On 25 April 2003, the night before Linton Kwesi Johnson gave the concert captured on this anniversary disc, I was lucky enough to catch him perform at a small underground venue where health and safety regulations didn’t seem to apply. I had gone to hear a poetry recital by the man recently voted one of the 100 “Great Black Britons”. And as the bass tones of Linton Kwesi Johnson’s Jamaican Creole or Nation Language filled the smoke-ridden air, I couldn’t help wonder if the Parisian crowd hadn’t come to hear LKJ the reggae artist and got the date wrong. Ultimately it doesn’t matter. Whether accompanied by a solitary percussionist or the Dennis Bovell Dub Band, the result is pretty much the same: Linton Kwesi Johnson delivering his own unique brand of reggae poetry.
The sounds of reggae infuse and enthuse LKJ’s writing, the words echoing an imagined bass line, the one that he says is always at the back of his mind when composing. As an active member of the Blank Panther Movement in the 1970s, LKJ organised a poetry workshop inviting along musicians. Calling themselves Rasta Love, these percussionists are the first to accompany LKJ’s poetry readings. Never one to see negritude as hermetically sealed, LKJ aims to reach out to all activists and social revolutionaries of 1970s Britain. Coining the term Dub Poetry to describe the act of toasting over reggae instrumentals, Johnson sees the opportunity of recording his poetry performances as a means of bringing his politically-informed writings to a wider audience. In this way, Dread, Beat and Blood, Johnson’s second poetry collection published in 1975, becomes his first album released three years later in 1978. Over a quarter of a century on and LKJ is still recording and performing his testimonies of racial and social injustices.
This recording is presented as a celebration of LKJ’s 25 years in reggae and it smacks of a retrospective. There is no new material here, the most recent piece dating back to 1998. But some of LKJ’s most powerful reggae poems punctuate this one-hour narrative recounting contemporary inner-city British history. From the threat of nuclear war in “Di Eagle an Di Bear” through the call to arms against the Thatcherite figures of authority in “Mekkin Histri” to the very personal focus of “Reggae Fi Bernard” centring on the tragic and so-called accidental death of his nephew a British Rail worker: “we still don’t get no proper explanation / no witness at the station / no police investigation / as to how you come fi end up on wrong side of track / how your face fi get turned from front to back.”
And this is the strength of LKJ’s work — an ability to combine the political with the personal or rather the ability to place himself at the centre of the political. But then, that’s because he’s been very much at the centre of an active political struggle against oppression. Back in 1972, after taking the numbers of policemen he witnessed harassing three youths in Brixton he was arrested, “given a good kicking, and charged with GBH and assault”. But LKJ has never been afraid to advocate direct action as in the Brixton riots of 1981 remembered in “Di Great Insohreckshan”: “it was the event of the year, and I wish I had been there, when we riot all over Brixton, when we mash up plenty police van.” Okay, okay, I can’t transcribe it exactly how it’s meant to be…
If anything this disc serves to remind us how little has changed. LKJ introduces the hard-hitting number “Fight Dem Back” with the words: “Nowadays we hear a lot of talk about the fight against terrorism. Those of us who belong to the ethnic, so-called ethnic minorities in Europe, we all know about the fight against terrorism, because we’ve been fighting the terrorism of the racist and the fascist for many decades now.” And you couldn’t really argue with that. It will be interesting to see if these words are repeated during his up-coming tour of the USA. But this is the man who, in the early 1980s, turned down Island Record’s $1 million deal so that he could keep artistic, or rather political control over his output. He made one more album for the label in 1984, Mekkin Histri, and it turned out to be his most political. Watering down his content for personal gain has never been LKJ’s style.
The well-worn pairing of “Di Great Insohreckshan” and “Mekkin Histri” is the real highlight of this recording, the one serving as an incantation to rise up and the other to instruct us on how important it is not to remain passive actors of our lives. Other tracks also leave you resonating with the need to be actively societal: “Fite Dem Back”, “Tings an Times”, “Liesense Fi Kill” and “More Time”.
But this wouldn’t be the recording I would immediately suggest as an introduction to Linton Kwesi Johnson’s seminal influence and position as alternative poet laureate. The sound is crystal clear, an important feature when you’re not used to this sort of patois. But the live performance of the Dennis Bovell Dub Band can be rather cheesy, notably the harmonica and electric violin playing, and at times it even seems incidental. The music is intrinsic to LKJ’s Nation Language and the prosody of his verse is driven by its innate sounds of reggae. Personally I prefer a more stripped down accompaniment, where the bass and percussion simply help to give voice to the beat of LKJ’s words. If you want to invest in LKJ, and I strongly suggest you do, I would suggest something more along the lines of the two-disc anthology Independant Intavenshan (1998), which contains practically every track LKJ and Dennis Bovell’s dub band recorded for Island.
However, accompanying the release of the album version of Live in Paris, there is also the DVD. Though LKJ doesn’t offer any visual exploits on stage, we shouldn’t forget that this poet is extremely charismatic. Being able to visualise the metonymic goatee and trilby as the source of this magnificent and powerful voice can only be beneficial. So, if you have a bit of cash burning your pockets, then in addition to the Island compilation buy yourself the DVD and the Penguin Modern Classic publication of his selected poems Mi Revalueshanary Fren (2002). Published just a year before this recording, Linton Kwesi Johnson is only the second living poet to be bestowed this honour. The head of Carcanet Books, Michael Schmidt may believe that LKJ’s poetry only works through a medium like CD or video where the performance can be listened to, but I think this is reductive. If this were true then why would Johnson have had the Spectator, the longest running publication in English, running scared in 1982 claiming that LKJ had helped “create a generation of rioters and illiterates.”
Fans will enjoy this disc and hopefully this celebration of Mr Linton Kwesi Johnson’s 25th year in reggae music will continue to bring his anti-establishment poetry to a wide audience. He claims now to feel good within himself to know that he has lived this long rather than end up dead in a police cell. Rest assured, Linton, I feel good about that too and I’ve got a feeling I’m not the only one.