[15 January 2009]
Just a quarter of a century ago Linton Kwesi Johnson was considered a dangerous radical by the establishment. Armed only with rhyming words, LKJ was a poet accused of corrupting Britain’s youth, of threatening society with mob rule. Twenty-five years on and the Anglo-Jamaican LKJ is an emissary of the British Council, the UK’s overseas cultural exchange organisation. But if at 56 years of age it seems that LKJ has seen his ‘dub poetry’ subsumed by the cultural centre, LKJ himself uses this new found platform to continue on with his brand of poetic activism.
Though the main attraction at the 2008 biennial convention of the European Society for the Study of English (ESSE)
last August, LKJ continually reminded his audience of academics that the poems he was reading had been conceived as weapons against the hypocrisy and bigotry of the powers that be. His fusional form of expression is at home in the underground café philosophique as it is in the rock venue where his reggae themes are used to mediate his message to a wider audience, at least wider than anything with ‘poetry’ in the label might usually expect. Delivering his dub poetry from the pulpit of Aula, the ceremonial hall of the University of Aarhus in Denmark, LKJ’s verse was equally at home in this ecclesiastical environment, taking on the form of an unrelenting sermon
In his poem ‘Prose Poem Towards a Definition of Itself’, the Liverpool Poet Brian Pattern condemned writing poetry as a simple exercise of literary expression. Indeed, poetry should reach beyond the individualism of confessional poetry and the nombrilism of revelatory poetry, it should question and attack. Though written 40 years ago, his poem is a permanent reminder of the relevance of poetry:
It should guide all those who are safe into the middle of busy roads and leave them there. It should scatter woodworm into the bedrooms of all peg-legged men not being afraid to hurt the innocent or make such differences. It should shout EVIL! EVIL! from the roofs of the world’s stock exchanges. It should not pretend to be a clerk or a librarian.
There is, of course, a long tradition of open and direct political expression in poetry, and the need for social commentary remains a central premise in contemporary performance poetry. The notion that poetry belongs in the public sphere and should engage with politics had a direct influence on the works of the Liverpool Poets in the ‘60s and LKJ in the ‘70s.
In the early ‘70s, LKJ was a member of the British Black Panthers and participated actively in the Race Today Collective, a Brixton-based pressure group. Involving blacks and Asians desirous of a more direct approach to tackling issues of racism in Britain, the Race Today Collective had broken away from the Institute of Race Relations more content to work and evolve within the existing framework of state institutions. In December 1972, LKJ witnessed a fracas between two white policemen and a black man. Black Panther policy was to obtain the name and address of the arrested so as to inform parents and relatives, and to note down the numbers of the police officers.
After doing just this, however, LKJ recalls being thrown into the back of the police van and given ‘a good kicking’ before being arrested for assault. LKJ identifies this particular event as the moment when the drive of his poetry shifted and became the voice of his political consciousness; he also realised that poems directly addressing this type of incident were gaining him an increased audience.
If LKJ’s political commitment forms a central integral part of his work, the writer Fred D’Aguiar underlines that LKJ’s poetry does not satisfy itself with transcribing to the page what the poet has witnessed, it forcefully inscribes itself in its times: “A poem by Johnson wasn’t simply a record of an event but formed a part of the history surrounding it.”
For Linton Kwesi Johnson, poetry should not be a scribe’s means of passively recording history or, worst still, recollecting emotion in tranquillity. In an interview with the British rasta and performance poet Benjamin Zephaniah recorded earlier this year LKJ clearly states, “I saw poetry as a weapon in the black liberation struggle”.
Coining the term ‘dub poetry’ to describe the act of toasting over reggae instrumentals, Linton Kwesi Johnson saw the opportunity of recording his poetry performances as a means of bringing his politically-informed writings to a wider audience. LKJ wanted his poems to be active and to create activists. With this aim eight poems from Dread Beat an’ Blood, LKJ’s second poetry collection published in 1975, became the eight tracks of his first album recording released in 1978 under the name Poet and the Roots. Later, in 1979, a BBC documentary directed by Franco Rosso on Linton Kwesi Johnson would also carry this title.
