Linton Kwesi Johnson: Revalueshanary Voice

For 30 years Linton Kwesi Johnson has been Britain’s leading dub poet, though he prefers to call his verse “reggae poetry”. James Ferguson finds it’s harder than he expected to pin down the elusive LKJ

At the offices of Race Today in 1991, with Darcus Howe (at right). Photograph by Urbanimage.tvcover courtesy LKJ RecordsCover courtesy of LKJ RecordsCover courtesy of LKJ RecordsLinton Kwesi Johnson. Photograph by Urbanimage.tvLKJ on the streets of Brixton. Photograph by Urbanimage.tv

For 30 years Linton Kwesi Johnson has been Britain’s leading dub poet, though
he prefers to call his verse “reggae poetry”. James Ferguson finds it’s harder
than he expected to pin down the elusive LKJ

Some interviews just seem to get off on the wrong foot. I have
hardly had time to say hello before Linton Kwesi Johnson announces that he
is tired of being asked questions, that he is suffering from what he calls
interview fatigue. This is not an auspicious start, and it gets worse when
he asks where my tape-recorder is. (I don’t use one.) For a moment I think
he is going to walk out.

Linton Kwesi Johnson, aka LKJ, has, of course, hardly based his reputation
on being cuddly. The reggae poet is probably most famous for uncompromising
lyrics like those in Inglan is a Bitch or All Wi Doin is Defendin, where his patois verses issue an unambiguous warning to racist policemen:

Wi will fite yu in di street wid we han
wi hav a plan
soh lissen man
get ready fi tek some blows

Nor has LKJ ever been a mealy-mouthed liberal. A Black Panther while still
at school, and a member of the radical Race Today collective, he has consistently
taken a tough line against what he sees as the endemic racism of British
society. In the 1970s and 80s he stood out as the angry but articulate voice
of black Britain, at odds with the harsh conservatism of the Margaret Thatcher
era. This was no mere armchair theorising or posturing; he was himself assaulted
and arrested by the police on spurious charges.

But official recognition, and perhaps respectability, has arrived after 30
years of militancy. A collection of LKJ’s poems was published in 2002 in
the Penguin Classics series, an honour bestowed only once before on a living
poet. The appearance of Mi Revalueshanary Fren: Selected Poems marks a serious literary landmark.

We are sitting in the cavernous bar of a Herne Hill pub. Just
around the corner is Railton Road, leading to Brixton, the thoroughfare that
was known as the Frontline during its more rebellious days in the 70s. It
was here, in April, 1981, that the rage of inner-city black youths at their
treatment by the police exploded into the Brixton Riots. Cars and buildings
burned, rocks and Molotov cocktails were thrown, more arrests were made.
Now this erstwhile battlefield is somewhat gentrified, the result of inner-city
regeneration in the wake of the riots and rising property prices.

Not that our pub is particularly posh — LKJ cuts an incongruously dapper
figure against a background of framed rugby shirts and horse racing on the
television. A couple of daytime regulars greet him, for this is his patch,
the part of London that he has lived in for many a year. He is also an unmistakable
figure, with his trademark trilby hat, round glasses, and goatee beard. Wearing
a smart fawn-coloured coat and carrying a striped sports umbrella, LKJ exudes
conspicuous style within the winter gloom of suburban Herne Hill. The voice
is instantly recognisable to anyone who has heard his recordings: a thorough
mix of Jamaican and South London, expressive and used to performing.

I suggest that we might start with his Jamaican childhood. “You
can find all that in my CV,” he says impatiently, with the air of someone
who has been asked these questions once too often. But I persevere, and he
begins, wearily at first, to talk about the early years. He was born in 1952
in Chapeltown, Clarendon parish. “I’m a country boy by background. When my
mother came to England, I went to live with my grandmother in a little village
called Sandy River. We lived from subsistence farming, growing sweet potatoes,
corn, some sugarcane, and ginger. I had to do my share of the chores, fetching
wood for the fire, moving the goat, working in the field during the sugarcane
harvest.”

It was an unluxurious childhood, with no electricity or running water; home
was a wattle-and-daub house. But, he says, “They are mostly happy memories,
the sad ones fade.”

The emotional rock on which this happiness was founded was his grandmother,
who was the formative influence in his early years. And, significantly, it
was through her that LKJ came into close touch with Jamaican English, with
the expressive and inventive patois that has since run through his poetry.

“As we had no TV or radio, we talked and played word games. She told me folk
tales, riddles, ghost stories. I had nightmares after listening to them.”

He started Baptist church school at the age of eight, in a forbidding Victorian
grey brick building. But he thrived there, and by the age of 11 was in a
class with children three or four years older. “I loved learning,” he says,
“I was very inquisitive.” It was a traditional and strict education. One
teacher, Mr Graham, used to inspect hair and fingernails. “For some reason,
when he was wearing his cream-coloured shirt in particular, you had to watch
your Ps and Qs.”

