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Thirty years ago Linton Kwesi Johnson helped start the dub poetry movement, which is still inspiring artists today

Wednesday, Sep 4 2002
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"Let's get into it, man." Linton Kwesi Johnson impatiently announces from his office in London that he's "really pushed for time." The oft-interviewed artist may be heralded as an alternative poet-laureate by everyone from singer/ activist Michael Franti to Caribbean historian Edward Kamau Braithwaite, but such compliments don't add minutes to his schedule. Cutting off a question about his early years, Johnson offers to fax over his printed bio. "I really find it tiresome talking about things I've talked about maybe a million times already," he says.

Considering how much music and activism the renowned performer has packed into the last 30 years, such restlessness makes sense. With five books of poetry, a dozen albums, numerous tours, and a lifetime of advocacy behind him, Johnson is not your typical reggae artist. "Laid-back" is hardly a word you'd apply to him.

In fact, Johnson has made the embracing of strife his life's work. Born in the small rural Jamaican town of Chapelton in 1952, Johnson came to London at age 11 to join his parents, who had arrived earlier with the massive post-World War II migration of Caribbean workers. As he reached his teens Johnson watched the British government attempt to stanch the immigrant flow by enacting stricter laws. "It was a little alarming," he remembers. "We realized that we were all we had to create and maintain justice and protection for our community."

Empowered by the post-colonial liberation ideologies that had swept through their home countries in the '50s and '60s, London's black parents raised children who forcibly resisted attacks by the neo-Nazi National Front and the police. "We awakened and organized, and took strength from the American Black Power movement that was spreading throughout the black diaspora," Johnson notes, "especially the Panthers, [but] also the civil rights movement."

Johnson's interest in racial art began as a child, when he read American civil rights leader W.E.B. Du Bois' landmark 1903 book, The Souls of Black Folk. "I found it deeply moving, and for a rhetorical piece, the language is very poetic and beautiful," Johnson says. "He's commonly quoted about "the color line,' but he also talked about [what he called] "the veil' that hung over the lives of black Americans. It stirred something within me."

That something led the teenage Johnson to organize a poetry workshop as a member of London's Black Panthers. Soon after hearing African-American musical bards the Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron and the grooved-out chats of reggae MCs Big Youth and U-Roy, Johnson began performing his work with the drumming group Rasta Love.

"It was my early attempt to find my own voice as a poet," he recalls. "I was interested in any musically accompanied talking, like some of Prince Buster's early talking tunes, which had an impact on me. I loved what these guys were doing with language and music." By 1972 Johnson had forged what he terms "reggae poetry," or what many people refer to as "dub poetry" -- fiery verse spoken rhythmically over reggae instrumentals. Numerous artists -- including Mutabaruka, Oku Onuora, and Lillian Allen -- followed Johnson's lead, expanding on the new style, which Guyanese writer Fred D'Aguiar called "the newest and most original poetic form to have emerged in the English language in the last quarter century." But Johnson's work didn't truly take off until he hooked up with Dennis Bovell.


In the mid-'70s Linton Kwesi Johnson began hearing about Dennis Bovell, a member of pioneering London reggae band Matumbi and the eventual producer of post-punk outfits like the Slits and Pop Group. "He had a reputation as one of the best recording engineers around, someone who knew how to record reggae drum and bass properly," Johnson says of Bovell. "A lot of engineers were recording it like rock music, with the wrong frequencies." Johnson recognized that Bovell's bass boom and horn-heavy arrangements offered the perfect backing to the poet's steady flow.

Johnson released his first five albums -- including the classics Dread Beat an' Blood, Forces of Victory, and Making History -- between 1977 and 1983, some of the most harrowing years in black British history. During that period, conservative politician Margaret Thatcher grabbed the country's top post and seemed to turn a blind eye to ethnic struggles. From his base in the Brixton district, Johnson -- then in his late 20s -- chronicled the oppression and riots that swept through his and other neighborhoods, spelling out his tales with a calm passion. "Inglan is a bitch," he proclaimed in a tune about the city's embattled black working poor, and the community responded. Embraced by both the British punk scene (he opened for bands like Public Image Limited and Siouxsie & the Banshees) and the American college-radio circuit, Johnson spent much of his time touring the world with Bovell's Dub Band.

