems show up as verses accompanied by a reggae band on his albums -- as well as in a live setting. Recently, Johnson got a chance to perform his verse in front of a new audience. He appeared on a segment of Russell Simmons's hip-hop inspired Def Poetry Jamseries, which has aired weekly on HBO this summer; Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez and the Last Poets are among those who read on the program.
"I didn't even know what this Def Poetry Jam was about: I never heard of it, I don't have HBO, and I live in London. But when I heard it was the Def Jam people -- they have a good reputation, and they told me some of the names of the poets they've been working with. So 48 hours after getting the call, I got on a plane to New York and I did this thing," he says. That "thing" was a rendition of the poem "If I Waz a Tap Natch Poet," which he says was "a riposte to a quotation I read in The Oxford Companion to Twentieth-Century Poetry, in which somebody made a disparaging remark about dub poetry."
Now a tap-natch poet for sure, Johnson was born Linton Johnson in 1952 in Chapelton, a small town in Jamaica. He moved to London when he was eleven years old. While cultural differences between the two countries were immediately apparent to him, a lot of what he experienced had the touch of the familiar.
"I came from rural Jamaica straight to London, and it was a bit of a shock, to say the least," he says. "It wasn't a cultural shock, as far as we were socialized into British colonialism culture anyway, but, for example, seeing a white man sweeping the streets was a bit of a revelation, because you never thought growing up in rural Jamaica that there were any poor white people. You thought that all white people were rich and that they were in charge of everything, so it was a bit of an eye-opener."
Johnson felt at home in Brixton, a community with a large Jamaican and Caribbean population. But when he ventured outside these environs, he often had to confront racism head on. His white classmates taunted him because of his ethnic background and "funny" accent, and his teachers often made him feel ashamed of speaking in his native dialect.
"To be racially abused by most pupils and teachers and to experience racism, in the buses, in the shops and in people's attitudes in general, it was a traumatic experience," he says. "But apart from that, children learn to adapt quickly, and I adapted quickly and settled down."
As Johnson adapted to his new environment and entered his teens, he began to become interested in the burgeoning Black Power movement in America. He points to the symbolic gestures made by the black USA track and field athletes at the awards ceremony at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City as a pivotal point in the development of his political consciousness.
"I was about seventeen. I think one of the things that contributed to my politicization was those athletes giving the Black Power salute in 1968, and also the events that were happening at the time: the anti-colonial struggle in Africa, the Black Power movement in America, the assassination of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr."
During this heady yet tumultuous time, Johnson joined the British Black Panthers, an organization not directly linked to the Stateside Huey Newton-led Panthers. Johnson says it was "an organization that was the most militant organization around at the time -- militant, but also progressive. Although its slogan was 'Black Power,' it wasn't an actual anti-white organization. It was more socialist in its outlook, and it talked more about solidarity for all oppressed peoples rather than the supremacy of one race over another."
While spending some time in the Panthers' library, Johnson came across a book that would inspire him to write poetry: The Souls of Black Folk, by W.E. DuBois. Reading the book, he says, was "an extraordinary experience. It was the first time I read anything like it. Even though DuBois was writing about the post-emancipation experience for blacks in America in the nineteenth century, somehow I could relate it to my contemporary experience in London. I also could relate some of the imagery of it to my childhood environment in the hills of Jamaica, even though he was talking in some sections of the book about Georgia. It's a book that stirred something in me. I loved the language. The language is beautiful and poetic."
Having found his muse, Johnson began to write. He led a writing workshop for the Panthers and, after hooking up with drumming group Rasta Love, began to meld music and create a style that was similar to that of the American collective the Last Poets. Johnson read his verse in his trademark percussive monotone set to the accompaniment of African Caribbean beats. The bass line has always been vital to his phrasing; it is from there that the natural musicality of his voice flows.