Johnson, Linton Kwesi 1952–
Linton Kwesi Johnson 1952–
Poet, reggae recording artist
The marriage of the spoken word and musical rhythms in modern black culture was anticipated by, and was to some extent the work of, the radical Jamaican–British poet and recording artist Linton Kwesi Johnson. Known in England primarily as a poet, but in the United States and other countries more as a reggae performer, Johnson in reality had been consistent in his outlook, bringing music to poetry and a mixture of poetic sophistication and political activism to dance music. “I always have a bass line at the back of my mind when I write,” Johnson told London’s Guardian newspaper—and, more often than not, that bass line carried overtones of the violence that brewed beneath the surface of British black life as a result of decades of discriminatory treatment.
Linton Johnson was born in Chapelton, in British colonial Jamaica, on August 24, 1952; he took the middle name Kwesi, meaning “born on Sunday,” in the early years of his poetic career. His father was a baker and a sugar–plantation hand, and his mother was a house servant who separated from her husband and took off for London. When he was 11, Johnson went to England to join her. Attending school in London’s Brixton neighborhood he faced the same low expectations that plagued other Caribbean–born students in England; his teachers, he told the Guardian, “didn’t take kindly if they thought you harboured ambitions above your station.”
But Johnson wasn’t one to take their disrespect lying down. He joined the British Black Panthers as a teenager and read the classics of black polemical writing, including W.E.B. DuBois’s The Souls of Black Folk and Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth. He dropped out of high school upon discovering that his girlfriend, Barbara, was pregnant, spending time in a series of low–level clerical jobs but attending night school and taking college sociology courses when he could. He earned a sociology degree from Goldsmith’s College, part of the University of London, in 1973, but the degree didn’t help him escape the poverty to which most of Britain’s black population was relegated. He found only assembly–line work.
These experiences, Britain’s increasing conservatism, and his own self–made radical education combined to shape his first book of poetry, Voices of the Living and
At a Glance…
Born on August 24, 1952, in Chapeltown, British–controlled Jamaica; emigrated to England, 1963; married Barbara (divorced 1994). Education: Tulse Hill Comprehensive School, London; Goldsmith’s College, University of London, B.A. in sociology, 1973.
Career: Published first book of poetry, Voices of the Living and the Dead, 1974; performer and recording artist, mid–1970s–; released first recording, Dread, Beat, an’ Blood, 1977; arts editor, Race Today magazine, 1980s; produced 10–part series on Jamaican music for British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC); be–came only second living poet to be published in Penguin Modern Classics book series, 2002, when poetry collection Mi Revalueshanry Fren appeared.
Awards: C. Day Lewis fellowship, 1977.
Addresses: Publisher—c/o Island Records Ltd., 22 St. Peter’s Square, London W6 9NW, England.
the Dead (1974), which centered on a long poem that looked toward a future worldwide black revolutionary uprising. He gained a following of like–minded Britons who gathered to hear him read his poetry in small halls and political meetings, and in the process naturally encountered the new Jamaican music sounds that were coalescing under the name of reggae. An integral part of Jamaican music at the time—and a key ancestor of American rap and hip–hop—was the improvised rhyming carried out by DJs over reggae dance rhythm tracks.
Johnson is believed to have coined the term “dub” to describe this kind of musical poetry, and soon he was making examples of it himself. His first album, Dread Beat an’ Blood, was released in 1977; it consisted of spoken poems, several dealing with notorious examples of British police brutality, backed by a band led by Johnson’s longtime collaborator, guitarist and keyboardist Dennis Bovell. Johnson was signed to the Mango label, and he released several more albums that became more and more steeped in reggae rhythms.
That evolution affected Johnson’s efforts in the realm of spoken and printed poetry as well. Dread Beat an’ Blood appeared in dual versions in which Johnson experimented with the relationship between text and music, and by the time of his collection Inglan Is a Bitch (1980), Johnson had forged a unique written poetic language based on Jamaican dialect. Inspired both by the efforts of the Barbadian “nation language” poet Kamau Brathwaite and by classic American black–dialect poets such as Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Johnson went beyond simply reproducing Jamaican speech to create a whole new set of poetic devices.
Neither poetic experimentation nor a measure of popular musical success dulled Johnson’s radical impulses, however, and the 1981 outbreak of riots in several British cities, following egregious examples of police misconduct, only intensified them. