Poet on the front line

A cultural icon for black artists since the 1970s, Linton Kwesi Johnson is known as a performer and recording artist as much as a writer, for poetry that blends the bass and rhythm of reggae music with his deep spoken voice.

With his trademark trilby and goatee he is recognised by United States rappers and in the streets of Soweto and he finds audiences mouthing his words across Europe and Japan. Yet in the mid-1990s he cut a CD, A Cappella Live, which was a return to poetry “unadorned and unencumbered” by musical accompaniment, a reminder of his origins as a poet: “It’s words that I’m about,” he says.

Johnson founded what the poet and novelist Fred D’Aguiar, professor of English at the University of Miami, hails as the “most original poetic form to have emerged in the English language in the last quarter century” — dub poetry — a term Johnson coined in the mid-1970s to describe Jamaican DJs “toasting” over the instrumental B-sides of reggae songs. It stuck to his own work, though he prefers “reggae poetry”. While he often works with a live band, the musicality lies in the words: “I always have a bass line at the back of my mind when I write.”

As important as his new poetic form are the political passions that invigorate it. D’Aguiar sees Johnson in a radical tradition embracing Jonathan Swift, Percy Bysshe Shelley and John Clare; a return to the poet on the front line. For many, he has been an alternative poet laureate, chronicling the black experience in Britain over three decades, while reflecting on events from South Africa to Eastern Europe.

A Spectator profile in 1982 found that such poetry as Johnson’s, with its use of Jamaican patois and phonetic spelling, had “wreaked havoc in schools and helped to create a generation of rioters and illiterates”. But by the 1990s he was on the cover of Critical Quarterly, praised in Poetry Review and translated into German and Italian.

Johnson recently joined Robert Frost and Robert Graves with publication of his selected poems, Mi Revalueshanary Fren, as a Penguin Modern Classic, only the second living poet (after the nonagenarian Czeslaw Milosz) to appear in this hallowed list.

Johnson’s editor, Ellah Allfrey, believes there has been time enough to assess his lasting value. “His is a uniquely British form of language,” she says. “This is the English language coming back home, changed.”

The poet Carol Ann Duffy welcomes Penguin’s move as “an inspired and inspirational publishing moment”. But while The Daily Telegraph noted with surprise on its front page “Reggae radical joins Betjeman”, the TLS diarist griped that some readers “may find the ushering of Linton Kwesi Johnson into the circles of the immortals a little premature”.

“People are edgy because Penguin is messing with the canon,” says Caryl Phillips, professor of English at Columbia University in New York.

Michael Schmidt, editorial director of Carcanet Books, though an admirer of Johnson’s recitals, deems his work a classic not of “literary” but “performance” poetry, best captured on CD or video. “It doesn’t belong on the page,” he insists. “It’s patronising — misappropriating something that thrives in a different medium.”

For others, the distinction between page and stage is artificial and ghettoising: rhyme and metre are about the voice, whether spoken or heard in the reader’s mind. As British poet Lemn Sissay has said: “If you are a black poet, the literary establishment automatically decides that you must be a performance poet.”

Johnson, who once wrote an ironic poem entitled, If I Waz a Tap Natch Poet, can be his own sternest critic. “If it was down to me, the book would be thinner: there’s stuff I wrote when I was young. I’d have been happy to have been published by Penguin, full stop.” He is pleased his work will for the first time be distributed by a major publisher and is enjoying a surge of attention. Yet he seems resigned to carping. “Someone on radio said it’s cynical commercialism because I’m marketable. It’s exactly the kind of reaction I was anticipating; I’m only surprised it’s not worse.”

Johnson has a reputation for seriousness, yet also reveals wit and warmth. In a tribute poem, Seasons, Jean Binta Breeze likened him to a “cole front/cross de Atlantic” until he smiles, “an yuh haffi sey/it did wut it/after all/fi endure im winta”. For him poetry has always gone hand- in-hand with political activism. He has lived, worked and campaigned for almost 40 years in Brixton, south London, where he is known simply as “Poet”. He shares a house-cum-office with his partner and PA, Sharmilla Beezmohun, in the now-gentrified “front line” of the 1970s and early 1980s. One of Britain’s first black journalists and broadcasters he is also a music producer with his own company, LKJ records, and his own manager. In a “quiet” year he tours for three to five months and currently is planning trips to Brazil and Martinique as well as an imminent national tour.

He retains respect not least because he has declined to water down his political views for commercial gain. “I’ve always been an independent-minded person and I wanted to have control over my creativity, to do things on my own terms,” he says. “I’ve made a success of that.”

Phillips says: “You know he’s not owned by anyone, and that’s a remarkable position for a creative black person to have established.”

Johnson was born in 1952 in Chapelton, a small town in the British colony of Jamaica. His parents separated when he was seven and his mother emigrated to Britain shortly before Jamaican independence in 1962. Johnson spent three years with his maternal grandmother before joining his mother in Brixton, aged 11.

He was a top pupil in Jamaica, but, like most black children of his generation, relegated to the bottom stream in his secondary school, a period he recalls as “traumatic: kids and teachers were racist; you’d get into fights all the time”. Although one teacher urged him to follow the Jamaican prime minister Michael Manley to the London School of Economics, “in general, they had low expectations and didn’t take kindly if they thought you harboured ambitions above your station”. Aware that “education was the only way out of poverty for somebody like myself”, he sought mentors elsewhere.

As black consciousness spread in the United States and Caribbean he joined the British Black Panthers. “Although our slogan was ‘black power, people’s power’, we weren’t anti-white. The ideas were working-class solidarity — giving people power over their lives. As a teenager I became passionate about freedom, equality, justice.”

In the Panthers’s library he discovered WEB du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk, Franz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth and Eric Williams’s Capitalism and Slavery. “I found books written by black people, about black people — those were exciting times.”

Johnson left school at 17 with six O-levels to get married to Barbara, the daughter of his mother’s hairdresser. “My wife was pregnant with our first child but I was determined to continue my education,” he says. He went to night school while doing clerical work. As a sociology student in the mid-1970s at Goldsmiths College, London, he temped (“when I turned up they’d say there was some mistake”), then worked on building sites. Unemployed for six months after graduating (“I was ‘overqualified’ or not qualified enough”), he worked on an assembly line to support his family.

These experiences fuelled his early poetry, including the collection Inglan Is A Bitch (1980). He says, “Those were very, very hard times.”

Johnson ran a Panthers’s poetry workshop while at school, and worked with the drummers Rasta Love. A Brixton priest sent him to John la Rose, the Trinidadian poet and lawyer who co-founded the Caribbean Artists’ Movement in 1966 and ran the New Beacon Bookshop in north London.

La Rose introduced him to seminal influences: poets of the negritude movement, AimÃ

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