In 1963, when he was 11, LKJ came to England to join his mother. It was a
culture shock on many fronts. Not only were the streets of London not paved
with gold, but it was a poor and cold city. It came as a particular surprise
to the bright young Jamaican schoolboy to realise that the education on offer
at the Tulse Hill comprehensive school was much worse than what he’d known
in the Caribbean.

“I was already doing simultaneous equations at the age of nine,” he says,
“but here there was hardly any attention to the three Rs.” What was worse
was the assumption that black youngsters were not cut out to be academic
achievers. “It was as if our parents had been brought here to do menial work,
and we were not expected to be high achievers.”

But, against the odds, LKJ and some of his black friends did do well, moving
up the school’s streams and passing six “O” levels. There were some good
teachers who encouraged him, and so it was that he went to Brixton College
to take “A” levels. This was a period during which he encountered some seminal
books and political influences, notably W.E.B. Dubois’s The Souls of Black Folk,
the classic analysis of race and colour in the post-emancipation United States.
He had already come into contact with radical black politics and joined the
Black Panther Youth Section while still at school. This political activism
continued as he read sociology at Goldsmiths College.

By then, LKJ mentions, he already had a young family. I want
to know more, but he fends off the question, saying only that he has three
children, aged 27, 29, and 31, all living in London. Instead, he describes
his political evolution and the key role played by the Trinidadian intellectual
and poet John La Rose. LKJ already knew black activists like Darcus Howe
and Farrukh Dhondy, but it was La Rose in particular who introduced him to
the rich Caribbean tradition of radicalism exemplified by the great C.L.R.
James. “James was one of the most important thinkers of the 20th century,”
he asserts. “He showed that Marxism had been distorted in the Soviet Union.”
As for La Rose, “He was not only my teacher, but my friend and a great humanist.
He was the uncle I never had in London.” Publisher, activist, and thinker,
La Rose introduced the young LKJ to the world of black writing, to Martinique’s
Aimé Césaire, Senegal’s Léopold Senghor, Guyana’s Martin
Carter, and the American Langston Hughes.

Suddenly he stops. “Look, I’m pressed for time. Are there going to be many more questions?”

“Er, well I did have a few more,” I venture. We carry on.

He had started writing poetry at school, and had received some
positive feedback from people he showed it to. From the outset, poetry was
inseparable from politics. But what made his poetry distinctive was his use
of patois. It had been done before by poets like the Jamaican Louise Bennett,
but hers was a mostly light-hearted, tongue-in-cheek genre. His verse was
anything but droll, talking of the oppression and discrimination faced by
black youths, of unemployment, and the infamous “sus” laws that allowed the
police to stop youths at will on “suspicion” of criminal intent. This revolutionary
poetry used Jamaican terms and inner-city vernacular, but it was the Caribbean
intonation, the chanting quality, and the sheer rhythmic intensity that drew
attention.

When angry words were put together with the compelling beat of reggae music,
the effect was explosive. It became the militant sound of a black generation
that was no longer willing to accept the humiliations and deprivations that
their parents had faced. Intentionally subversive, this poetry was an assault
on the traditional canon of English literature, on what poetry was meant
to be. LKJ espoused the cause of those who had fallen foul of the law or
who were victims of racism — George Lindo, who was wrongly convicted of armed
robbery, and those killed in the New Cross arson attack. Nor was he afraid
to celebrate the Brixton Riots, the brief but euphoric settling of scores
with the police.

Several volumes of poetry appeared in the 1970s and 80s, published by Race
Today and the small Bogle-L’Ouverture imprint, while Virgin and then Island
released five albums between 1978 and 1983. In 1981 he set up his own label,
LKJ Records, which continues to issue CDs by him and by other performers
such as Jean “Binta” Breeze and Shake Keane. Not only that, but LKJ has worked
on radio and television, as well as touring regularly with the Dennis Bovell
Dub Band (Bovell is his long-time collaborator). Printed poetry has been
rarer since the 1990s, but the Penguin collection contains nine poems from
that decade. One of these, “If I Woz a Tap-Natch Poet”, has the poet proclaiming:

no sah
nat atall
mi gat mi riddim
mi gat mi rime
mi gat mi ruff base line
mi gat mi own sense a time

Reggae’s insistent bass lines, he says, are often running through his head
when he is writing a poem. He also sometimes plays the bass when composing.
He wears, in his own words, two hats: those of poet and reggae artist. Certainly,
his most recent CDs, More Time and LKJ in Dub Volume Three, show a
continuing energy within the genre, the rock-solid rhythm section powered
by Bovell’s bass guitar underpinning the hypnotic echoes and riffs of classic
dub. This, he says, could be described as “roots reggae”, a traditionalist
approach “which doesn’t stop me from experimenting with top lines.” He feels
that reggae has lost its coherence and some of its appeal, as third-generation
black youth turns increasingly to other music: garage and hip-hop. He is
no great fan of dancehall; when pressed, he says he likes ska, Freddie McGregor,
Luciano.

