Dread Beats

The dub poetry of Linton Kwesi Johnson

Silja J.A. Talvi

When I first heard Lin­ton Kwe­si Johnson’s words, they came flow­ing through a near­ly blown-out sound sys­tem in a Los Ange­les punk club in the ear­ly 80s.

I could bare­ly hear him, but some­thing about the inten­si­ty of his deliv­ery – urgent, street­wise and intel­lec­tu­al – over a puls­ing reg­gae beat made me take notice.

Pressed up against the stage, I turned my small, 15-year-old frame around to watch as a hand­ful of old­er punks begin to chant the lyrics, mim­ic­k­ing Johnson’s thick, Jamaican Cre­ole English:

it woz in april nine­teen eight wan
doun inna di ghet­to af Brixtan
dat di baby­lan dem cauz such a frickshan
dat it bring about a great insohreckshan
an it spread all owe­vah di naeshan
it woz tru­ly an his­tar­i­cal occayshan 

That song, Di Great Insohreck­shan,” tells the sto­ry of the Brix­ton race riots of 1981, when work­ing-class Black and Asian immi­grants teamed up with punks liv­ing eco­nom­i­cal­ly and polit­i­cal­ly mar­gin­al lives to fight against the high rates of unem­ploy­ment and ram­pant police bru­tal­i­ty. Lin­ton Kwe­si Johnson’s poems describ­ing the riots – and the decades of oppres­sion that led to them – are strik­ing. John­son (known as LKJ to his fans) has to be spo­ken to be felt and, for some, just to be understood.

Born in 1952 in the small, poor rur­al town of Chapel­ton, Jamaica, in the country’s pre-inde­pen­dence days, LKJ moved to Eng­land with his moth­er in 1963, along with many oth­er Caribbeans from the Com­mon­wealth seek­ing a bet­ter life. But at every turn, most of those Afro-Caribbeans – as well as their chil­dren and grand­chil­dren – found that the Britain of oppor­tu­ni­ty and equal­i­ty exist­ed only in their dreams. Ghet­to hous­ing, pover­ty, and police and intra-eth­nic vio­lence marred and marked their lives. LKJ wrote about these peo­ple, even­tu­al­ly, set­ting many of his poems to a back­drop of reg­gae music in a form he called dub poet­ry,” a term he coined. (A lat­er gen­er­a­tion of polit­i­cal British singers also known as dub poets has includ­ed Muta­baru­ka, Oku Onuo­ra, and Mac­ka B.)

LKJ had a fire for polit­i­cal and race analy­sis from an ear­ly age. At uni­ver­si­ty, he stud­ied soci­ol­o­gy; he lat­er joined the Black Pan­ther Move­ment – a British orga­ni­za­tion dis­tinct from the Amer­i­can Black Pan­ther Par­ty – and worked with a num­ber of British black rad­i­cal polit­i­cal and musi­cal col­lec­tives. Believ­ing strong­ly in the DIY eth­ic and in the right to con­trol one’s own means of pro­duc­tion, in 1980, he start­ed his own record label, LKJ. 

The musi­cal envi­ron­ment that LKJ grew up in was a mix of the Jamaican musi­cal styles of rock­steady, reg­gae and dub reg­gae (a ver­sion of reg­gae with heavy echo, unusu­al sound effects and typ­i­cal­ly lan­guid pac­ing), so he grav­i­tat­ed toward that genre. Unlike many of his musi­cal peers, he eschewed – but nev­er dis­re­spect­ed – the spir­i­tu­al frame­work of the Rasta­far­i­an reli­gion, giv­ing his songs an appeal to audi­ences uncom­fort­able with wor­ship­ful shout-outs to the deposed Ethiopi­an Emper­or, Haile Selassie. 

In the 80s and 90s, LKJ focused on his UK audi­ences, occa­sion­al­ly tour­ing the Unit­ed States with sold-out shows packed with a dynam­ic mix of Ras­tas, punks and left-wing activists. LKJ’s record­ed music has been avail­able to U.S. audi­ence on such gems as Dread Beat An’ Blood (Vir­gin, 1978), Forces of Vic­to­ry (Mango/​Island, 1979), LKJ in Dub (Island, 1981) and Mak­ing His­to­ry (Island, 1983) – as well as a host of records released through his own label, LKJ Records, includ­ing Tings an’ Times (1991), LKJ Presents (1996), and More Time (1998) – and most recent­ly in the form of the Island Records CD col­lec­tion, Inde­pen­dent Intaven­shan (1998).