In 2002 LKJ became only the second living poet to have his Tings an’ Times: Selected Poems published as a Penguin Modern Classic. But Michael Schmidt, the founder of Carcanet Books, believes LKJ’s poetry only works through the medium of CD or video where the performance can be listened to. And yet prosody is born out of the rhythms of language and in turn the reggae rhythms that accompany LKJ’s performances are themselves born out of the prosody of LKJ’s poems. In fact, the notion of performance in LKJ’s dub poetry works to shift poetry from the shelf to the street, from the individual to the community, from the private sphere to the public sphere.
Without doubt the most influential poetry collection published by a black British poet in the ‘70s, the title of Dread Beat an’ Blood (1975) requires some consideration. ‘Dread’, as an abbreviation of dreadlock, signifies a person who lets his hair grow without brushing it, as was the desire of the laws of the Nazirite as described in the Old Testament:
All the days of the vow of his separation there shall no razor come upon his head: until the days be fulfilled, in the which he separateth himself unto the LORD, he shall be holy, and shall let the locks of the hair of his head grow.
Many of the sons of Israel wore their hair in this manner, including, it is widely believed, Jesus, but it should be noted that although most Rastafarians are Dreads, many Dreads are not Rastafarians. For Rastafarians, the term ‘dread’ also expresses an extreme fear such as the dread of the Lord and is often used today to mean a deep-rooted sense of alienation felt towards contemporary society.
A common mistake in copying the title of LKJ’s collection is to place a comma after ‘dread’ and before ‘beat’, thus creating a list of three substantives: dread, beat and blood. This error was reproduced in BBC listings this year when in July Radio 4 broadcast a programme presented by Benjamin Zephaniah entitled ‘Dread [comma] Beat and Blood’. This inaccuracy created a certain irony when The Observer chose to publish an extract from Vivien Goldman’s book Exodus: the Making and Meaning of Bob Marley and the Wailers’ Album of the Century under the title ‘Dread, Beat and Blood’ and in the deck claiming, “Late 1976, and rival political factions are warring on the streets of Kingston, Jamaica, with only Bob Marley calling for peace”.
In the title to LKJ’s collection, ‘dread’ is an adjective which primarily qualifies ‘beat’ and then extends to ‘blood’. The reference to ‘dread beat’ should help construct the mental imagery of the tempo and musicality of reggae. In the poem ‘Dread Beat an’ Blood’, the “dread beat” in question is first described as a “pulsing fire burning” and then toward the end of the poem we are told:
ganja crawling, creeping to the brain
cold lights hurting breaking hurting
fire in the head an a dread beat bleeding beating fire dread
As the dread beat pulsates through reggae so the dread blood pumps here in the veins of the British blacks, the one defines the other: “music blazing sounding thumping fire blood”. A ‘dread beat’ that bleeds fire is clearly not in this instance a beat of peace but the beat of rage. Dread beat, dread blood: there is no room for commas here.
Listening to a surprisingly up tempo live recording of this text, given the theme of the poem, the first use of the word ‘dread’ as a noun is accompanied by a modulation in the music as the song moves to its climax. It is at this moment that the mood in the “house of ganja” takes a turn for the worst, this is when the “blood flow” stains the brain of the “brothers and sisters”:
rocks rolling over hearts leaping wild
rage rising out of the heat an the hurt
an a fist curled in anger reaches a her
then flash of a blade from another to a him
leaps out for a dig of a flesh of a piece of skin
an blood bitterness exploding fire wailing blood and bleeding
*The music that ‘thumps’, in more ways than one, has whipped the gathering into a frenzy and, compounded by their frustration, the revellers turn their bitterness on themselves.
Through LKJ’s descriptions of violence within the black British community we detect the influence of the writings of Frantz Fanon. In the book The Wretched of the Earth (1967) LKJ remembers reading about “the internalisation of the violence of oppression which was expressed in fratricidal warfare amongst the oppressed and I was drawing parallels between that and what I saw happening with our own youth”. Community, or authentic community is, as Slavoj Zizek suggests in his book Violence (2008), “possible only in conditions of permanent threat, in a continuous state of emergency”. We feel the need to define ourselves only when in crisis, or we create crises in order to define ourselves and to in turn defend ourselves against the other. We begin by combating the evil within us.