But what about the term “dub poetry”?

“I never coined it to refer to myself,” he insists, “but in connection with
the reggae DJs of the 1970s, people like Big Youth, who were producing oral
poetry over the B side of a reggae song. It was a Jamaican poet, Oku Onuora,
who latched onto the term and used it to describe what he and some other
Jamaican poets were doing at the time. I prefer the term ‘reggae poetry’
for my own verse, if we have to use these categories.

“Dub poetry is supposed to be political and so doesn’t really apply to people
who want to write about love or nature. Really, there are only two sorts
of poetry: good and bad. The distinction between performance and printed
poetry, between oral and written, is superficial.” He insists that all good
poetry is meant to be read aloud, from Chaucer and the troubadours to T.S.
Eliot and Ezra Pound.

But having said that, LKJ does perform in a way that Pound might have found
challenging, reading his poems, with or without the backing of a reggae band,
to sometimes huge crowds at concerts and festivals. In 2002 he toured the
United States, and has performed to audiences of 20,000 people in France
and elsewhere. And not many other poets appear on CDs more often than in
books.

What the Penguin collection reveals, however, is another LKJ, a poet writing
in standard English in a poem like “Seasons of the Heart”. “I’m fortunate
enough to be almost bilingual in English and patois,” he explains, “and if
the subject demands it, then I write in English.” There is also a more personal
tone to some of these poems: an elegy to the veteran Labour politician Bernie
Grant; a lament for his nephew Bernard, mysteriously killed by a passing
train on a South London platform; and a moving tribute to his late father:

mi know yu coudn tek it dada
di anguish and di pain
di suffarin di prablems di strain
di strugglin in vain
fi mek two enz meet

LKJ is keen to terminate our interview, so I ask whether things are better
in Britain than they were in the 1970s. “You know that’s a rhetorical question,”
he replies humorously. “Black people are less marginalised, no longer forced
to live in slums. Yes, there are black MPs, trade union leaders, media people
. . . Lots of things have changed, but in a sense some things are worse,
especially relations with the police. Look at the Stephen Lawrence case,
the McPherson inquiry

. . . you’ll see that there’s still institutional racism in the police.”

And has Brixton changed since the days of the Frontline? He believes that
it has, that the black residents, with their strong sense of community, have
been largely dispersed by middle-class professionals who are able to afford
property within reach of central London. Does he lament the end of black
Brixton, then?

“No, things move on.”

I suppose the question everyone asks LKJ is whether he has mellowed since the anger of “Inglan is a Bitch”. He smiles.

“I think it’s very difficult to be angry all the time. I suppose middle age
brings a certain mellowing. That doesn’t mean that I don’t still feel passionately
about certain issues, but I’m a little more patient, a little wiser, a little
more tolerant.”

I ask whether that tolerance extends to Britain.

“Yes, I tend to appreciate little things about England that maybe I didn’t
before. The English are one of the most tolerant people in Europe, receptive
to many things. And I love the seasons, draught Guinness, fish and chips.”
He laughs. “Maybe I’ve been here too long.”

He would like, in his words, “to have his cake and eat it,” to spend six
months a year in Jamaica. He goes there regularly to see his mother, who
moved to Montego Bay after 25 hard years in the UK. Would he want to be involved
in Jamaican politics?

“No way. There’s a new generation around the corner there, I’d leave it to them.”

Finally I observe that he’s a private man, who doesn’t talk about his non-professional
life much. He agrees and says he likes it that way. What would he say to
anyone who said he’s lost his radicalism, that LKJ today doesn’t have the
old cutting edge?

“Well,” he says amiably, getting to his feet and heading for the door, “I’d tell them to f—— off.”

And on that note we part company, LKJ striding purposefully off towards Brixton under his big umbrella.

Certainly, if this interview is anything to go by, Linton Kwesi Johnson has
hardly lost his cutting edge. Mellower he may be, but he is still a poet
who says what he thinks and who avoids compromise and cliché. A poet
who has charted 30 years of struggle with integrity.

 

Selected works by Linton Kwesi Johnson:

Books

Voices of the Living and the Dead, 1974

Dread Beat An’ Blood, 1975

Ingan is a Bitch, 1980

Mi Revalueshanary Fren: Selected Poems, 2002

Albums

Dread Beat An’ Blood, 1978

Bass Culture, 1980

LKJ in Dub, 1981

LKJ in Dub Volume Two, 1992

More Time, 1998

LKJ in Dub Volume Three, 2002