/ 1 August 2023

The time has finally come for LKJ in prose

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British poet Linton Kwesi Johnson performs at the Paradiso in Amsterdam, Netherlands in May 1998. (Photo by Frans Schellekens/Redferns)

Linton Kwesi Johnson, referred to as LKJ by serious reggae fans, cuts an immediately recognisable figure in his formal jacket, trilby hat, goatee and glasses. His somewhat old-fashioned elegance complements his strikingly courteous demeanour and the sense that this is a serious man. 

In South Africa, Johnson is widely known as a dub poet by the more politically and sonically adventurous of the generation that came of age in the 1980s. He hasn’t always welcomed that description, but it has stuck and many people first came to both dub music and political poetry through his work, usually passed on through pirated cassettes. The legendary late night DJ, Chris Prior, would sometimes spin LKJ on Radio 5, as it was then, but in the main his work was part of an underground subculture. 

This was the heyday of reggae as a form of popular music with a global reach, including here in South Africa. Bob Marley had died in 1981, a little over a year after his electrifying performances to celebrate the independence of Zimbabwe. Peter Tosh played Mbabane in 1983, Jimmy Cliff was on SABC’s Popshop and, along with artists like UB40 and Eddy Grant, on state radio. In 1987, Lucky Dube dropped Slave, which rapidly became the biggest ever selling album in South Africa. Reggae was everywhere and, just as with jazz and rock, there was a hierarchy of cool, often inversely related to mainstream popularity. LKJ was at the top of that hierarchy. 

In the 1970s, Bob Marley had taken reggae from the shanty towns of Jamaica to the world, becoming, as Johnson has observed, “a kind of Che Guevara of popular culture”. Reggae was a rebel music grounded in a defiant black politics rooted in an African sense of self that can be traced back to the maroons — the escaped slaves who formed free communities in the mountains. Johnson has described it as music “of and for the Jamaican masses”.

The roots of dub reached back to the late 1960s when Jamaican recording engineers began making dub (double) versions of tracks with stripped down vocals and more experimental and sometimes other worldly sounds, often shaped by heavy use of reverb and echo around slow, hypnotic basslines. 

There was frequently a futuristic feel to the music. Like early Star Trek episodes, futurism often soon feels old-fashioned but classic dub by producers such as Lee “Scratch” Perry sustains its appeal into the present and continues to influence many of the more innovative currents of contemporary electronic music such as triphop, drum ’n bass, jungle and dubstep. An album like Leftfield’s now classic 1995 debut, Leftism, or the entire concept of the Ninja Tune label, would not have been possible without the earlier sonic experiments in recording studios in Kingston. 

Johnson spent the first years of his life in rural Jamaica and arrived in London at the age of 11. He joined the British Black Panther Movement in high school, and was first excited by the possibilities of the life of the mind after reading The Souls of Black Folk by the great African-American intellectual, WEB du Bois. He went on to discover the Caribbean intellectual tradition. He read and was, he has recalled, “intoxicated” by the great Martinican poet, Aimé Césaire. He also read Césaire’s compatriot, Frantz Fanon; the Trinidadian socialist, CLR James and, later, the Guyanese radical, Walter Rodney. He read and then wrote from within struggle. His writing included everything from liner notes for reggae albums, to journalism, analysis and poetry written, as a deliberate political act, in Jamaican English.

His early poetry was particularly concerned with the relentless police harassment and criminalisation of young black men and this is true of his first three albums, beginning with his 1978 debut Dread Beat an’ Blood. Johnson himself had been assaulted by three police officers in 1972 after which he was charged with assault.

Set against dub played by a band rather than created by a producer on a mixing desk, and avoiding the trippy elements often favoured by producers like Perry, the spoken vocals and music were entwined into a politically serious project with a compelling groove. In Bass Culture on the 1980 album of the same name he described the music better than any critic: “Muzik of blood/ Black reared/ Pain rooted/ Heart geared/ All tensed up/ In di bubble an di bounce”.

This body of work presaged the riots in Brixton in London in April 1981. In 1987 the scholar Paul Gilroy wrote in There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack that the riots “provided a means to galvanise blacks from all over the country into overt and organised political mobilisation”. There was also an account of the riots in “Di Great Insohreckshan” on the 1983 album Making History. The riots followed a fire at a party in New Cross in January that year that took the lives of 13 young black people. The fire was a turning point and on New Craas Massakah, on the same album, Johnson declared that “di whole a black Britn did rack wid rage”. Many thought the fire had been deliberately set, and much of the media did not take it seriously until, Gilroy writes, “black protest aimed directly at the institutions which manufacture news”. 

LKJ’s more careful listeners in South Africa would have understood the basic elements of this political drama, but few would have known that, as well as providing witness, he was directly involved in the gathering intensity of black politics in London. He was part of the collective that published the journal Race Today and led the organisation of the protest against the media that was able to summon between 15 and 20 000 people into the streets. CLR James lived upstairs from the Race Today offices and Johnson was part of a wider and generative ferment in black political and intellectual life. 

Making History, Johnson’s fourth album, marked a move beyond the streets of London to encompass global geopolitics, and the assassination of Walter Rodney in Guyana. In Dread Poetry and Freedom, his superb book 2018 on Johnson’s life, times and work, David Austin notes the internationalism and socialist commitment of this album and Johnson’s last studio album, Tings an’ Times, released in 1991. He also shows that Johnson’s work is animated by a consistent commitment to taking working class experiences and struggles seriously, and a deep commitment to “the creative capacity of ‘ordinary’ people to do the extraordinary”. Johnson himself has often stressed the centrality of class to both his political activism and poetry.

LKJ is known globally as a significant reggae artist who has sold more than two million records. In 2002 he became the second living poet to be published in the Penguin Modern Classics series and he also has global standing as a poet. But outside of the United Kingdom his work as an activist, journalist and general intellectual writing about politics, literature and music is less widely known.

His new selected prose collection Time Come changes that. Written in perfectly chiselled and lucid prose the collection includes obituaries, music, theatre and literature reviews, talks, analysis and accounts of a range of personalities — primarily musicians, writers, and activists. The work collected here was produced between 1976 and 2021 and, as Gilroy notes in his introduction, most of it is not online. Taken together it offers compelling insights into Jamaican society and politics, histories and analysis of reggae and black struggle in Britain in the 1970s and 1980s, and more. It is, as Gilroy, writes, “scandalously overdue”.

A good many years ago now Johnson told this author, over lunch on a balmy Durban day, that the first novel he read as a child was set in the cane lands of Natal, and that, from then on, he had carried an awareness of shared points of connection between the Caribbean and South Africa. In Time Come he writes that “South Africans have been very kind to me” and several South Africans are mentioned in the book. Barney Desai, a militant in the Pan African Congress and London barrister who successfully represented Johnson in the case that followed his 1972 arrest, makes an appearance. So too do writers like Peter Abrahams, James Mathews and Don Mattera. 

Time Come is a model of political writing produced from within struggle. But reading it from South Africa induces a degree of melancholy. We do not have a writer of Johnson’s range working in our public sphere, let alone a politically committed intellectual who can translate their work into popular culture in the way that Johnson has done. We do not have the material infrastructure in terms of publications, organisations and the like to sustain the sort of work that Johnson produced over 45 years. 

And we do not take to the streets when the police murder our people, when the media have scant interest in these murders or even, as happened with the police murders of Nqobile Nzuza in 2013 and Zamekile Shangase in 2021, police lies are casually repeated as fact in the media.

Richard Pithouse writes about politics, music and poetry.