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 Bitchor 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’sThe 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:
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:
Voices of the Living and the Dead, 1974
Dread Beat An’ Blood, 1975
Ingan is a Bitch, 1980
Mi Revalueshanary Fren: Selected Poems, 2002
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