Friday 11 May 2012

The Father of Dub Poetry - Linton Kwesi-Johnson

LKJ article by Imogen Reed

Widely recognized as the originator of ‘Dub Poetry’, Linton Kwesi-Johnson is a performer that any young poet today should try to see live. Although it is many years since Kwesi-Johnson spoke for the poor Afro-Caribbean community in Brixton, it was the power and lyricism of his poetry in the 70’s and 80’s that led many to an interest in spoken word art forms. Fusing politics, music and poetry over a reggae beat which powerfully accents his message, no-body, as they say, does it better.


Linton Kwesi Johnson arrived in England from Jamaica in 1963 and attended Goldsmiths College in London where he studied sociology. In a Britain that was strained with racial tension he gravitated towards politics and joined the Black Panthers. Finding art to be the most effective way to express his anger at the widespread police abuse of the black community in which he lived, LKJ as he became known, joined the Race Today Collective, who published his first collection of poetry in 1974. He also worked with a collective of poets and drummers known as Rasta Love.

Kwesi-Johnson wrote in Jamaican dialect, and often performed with music, and through his creative and pioneering work ‘dub poetry’ was born. His next anthology of poems was called Dread, Beat, an’ Blood (1975), which achieved considerable success. Although he always regarded himself as a poet foremost, and a musician second, he released four albums on the Island Record label - Forces of Victory (1979), Bass Culture (1980), LKJ In dub (1980) and Making History (1984). He then went on to form his own label – LKJ, selling sold over two million albums. His tracks are typically a heady fusion of reggae, dub reggae and rocksteady, almost always with strong political themes, reflecting the difficulties of growing up as a poor black kid in the UK at that time, when the Afro-Caribbean community was under great pressure from police. In Thatcher’s Britain there was smouldering tension between police and black communities in several cities. 

Kwesi-Johnson used his poetry and music to highlight the killing by police of Blair Peach at an anti-racism demonstration in 1979, to highlight the injustices of police brutality. "Writing was a political act and poetry was a cultural weapon" according to Kwesi-Johnson. And in his hands it became an extremely powerful cultural weapon. Alex Pryce, writing a critical perspective on the poet’s work for the British Council comments,

Kwesi-Johnson is a poet writing against the grand (white) traditions by using the repressed language of Britain's Black working class. For some, it is the familiar dialect of their community, for others it can seem estranging and harsh. Yet, Kwesi-Johnson's skill does not discriminate, even the 'oppressin man' is welcome to 'hear what I say if yu can' ('All Wi Doin Is Defendin', Dread, Beat An' Blood, 1975) and the phonetically astute nature of the verse rewards articulation, reinforcing its roots in performance, people and protest.
Alex Pryce 2009

Today, he still champions human rights and racial equality, seeing racism within the police as a pressing issue. He highlights the case of Stephen Lawrence and the high level of of stop and search in black communities as evidence that there is still much work to be done in this area. He works with children in schools and Universities in the UK, helping to raise consciousness about social inequality.

Kwesi-Johnson has not been overlooked by academia and the literary world. Silja J.A. Talvi of In These Times notes that, “LKJ has helped legitimize a language previously dismissed as the “pidgin” English of people too uneducated or lazy (or both) to grasp proper English, introducing it to the world in poetry.” His work is highly regarded, and in 2002 he became the first black poet to have a collection published as a Penguin Classic edition. In fact he is only the second living poet to have achieved this. He has also received numerous honorary awards. He still performs, touring in 2011. He has also tried to remain current to some degree, appearing with The Voices of Urban Renewal, but he’s now a grandfather, and will probably never be one for online banking, ipods and trainers. But the modern era still holds interest for him, politically. He is cautiously optimistic, and particularly encouraged by the emergence of collective political movements around the world at present. Let's hope his optimimism is well placed.

Reproduced here is one of his most passionate poems, to give you just a flavour of what made LKJ famous.

Mekkin Histri

now tell mi something
mistah govahment
mantell mi something
how lang yu really feel
yu coulda keep wi andah heel
wen di trute done reveal
bout how yu grab an steal
bout how yu mek yu crooked deal
well doun in Soutall
where Peach did get fall
di Asians dem faam-up a human wall
gense di fashist an dem police sheil
an dem show dat di Asians gat plenty zeal
it is noh mistri
wi mekkin histri
it is noh mistri
wi winnin victri
now tell me something
mistah police spokesman
tell mi sometinghow lang yu really tink
wi woulda tek yu batn lick
yu jackboot kick
yu dutty bag a tricks
an yu racist pallyticks
well doun in Bristal
dey ad noh pistal
but dem chase di babylan away
man yu shoulda si yu babylan
how dem really run away
yu shoulda si yu babylan dem dig-up dat dey
it is noh mistri...
now tell me something
mistah ritewing man
tell mi something
how lang yu really feel
wi woulda grovel an squeal
wen so much murdah canceal
wen wi woun cyann heal
wen wi feel di way wi feel
well dere woz Toxtethan
an dere woz Moss Side
an a lat a addah places
whey di police ad to hide
well dare woz Brixtanan
dere woz Chapeltoun
an a lat a addah place dat woz burnt to di groun
it is noh mistri
wi mekki histri
it is no noh mistri
wi winning victri
Linton Kwesi-Johnson (1983)

LKJ Website

Further Reading

Choice of YouTube Performances
 Sonny’s Lettah

If I Waz A Tap Natch Poet – at Urban Renewal Programme

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