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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.
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.
During the '70s, he also found time to attend Goldsmith College at the University of London, and he graduated with a B.A. in sociology. For the next two decades, he pursued his artistic interests and became increasingly involved in political activism. He was an arts editor at the influential London journal Race Today, worked as one of the first black broadcast journalists for the BBC, and played an important role in the Black Parents movement. He participated in numerous campaigns to help free prisoners victimized by social injustice.
Throughout his career, Johnson's dedication to struggles for racial equality and social and economic justice have found their way into his poetry and music. To read and listen to his work is to experience an eyewitness account of someone living on the front lines of the struggle. Along with the recent publication of Mi Revalueshanary Fren,Johnson has kept busy working on various music projects. He has just released LKJ in Dub, Volume 3, a collection of dub tracks with his longtime collaborator, Dennis Bovell, whom he refers to as "the Quincy Jones of reggae music." Johnson also plans to release a live album in addition to launching a tour in the U.S. with the Dennis Bovell Dub Band; during the American shows, will read his verse unaccompanied and with the band.
In the meantime, Johnson says, he will continue to explore the connections in poetry, language and music.
"I think there is a strong connection between them," he says. "In fact, most verse is musical and has some musicality towards it, in terms of meter. I've always been attracted to verse that sings. I like the lyric. I'm interested in the relationship between the language of music and the music in language."