Linton Kwesi Johnson and the Eloquence of Rioters

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.

Author: Linton Kwesi Johnson
Book: Tings an Times
Subtitle: Selected Poems
US publication date: 1991-01-01
Publisher: Learning Links
Formats: Paperback
ISBN: 1852241683

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.