Biggest Johnson in town

If the words of pioneering dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson (LKJ) are to be believed, when he emerged in the late Seventies, Britain was a different world. Police brutality was widespread, immigrants were persecuted. But it was, more significantly, the period in which the children of Caribbean migrants claimed a place in Britain.

Jamaican-born LKJ is one of the most notable Caribbeans of this period. His debut album, Dread Beat an’ Blood, came out in 1978. The record was hot with militant protest poetry over a reggae beat. But his fame cannot be put down to the instant popularity of his first work in black British circles. Rather, it was the pithy line, ‘England is a bitch”, in his 1980 poetry collection, Inglan is a Bitch, that marked him as a radical who confronted British conservatism on his own cultural terms.

This week LKJ arrives in Johannesburg as part of a four-city tour of South Africa. He has lost none of his distrust for the British media. In a telephone interview from the United Kingdom on Tuesday he lamented the fact that the ‘left has been defeated and British politics has shifted to the centre”. He is scathing of the New Labour government, which he described as ‘representing continuity from the Margaret Thatcher years”.

LKJ, who moved from Jamaica to join his mother in Britain when he was 11 in the early Sixties, doesn’t want to belittle the massive changes that have been witnessed in Britain. He said the gains that minorities now enjoy didn’t come about by happenstance. ‘We fought for the changes,” he says. Though significant concessions have been won — for instance, there are more senior black people in the police — LKJ says ‘racism remains endemic in the force”. He says that youths from ‘ethnic minorities” are seven times more likely to be stopped and searched than their white counterparts.

LKJ, now the leader of the Dennis Bovell Dub Band, has received a nod from the mainstream and was for a while on the Penguin Classics list, an honour he shared with the late Polish poet and Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz. His works have been translated into German and Italian — and I can’t say I envy the translators. How do you translate this line of Jamaican-London creole: ‘It is noh mistri / We mekkin histri” into a foreign language and still maintain the subversive orthography and its faintly conspiratorial accents?

The Arts Council of England has acclaimed him as ‘one of Britain’s most influential and original voices”. It’s always flattering when the establishment gives you a gong, but this is an honour the Brixton streets bestowed on him decades ago. In an interview with The Guardian last year about his increasing mainstream acceptance, LKJ said this was ‘great. But they recognise me, not the other way round. Some black and Caribbean poets seek a kind of validation from these arbiters of British taste. But they really didn’t exist for me. I was coming from a position of cultural autonomy. I did my own thing, built my own audience and established my own base. My audience was ordinary people.”

When we spoke he was aware that South Africans were going to the polls this week. He refused to comment: ‘I am not South African. I just hope all goes well.” But LKJ had a lot to say about Zimbabwe. ‘I am glad that Zimbabwe is returning to normalcy.” He regards Thabo Mbeki’s mediation efforts as a ‘sign of African maturity”. Africa is now solving its own problems, he said, ‘without the involvement of the West”.

LKJ said he is reluctant to digest the depiction of Mugabe in the British papers: ‘Mugabe has been demonised and a lot of black people have swallowed this.” He said that although Mugabe is certainly not a saint, he is a bit wary of the tone of the British media. He said his experience shows that in general whites ‘don’t care about black people”. Citing the example of Rwanda, where, in 1994, a million black people were murdered by their black compatriots, LKJ asks: ‘How come [the West] is concerned now?” He says that the overriding interest in the wellbeing of Zimbabweans shows ‘hypocrisy of the worst kind. It sickens me.”

Halfway into our interview, LKJ says he is expecting another call from France and we will have to wind up. I wanted to ask him whether he thought England was still a bitch. Perhaps he would have insisted that nothing has really changed. In last year’s interview he insisted that he still saw England that way.

Audiences that encounter the stalwart poet may wish to know what England needs to do to shed the ignominy that comes with the moniker.

LKJ will be supported by poet Kgafela oa Magogodi on his South African tour. He will perform on April 24 at Newtown Park in Johannesburg, April 25 at the Great Field in Grahamstown, May 1 at the Maynardville Open-Air Theatre in Cape Town and May 2 at the Bluff Fairground in Durban

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Percy Zvomuya
Percy Zvomuya is a writer and critic who has written for numerous publications, including Chimurenga, the Mail & Guardian, Moto in Zimbabwe, the Sunday Times and the London Review of Books blog. He is a co-founder of Johannesburg-based writing collective The Con and, in 2014, was one of the judges for the Caine Prize for African Writing.

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