For the first time, LKJ’s poet­ry has been pub­lished in the Unit­ed States, in a bril­liant col­lec­tion enti­tled Mi Reval­ue­sha­nary Fren. The book was released this year by the New York-based poet­ry pub­lish­er Aus­able Press, com­plete with a com­pan­ion CD of LKJ read­ing his own poet­ry – sans musi­cal accompaniment.

John­son deliv­ers his poet­ry in a melan­choly, mat­ter-of-fact tone and fills it with chill­ing, rev­o­lu­tion­ary imagery. All that’s required of unfa­mil­iar tongues is the will­ing­ness to linger on the poem long enough to understand. 

now tell mi someting
mis­tah police spokesman
tell mi something
how lang yu real­ly tink wi woul­da tek yu batn lick
yu jack­boot kick
yu dut­ty bag a tricks
an yu racist pallyticks
you racist pallyticks?

(From Mekkin Histri”)

LKJ’s dub poet­ry is writ­ten and spo­ken in a ver­nac­u­lar that has a his­to­ry that few under­stand. In his intro­duc­tion to Mi Reval­ue­sha­nary Fren, Rus­sell Banks notes, Jamaican cre­ole is a lan­guage cre­at­ed out of hard neces­si­ty by African slaves from 17th cen­tu­ry British Eng­lish and West African, most­ly Ashan­ti, lan­guage groups, with a lex­i­cal admix­ture from the Caribe and Arawak natives of the island. It is a pow­er­ful­ly expres­sive, flex­i­ble and … musi­cal ver­nac­u­lar, sus­tained and elab­o­rat­ed upon for over four hun­dred years by the descen­dants of those slaves.”

Take this sec­tion of Inglan is a Bitch,” an LKJ ode to the strug­gles of the Black work­ing class:

well mi dhu day wok an mi dhu nite wok
mi dhu clean wok and mi dhu dut­ty wok
dem seh dat black man is very lazy
but if yu si how mi wok yu woodah seh mi crazy

LKJ has helped legit­imize a lan­guage pre­vi­ous­ly dis­missed as the pid­gin” Eng­lish of peo­ple too une­d­u­cat­ed or lazy (or both) to grasp prop­er Eng­lish, intro­duc­ing it to the world in poet­ry. In a nod to that accom­plish­ment, in 2002 LKJ’s work was includ­ed in Pen­guin Books’ Mod­ern Clas­sic series, earn­ing him the dis­tinc­tion of being the first Black poet – and the sec­ond liv­ing poet – to be includ­ed in the anthology.

Still, some have mis­tak­en LKJ’s poet­ic lin­guis­tics as that of an une­d­u­cat­ed man unable to speak the King’s Eng­lish, some­thing that LKJ pokes fun of in the poem, If I Woz a Tap-Natch Poet,” which he intro­duces with a quote from the Oxford Com­pan­ion to Twen­ti­eth-Cen­tu­ry Poet­ry: “[D]ub poet­ry has been described as … over­com­pen­sa­tion for deprivation’.”

LKJ goes on:

if I woz a tap-natch poet
like Chris Okigbo
Derek Walcot
ar T.S. Eliot
I woodah write a poem
soh dyam deep
dat it bittah-sweet
like a precious
memari
whe mek yu weep
whe mek yu feel incomplete

The bespec­ta­cled, beard­ed and intro­vert­ed poet doesn’t look the part of a sea­soned per­formed. But once on stage, LKJ springs to life, ani­mat­ing his lines with grace­ful lit­tle dance steps. In lieu of the expe­ri­ence of LKJ live, Mi Reval­ue­sha­nary Fren is a won­der­ful intro­duc­tion – or com­ple­ment, as the case may be – to lis­ten­ing to him drop poet­ic polit­i­cal sci­ence over deep, throb­bing bass lines:

for the time is nigh
when pas­sion gath­er high
when di beat jus lash
when di wall mus smash
an di beat will shif
as di cul­ture altah
when oppres­sion scatah

(from Bass Culture”)

Nuff said. Check it.

Aus­able Press is at www​.aus​ablepress​.org. For more on Lin­ton Kwe­si John­son, vis­it www​.lkjrecords​.com.

Sil­ja J.A. Talvi, a senior edi­tor at In These Times, is an inves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ist and essay­ist with cred­its in many dozens of news­pa­pers and mag­a­zines nation­wide, includ­ing The Nation, Salon, San­ta Fe Reporter, Utne, and the Chris­t­ian Sci­ence Monitor.
Limited Time:

SUBSCRIBE TO IN THESE TIMES MAGAZINE FOR JUST $1 A MONTH