The poem ‘Dread Beat an’ Blood’ is physical both thematically and phonically – there is violence in the curled fist but also in the doggedly trochaic lines with their almost excessive use of gerunds pounding out the meter and bringing the musical references alive in the ear. The poetry of LKJ is thus lifted from the page and placed on the stage: Linton Kwesi Johnson the poet becomes LKJ the performance poet, the dub poet. The rhythms of jazz and of the blues had a defining influence on such black poets of the ‘60s as the Barbadian Edward Kamau Braithwaite and the African-American Amiri Imamu Baraka, but for LKJ it is the sounds of reggae that infuse his poetry.
Photo (partial) by ©Danny Dacosta (2003)
Whilst an active member of the Black Panther Movement. the Anglo-Jamaican poet Linton Kwesi Johnson ran an improvisation work shop attended by several drummers. This collective of musicians eventually took on the name Rasta Love and became LKJ’s backing band accompanying him during his poetry recitals. Though the publication of the collection Dread Beat an’ Blood (1975) preceded the recording of the album by two years, LKJ recalls that some of the poems came out of these sessions declaring to the journalist Maya Jaggi, “I always have a bass line at the back of my mind when I write”. The performances of LKJ’s poems are accompanied by reggae rhythms, but according to the poet himself these rhythms are inherent in the meter of the verse, indeed, LKJ continues to see his texts as poems and not songs, insisting that his poems must work as poems.
To describe this type of demotic hammered poetry LKJ coined the term ‘dub poetry’ in reference to the technique of dubbing or mixing the instrumental track of a recording with voice. In reggae terms dub, strips away many of the melodic tracks leaving only the rhythm section with the other instruments reduced to an echo. These instrumental recordings allow DJs to toast or chat over the top of the music and this is where LKJ finds the space to perform his poetry. In this way, LKJ not only publishes poetry collections but records his dub poetry for album release helping to reproduce and preserve the oral quality of his poetry and also to increase its accessibility.
Although rooted in the experience of Britain’s black communities, through the recording of his poems as reggae tracks he is attempting to shift his poetry onto the larger playing field of popular culture. His is a poetry neither sitting on a dusty shelf nor locked away in the culture of negritude but a poetry accessible to and addressing other groups, whether minority groups or those who feel they are victims of the colonisation of the ‘lifeworld’, who may be contesting the established power of authority, the establishment.
The use of the medium of popular culture, however, does not guarantee the widening of social relationships – the propositional component to LKJ’s poems will continue to offer a commentary on the world but the double structure of language will only truly function if individuals are desirous to engage in the illocutionary component. This is the component of language that communicates the ‘intention’ in the act of speaking, it heavily dependant on its articulation with the context, and it is precisely this component that is necessary if LKJ’s poetry is, as author Fred D’Aguiar believes, to form a part of history.
The poem ‘Reggae Sounds’ stands as a manifesto for LKJ’s brand of activism as mediated by his distinctive voice. For an uninitiated reader, Jamaican patois may be difficult to penetrate but the performance both imposes and allows us to hear the text in LKJ’s voice. The paralinguistic elements such as emotion, tone, and attitude help also to convey a part of the message. On the page the spondaic and trochaic meter functions like a 4/4 reggae rhythm dictated by a bass and drum:
Shock-black bubble-down-beat bouncing
rock-wise tumble-down sound music;
foot-drop find drum, blood story,
bass history is a moving
is a hurting black story.
Paul Clarke is right to point out that, along with the addition of the music, the fundamental difference between page and record is that the performance of the poem subtracts the audience’s possibility to pause, re-read and ponder. The poem is bound by the musical score, the text becomes in this way temporal. This recalls Simon Frith’s idea that a song is closer to a play than a poem, the performance of a song able to play on dramatic devices. As Clarke illustrates in his analysis of the poem ‘Five Nights of Bleeding’, the sense of dread communicated in LKJ’s performance is borne out of the tensions he builds into the half bar silences, the nervous anticipation and the lack of cathartic release.
