The Father of Dub Poetry Gets A Fine Award

He is just as neat and dapper as in his younger days, but his hair is thin and grey. The slim figure with the quietly dignified air is Jamaican-born dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson (LKJ), receiving the Golden PEN Award for Lifetime Literary Achievement from a tousle-headed English lady. He joins a list of mostly white, mainstream authors – Margaret Drabble, Iris Murdoch, Harold Pinter, Doris Lessing…the only other non-white awardee being Salman Rushdie.

But don’t think that LKJ has compromised his radical roots. The sixty-year-old has never hankered to join the ranks of “respectable” English poets. I have always admired him for his uncompromising stance and biting social commentary, from the perspective of a black man living in the UK. His voice has been unflinching over the years; his perspective unwavering, sharp, intelligent.

Linton Kwesi Johnson... Still a revolutionary soul.
Linton Kwesi Johnson… Still a revolutionary soul.

Mr. Johnson has his own record label, LKJ Records, which includes the marvelous Dennis Bovell – a great dub producer and musician, whose sound system caused some problems when it first echoed out across the streets of London.” The LKJ album Bass Culture” is one of my favorite LKJ/Bovell collaborations.

Dennis Bovell, back in the day.
Dennis Bovell, back in the day.
I have this one in my possession... "Bass Culture."
I have this one in my possession… “Bass Culture.”


Another poet under LKJ’s wing is Jean Binta Breeze, whom I remember seeing in concert a few times; she is a great educator as well as writer and performer, who studied at Kingston’s Jamaica School of Drama and migrated to the UK in the 1980s.

Who is Linton Kwesi Johnson? He was born in 1952 in Chapelton, Clarendon. He came to Britain in 1963, went to Tulse Hill Secondary School and studied Sociology at Goldsmith’s College, University of London. He joined the Black Panther movement while still at school. In 1974 he joined the Race Today Collective in Brixton, south London, which published his first collection of poems in 1974. His second book of poetry, Dread Beat an’ Blood,” is a classic and was made into his first album three years later (Johnson starts with the poetry…the music comes later).

The original six Black Panthers in Oakland, California in 1966. A huge influence on LKJ.
The original six Black Panthers in Oakland, California in 1966. A huge influence on LKJ.
Dread Beat an' Blood
Dread Beat an’ Blood

He recorded several albums on Chris Blackwell’s Island record label in the 1970s, before setting up LKJ Records in 1981. With a C. Day Lewis Fellowship, he became Writer in Residence for the London Borough of Lambeth“Inglan is a Bitch” (I can hear the words and music in my head) came out in 1980. And the following year was the Brixton riots. He worked primarily as a journalist in the 1980s (including as a reporter on Channel Four Television). Tings An’ Times: Selected Poems appeared in 1991 as both a book and musical recording. He was made Associate Fellow at Warwick University in 1985 and Honorary Fellow at Wolverhampton Polytechnic in 1987. A selection of his poetry, entitled “Mi Revalueshanary Fren'”, was published in 2002 as a Penguin Modern Classic edition with an introduction by Fred D’Aguilar; Johnson became only the second living poet, and the first black poet, to be included in the series. In 2005 he was awarded a Musgrave medal by the Institute of Jamaica, for eminence in the field of poetry.

Linton Kwesi Johnson's "Mi Revalueshanary Fren'" was published as a Penguin Modern Classic.
Linton Kwesi Johnson’s “Mi Revalueshanary Fren'” was published as a Penguin Modern Classic.

I remember the Brixton riots; I was living in north London at the time. A young black man was stabbed in Brixton, which is still home to many Afro-Caribbean descent (it has been a bit “gentrified” in recent years, I understand). Rumors flew that the police had arrested him instead of taking him to hospital. Bitterness grew, and exploded. Unemployment was high in the area, and the police “stop and search” (or the “suss” law, as it was called – that is, no basis for the police action but hearsay) had already created an atmosphere of resentment. The spark was lit. The main battleground was Railton Road (or the “Front Line” as it was called) – a place of entertainment where drug dealers and “shebeens” (unlicensed bars)ruled and the black population of Brixton generally hung out. Hundreds of police and members of the public were injured – no deaths – and hundreds of cars and buildings destroyed. London was in shock.

Railton Road, Brixton in 2003... Looking in better shape.
Railton Road, Brixton in 2003… Looking in better shape.
A scene from the Brixton riots of 1981. (Photo: UK Guardian)
A scene from the Brixton riots of 1981. (Photo: UK Guardian)

LKJ feels that, since the Brixton riots of 1981, things have improved in some ways for black people in Britain; although there were several periods of unrest in the area subsequently, and again last year. But 1981 was a watershed. Black voices like Mr. Johnson’s could no longer be ignored. However, at least 55 per cent of blacks are now unemployed. LKJ does not feel sanguine that racial equality is still on the agenda of British politicians of whatever stripe. He does not believe that the handful of black Members of Parliament are willing to take up the cause, either. And there are still huge problems in education, with black children continuing to underperform. LKJ asserts that the British police remain “pathologically racist.” And of course, the British class system continues its iron grip on society.

What does LKJ think about the furious riots in London in the summer of 2011, after the death of a young black man at the hands of the police? He believes they were “just waiting to happen; they could happen again at any time.”

The Brixton riots...destructive, but perhaps cathartic.
The Brixton riots…destructive, but perhaps cathartic.

In his five-minute acceptance speech for the Golden PEN, LKJ notes that he is a part of a “little tradition of Caribbean verse” established in the 1960s by Kamau Brathwaite, Andrew Salkey – an “alternate” and “independent” aesthetic that led him to describe the black experience in Britain. After acknowledging “the power of reggae music,” through which his work became widely known, LKJ launches into a poem, naturally flowing from his speech. You can watch his presentation here:

LKJ still lives in Brixton.

P.S. Another favorite of mine is “Sonny’s Lettah,” written by a young Jamaican in prison to his mother. A classic (and I have this one too in original vinyl…)

Sonny's Lettah - not sure if you can read this, you might have to magnify it somehow.
Sonny’s Lettah – not sure if you can read this, you might have to magnify it somehow.
Sonny's Lettah - cover
Sonny’s Lettah – cover

Related articles and websites (Linton Kwesi Johnson home page) (“Class-ridden? Yes, but this is still home” (Riots, Rhymes and Reasons: Linton Kwesi Johnson blog post) (Remembering the riots: (Anarchy in Brixton: Riots and Violence Break out in the UK – 2011) (Tottenham 2011 and Brixton 1981 – different ideals, similar lessons: (Poet on the front line: (Theresa May drops plans for stop-and-search law targeting ethnic minorities:, 2010) (Dennis Bovell bio: LKJ Records) (Jean Binta Breeze bio: LKJ Records)

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