Linton Kwesi Johnson and the Eloquence of Rioters

Photo (partial) by ©Danny Dacosta (2003)

This poetry, symbolically violent in its choice of literary form and symbolically subversive in its choice of Creole, reveals the literacy of rioters.

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.

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