Stir It Up

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

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.


Thursday, Sept. 5

Rocker-T and Don Bajema open at 9 p.m.

Tickets are $25 in advance and $28 at the door


Johnson also appears on Friday, Sept. 6, at 9 p.m. at 19 Broadway, 17 Broadway (at Embarcadero), Fairfax. Admission is $30; call 459-1091.

Slim's, 333 11th St. (at Folsom), S.F.

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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."

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