In the poem ‘Reggae Sounds’, the dread beat is once again positioned as the long and bloody narrative of Anglo-Jamaican history, “bass history is a moving / is a hurting black story”. Although the tempo may be relatively relaxed, as we shall hear, it is “cooled doun to the pace of the struggle”. Revolution is central to LKJ’s poetry and to his music – this is the “flame-rhythm of the time of turning” and let there be no mistake the music will “shape it into violence for the people, / they will know what to do, they will do it”.
If the reggae rhythms that accompany LKJ’s performances are based on the prosody of his poems, then the prosody itself is born out of the rhythms of the specific language that LKJ employs. In the poem ‘Bass Culture’ we are once again reminded that this “muzik of blood” is “black reared” and is intimately interwoven with black British culture. LKJ attempts to define the essence of this music with its “bubblin bass” and “bad bad beat”:
all tensed up
in di bubble an di bounce
an di leap an di weight-drop
it is di beat of di heart
this pulsing of blood
that is a bubblin bass
a bad bad beat
pushin gainst di wall
whey bar black blood
Although LKJ here refers directly to his prosody as being both iambic, “di leap”, and trochaic, “weight-drop”, the scansion in this poem is not regular. For poet David Dabydeen part of LKJ’s radicalism, as a black British poet, was to break up the traditional English line. Recalling Kamau Braithwaite’s observation that “the hurricane does not roar in pentameters”, Dabydeen believes that “to convey the Caribbean sensibility you have to find the line that conveys, in terms of its rhythms and its pauses, a line that is not the standard English line”. In the poem ‘Bass Culture’, Fred D’Aguiar suggests that the punctuation is to be found in the intervals between the lines and in the breaks between the stanzas rather than in the actual printed traditional punctuation which plays but a secondary role.
If LKJ chooses to demonstrate his ability to write in pentameters as in such lines from the poem ‘Reggae Sounds’, “bass and rhythm and trumpet double-up, / team-up with drums for a deep doun searching,” Dabydeen is quick to point out that he broke away from Louise Bennett’s use of conventional forms such as sonnets or end-rimed four line stanzas. We must not forget, however, that Bennett wrote her poetry in Jamaican patois and allowed subsequent poets writing in the vernacular to benefit from her transitional status. Indeed, after the Second World War Bennett, or ‘Miss Lou’ as she was more affectionately known, gained international popularity with her simply crafted humorous poems that could nonetheless be acerbically political such as the poem ‘Colonization in Reverse’:
By de hundred, by de tousan
From country and from town,
By de ship-load, by de plane load
Jamica is Englan boun.
Dem a pour out a Jamaica,
Everybody future plan
Is fe get a big-time job
An settle in de mother lan.
What an islan! What a people!
Man an woman, old an young
Jus a pack dem bag an baggage
An turn history upside dung!
Although in his youth LKJ believed he was being original, he now recognises that he was inheriting from a long tradition. Speaking to Benjamin Zephaniah, LKJ recalls how he began using the Jamaican patois known as Nation Language in an attempt to find his own poetic voice:
I took my lead, really, from what the reggae DJs were doing, which I had regarded as a kind of oral poetry. People like Big Youth… I also was greatly inspired by the poetry of the Last Poets who used the hip street language of African Americans as a valid vehicle for poetic discourse.
Quite a number of the poets around at the time were aping African American idioms, and trying to sound like Yankees, I wanted to sound like myself.
The Last Poets formed in 1969 in East Harlem New York and took their name from lines written by the South African revolutionary poet Keorapetse Kgositsile: “when the moment hatches in time’s womb there will be no art talk, the only poem you will hear will be the spearpoint pivoted in the punctured marrow of the villain”. Their 1970 self-titled debut album includes the well-known poem ‘Niggers Are Scared of Revolution’ written by Last Poet Umar Bin Hassan. This poem contains a heavily didactic element driven by a violent and sarcastic attack on what Bin Hassan sees as the passivity, even hypocrisy, of certain African Americans:
Niggers are scared of revolution
But niggers shouldn’t be scared of revolution
Because revolution is nothing but change
And all niggers do is change
Niggers come in from work and change into pimping clothes
and hit the streets to make some quick change
The Last Poets are recognised today as one of the earliest precursors of hip hop – their use of the spoken word combined with a didactic message and Marxist sensibility would go on to influence such artists as Grand Master Flash and Public Enemy. The didactic core in the texts of Linton Kwesi Johnson is essential in allowing Fred D’Aguiar to consider LKJ’s poems as instruments of history. According to Kgositsile there is, of course, no choice: “In a situation of oppression, there are no choices beyond didactic writing: either you are a tool of oppression or an instrument of liberation”.
