Linton Kwesi Johnson and the Eloquence of Rioters

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.

Artist: Linton Kwesi Johnson
Album: Live in Paris
Label: LKJ
Label: Wrasse
Label: BMG
Amazon affiliate:
US Release Date: 2005-02-08
UK Release Date: 2004-07-22

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.