On the day I am scheduled to interview Linton Kwesi Johnson, he is in a particularly cranky mood. Widely acknowledged as “one of the world’s foremost black poets”, he was in the country recently to receive an honorary doctorate in literature from Rhodes University.
Johnson joined the Black Panthers while still at school and his writing is unapologetically political, dealing predominantly with the realities of being an African-Caribbean living in the United Kingdom.
“Writing was a political act and poetry was a cultural weapon,” he said during a 2008 interview, describing the motivation behind his work, the rhythmic style of which, in 2002, saw him becoming the second living poet and the first black poet to have his work published in Penguin’s Modern Classics series.
Eschewing standard English for Jamaican patois added to the political nature of his work, found in volumes such as Voices of the Living and the Dead (1974), Dread Beat an’ Blood (1975) and Inglan is a Bitch (1980).
In addition to launching his record label, LKJ Records, in 1981, the 1980s also saw him working as a journalist with the Race Today Collective, based in Brixton, London, and as a reporter for the Channel 4 TV programme The Bandung File.
His work in journalism aside, he is visibly irritated when we meet. Despite the Mail & Guardian being the first to interview Johnson since his arrival, the 64-year-old says: “I have interview fatigue. And I spent four hours at the airport yesterday, so let’s make this quick.”
The honouring ceremony followed a special tribute event the previous evening at Grahamstown’s newly located National English Literary Museum for the poet and recording artist.
Featuring performances by writer and performance poet Lesego Rampolokeng, university academics and poets inspired by “the world’s first reggae poet” (as well as an impromptu performance by Johnson himself), the event undoubtedly added to his exhaustion.
His obvious impatience with having to be interviewed aside, Johnson shared his thoughts on his decision to accept the honorary doctorate, police brutality, the #FeesMustFall movement and the hopefulness South Africa’s youth exudes.
In your acceptance speech, you mention how, “notwithstanding the controversy surrounding the statue of Cecil Rhodes in Oxford, and the indignation the name evokes in young and old alike, it would have been churlish not to accept an honorary degree from a venerable institution such as Rhodes University”. Was there a point where you thought: Should I? Shouldn’t I?
For about 10 seconds, the thought ran through my mind: “Is this a propaganda exercise?” But then I felt so happy when I heard that previous honorary doctorates had been awarded to people like Hugh Masekela, Abdullah Ibrahim and Miriam Makeba. When I heard that, I thought to myself, “Well, if Bob Dylan can accept a Nobel Prize in literature, why can’t I accept an honorary doctorate?”
How do you feel about being awarded this honour?
I feel very humbled, you know. These kinds of things are good for the ego — once you have reached a particular age — and you can say, “Well, at least somebody recognises my work.”
Beyond “the ego”, though, surely this kind of thing goes towards keeping your name the public sphere.
Well, I don’t know so much about that. I have worked with schoolchildren in 2015 at the Luthuli Museum, where we had a workshop with three busloads of children, who were all from the area. We discussed poetry and I discussed my poetry and how I got into it. And then we had a reading session, where I read some of my work and the children also read theirs. That was one of the most moving experiences I have ever had. Some of those kids were doing poems in English, but most of them were doing poems in their native language. I didn’t understand much of it — apart from the explanations they gave — but, for me, one of the most important criteria of poetry is authenticity of voice.
And these young people were speaking in their own voices rather than the voice they would assume would be a poetic voice.
How important is the idea of young people expressing themselves in their own languages?
It’s absolutely important. As I said before, the most important criteria for poetry is to do with language and the authenticity of voice. It’s natural, it’s organic and there’s no affectation. You know … it’s real.
Much of your poetry speaks of the black experience. Sonny’s Lettah, for example, speaks of state-sponsored aggression against black bodies. Given the unabated way in which police violence against black people seems to be continuing …
As far as England goes, a lot of my poetry covers the black experience there. A whole section of my generation were criminalised by racist police officers. And the same thing is going on now. Back in my time, it was the “Sus Law” [which allowed police to search and arrest people on the suspicion of being in breach of the 19th-century Vagrancy Act]. Nowadays, it’s stop and search.
I have a grandson, who is about 21 or 22 years old, and he has lost count of the number of times he has been stopped and searched by the police. So some things have changed for us in England — we’re no longer a marginalised community — but some things have not changed at all, in particular our relations with the police, policing and the justice system in general.
Now, let us talk about the United States of America. In spite of the fact that there was a black president — which was a remarkable achievement of major historical significance — there is a whole movement, #BlackLivesMatter, which, back in the day, would have been the Black Panther movement.
What are your thoughts on the #FeesMustFall movement locally?
I support any movement like that, because when I went to university, I was given a grant. It was a modest grant, so I had to do part-time work. I was a young family man, so I did all kinds of jobs: I worked on building sites and other menial jobs to help me through. So I absolutely believe in it.
The privatisation of education is obscene.
You have been visiting South Africa on a relatively regular basis since 1994. What are some of the changes you have seen?
What I notice is the young people. They give me hope for the future. The young people here seem to be very confident, very self-assured, assertive and hopeful. I know South Africa still has a lot of problems but, like all post-colonial societies, these are the things that normally happen.
There’s a historical pattern of these kinds of problems in all post-colonial societies, although I know South Africa is not exactly a post-colonial society in that way. But what gives me hope is the way young people carry themselves, you know. Their whole body language exudes confidence and, yes, that’s a significant thing for me. It gives me hope.
Carl Collison is the Other Foundation’s Rainbow Fellow at the Mail & Guardian