The poem ‘Bass Culture’ is dedicated to ‘Big Yout’, the Jamaican disc jockey Manley Augustus Buchanan who developed a distinctive half-sung style of toasting or chatting characterised by a use of Creole expressed in iambic pentameters and heavily punctuated by the bass line of the records he played. This style evolved at ‘blues parties’, private events that were initially pushed underground because expressions of Rastafarian ideology were not widely accepted in public. Driven by a desire and need to give voice to a new generation of British blacks that did not recognise themselves in expressions and manifestations of African American culture, LKJ found here a “black reared” voice able to articulate the suffering and oppression of which he himself was a victim. The poetry of LKJ, however, manages to go one step further, it forms a part of “di cultural wave a dread people deal”; in their performance his poems are performative, they hold in their very essence the act of “pushin gainst di wall / whey bar black blood” as D’Aguiar explains:
The ‘wall’ in the penultimate line is the system that needs to be bucked or overcome, namely the oppression that has given rise to the ‘rebel’ music, making the music a form of protest as opposed to simply an expression of protest.
The performance of Linton Kwesi Johnson’s poetry is not simply the narrative of rebellion it is itself a revolutionary act and this is where his work, impelled by the poetic voice of the activist, differs from the mystical and often apolitical attitude of Jamaican Rastafarians, an aspect appreciated by young British musicians coming to the music in the ‘70s like Jerry Dammers, keyboardist of The Specials:
Linton wasn’t religious, a lot of the reggae stuff was very influenced by Rastafarianism but Linton was just sort of straightforward rational down the line kind of political writing, you know, so it was something that was very easy to understand, very direct.
In 1981, the year following the release of LKJ’s album Bass Culture (1980), there were severe riots in the poorest neighbourhoods of Britain’s major cities, most notably in Brixton. LKJ performed, published and released a number of poems dealing with these events and became the foremost British black exponent of protest poetry and of dub poetry. It is important to stress, however, that LKJ did not exclude the white youths from this struggle, the alternative poet laureate as he was now known, called upon all.
In the poem ‘Mekin Histri’, the poet in turn addresses the politician, the policeman and the reactionary, the figures of authority and oppression, the bricks in the wall, if you’ll excuse the reference. The first person singular ‘mi’ is translated into the first person plural ‘wi’, the voice of the poet becoming the spokesman for an entire community or communities:
now tell mi someting
mistah govahment man
tell mi someting
how lang yu really feel
yu coulda keep wi andah heel
It may be useful to recall the two distinctive definitions of public and private spheres that Immanuel Kant and, more recently, Richard Rorty have put forward. Rorty’s definition is perhaps the one contemporary audiences are more familiar with, where the private domain is that of our idiosyncrasies, the place where creativity is given the freest of reigns, where autonomy is allowed; here the public sphere is that of social interaction, where utilitarian rules are to be respected, where communities are constructed and performed. LKJ’s poetry, however, is both autonomous in its creativity and autonomous as the performance of a community.
Kant’s definitions are perhaps more useful to us in understanding the performativity of the poems where the public space is the space of the individual, of the singular subject participating in the universal because our singularity is universal. The private sphere, on the other hand, is the sphere of identification, where we are communal or institutional subjects. Interestingly in view of LKJ’s inclusivity, Kant’s definitions, as Slavoj Zizek reminds us, allow for “emancipatory universality outside the confines of one’s social identity”.
The poet’s apostrophe is transformed into a call to arms against all the actors of injustice of what would become known as Thatcher’s Britain and the boundary between individual and collective identities is exceeded. The biblical image of Babylon, the symbol of decadence in Rastafarian culture, is here politicised and personified. It is not a question then of escaping Babylon but of throwing Babylon out:
how long 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 no pistal
but dem chaste di babylan away
man yu shoulda si yu babylan
how dem really run away
Marxist in origin, the Fanonist perspective LKJ was drawn to is summarised in Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin White Masks (1967): “What matters is not to know the world but to change it”. For Jürgen Habermas it is through communicative power in the public sphere that citizens may influence the state, it is through this that public opinion can, in a just society, change the law, can find itself transformed into administrative power. If society, however, is unjust, and public institutions fail to channel or the state administration fails to recognise public opinion, then for Fanon this is a “non viable society” and even “a society to be replaced” which will require violence: “Human reality in-itself-for-itself can be achieved only through conflict and through the risk that conflict implies”.