But Johnson wasn't particularly happy being a star for Island Records, his label at the time. So, in 1981, he launched his own LKJ Records, releasing two milestone singles by fellow dub poet Michael Smith, including his impassioned "Mi Cyaan Believe It." Johnson then set aside performing to spend much of the '80s reporting on the black community for British radio and TV, as well as editing the arts section of the socialist journal Race Today and organizing the Black Parents Movement education lobby. "I had to put time into the issues I was dealing with, rather than just be a major-label artist that mouths the right words," Johnson explains.

He toured sporadically -- including a 1987 U.S. jaunt with Gil Scott-Heron, whom the poet calls "a brother that I identified with, and with whom I found real mutual respect" -- and put out a few albums, but he concentrated mainly on England's sociopolitical environment, until the early '90s. "I didn't realize how much I missed it until I started doing it again," Johnson says of playing live.

When he returned to performing, many of his new audiences found his secular, political, and specifically English reggae refreshing. Johnson's vocal delivery is surprisingly complex: He sings with a deep, softly grained, storyteller's tone, using his luxurious Jamaican dialect to display both a strange sense of comfort and a subtle, authoritative power. On a tune like "Di Great Insureckshan," Johnson speaks in the collective voice of London's black past, celebrating its children's street battles with the cops in a manner that's at once patriarchal and revolutionary.

Despite his short stature, the poet cuts a somber, formidable figure, in his trademark natty suit and tie, with a serious face framed by spectacles and a fedora. In an overspectacularized music biz, his live show is a picture of simplicity: He steps forward to deliver the poem for each tune, then backs out to coolly skank as Bovell's band takes the song home.

Johnson's rhetorical power lies partly in his ability to put a face on political "sufferation," whether it be for the martyred London activist Blair Peach, the assassinated working-class radical Winston Rodney, or his own father (whose death in Jamaica is contextualized within the island's impoverished domestic situation in "Reggae Fi Dada," from 1983's Making History). Another personalized piece, "New Craas Massakah," also from History, finds Johnson in high-impact performance mode. The song rails against police foot-dragging and irresponsible press coverage following a mysterious fire that killed 13 black kids at a party in London in 1981. Between choruses that brightly set the party scene, Johnson inserts extensive a cappella sections that seethingly recount first "how de whole a black Britain jus' rock wit grief," then "shook wit angah."

The tune showcases the kind of emotion and craft rarely found in current reggae songs, which tend toward retread riffs and slick vocalizing. "I love guys like Luciano and Tony Rebel, they're doing great work, yunno?" says Johnson. "But since the '80s and '90s, [it's] become a hustlin' industry. Every little Tom, Dick, and Harry is booking a studio and getting people in to make records, and there's no focus on artistry. This business of 20 hungry youths chanting over the same riddim isn't the right way to develop an industry that's had such a big impact worldwide."

Such older-generation disdain might seem like sour grapes if it didn't come from a guy who's being name-checked these days by such up-and-comers as poet-rocker Saul Williams and electro-soul diva Ursula Rucker. Indeed, for a generation of reggae and poetry lovers in Europe and the U.S., Johnson is the voice of understated rage. True, his most recent dub poetry album, 1999's More Time, balances his political passions with the inward reflection he calls "an aspect of getting middle-aged." While he still decries police brutality in "Liesense Fi Kill," he ponders poetry itself in "If I Waz a Tap Natch Poet" and domesticity in "Seasons of the Heart." But as a lifelong socialist-democrat, Johnson is always looking for ways to improve society. "The black community's made great leaps in the last decade or so -- we're not as marginalized as we used to be, we have people in government, and the black middle class has come into its own. But the struggle for racial equality and social justice is an ongoing one. I have a limited time, really, to make it better for my grandchildren."

About The Author

Ron Nachmann

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