The rousing finale to ‘Mekin Histri’ turns the tragedies of the street riots on Moss Side in Manchester or Brixton in London into acts of triumphalism:
well dere woz Toxteth
an dere woz Moss Side
an a lat a addah places
whey di police ad to hide
well dare woz Brixtan
an dere woz Chapeltoun
an a lat a addah place dat woz burnt to di groun
burnt to di groun
burnt to di groun
The echo at the end of the poem is extremely menacing and the dread lines lift off the page like the chanting of demonstrators but one wonders if LKJ is really condoning the burning of these neighbourhoods. It is not the reality of temporal violence, with its possibility of murder and rape, that is attractive; what generates enthusiasm, as Zizek posits, is the eternal sublime image of hope that such action carries. Contrary to the Liverpool Poets, however, what we notice in LKJ’s poetry is the lack of humour, of parody, of irony. The stage performance is happening in the street, the poetry here performing the poet as demonstrator, as agitator. The claim made by the title is an important one: we shall make history.
At the centre of LKJ’s poetic activism lays his choice of writing in Nation Language. Writing, performing, publishing and recording poetry in Creole in the ‘70s was LKJ’s primary act of rebellion as he himself reflects: “I suppose subconsciously I wanted to subvert the English language”. It was Kamau Braithwaite who first employed the term ‘Nation Language’ to describe “the kind of English spoken by the people who were brought to the Caribbean, not the official English, but the language of slaves and labourers”.
Critics of Caribbean poetry worked hard to reverse the literary canon’s traditional hierarchy of the written over the spoken word. John Thieme points out that Kamau Braithwaite’s A History of the Voice “offered an outline of ‘the development of nation language in Anglophone poetry’ and in so doing effectively constructed an alternative tradition and reclaimed poets as varied as Louise Bennett, Bongo Jerry, and Michael Smith from the realms of the sub literary”.
With the success of such poets as LKJ and Benjamin Zephaniah, Creole, itself plural, has become recognised as the authentic voice of Caribbean poetry perhaps even of Anglo-Caribbean communities for which they are the spokesmen. Both these poets, however, demonstrate that the written/oral divide, the one Michael Schmidt alludes to in his comments on LKJ’s poetry as existing only truly on CD or DVD, no longer functions at this level, as Thieme explains, “the oral and the scribal penetrate one another to a degree where it is not feasible to regard them as discrete”.
Zizek reminds us that the basic fact of language is that it constructs and imposes a symbolic field and that this inherent violence turns on its ear the idea that language is the channel of mediation. Language in fact privileges its status as a medium of confrontation leaving Zizek to ask: “What if… humans exceed animals in their capacity for violence precisely because they speak?”. Indeed, linguistic communication is not built on symmetrical intersubjectivity as the “appearance of égalité is always discursively sustained by an asymmetric axis of master versus servant”. In this way language involves unconditional violence as “it is language itself which pushes our desire beyond proper limits”. This symbolic desire is true also for political protest so that when demonstrators agitate it is not a simple reality they are attacking but “an experience of their real predicament made meaningful through language”.
In 1982 a Spectator profile declared LKJ’s style of patois poetry as having “helped to create a generation of rioters and illiterates.” The poetry of LKJ, however, stands as an example of sublime violence, not the violence of moral reprehension but the inherent violence that Heidegger sees as the essence of all creators. In Heidegger’s words Linton Kwesi Johnson the artist is “[t]he violent one, the creative one who sets forth into the unsaid, who breaks into the unthought, who compels what has never happened and makes appear what is unseen – this violent one stands at all times daring”. The Spectator spectacularly missed the point: this poetry, symbolically violent in its choice of literary form and symbolically subversive in its choice of Creole, reveals the literacy of rioters.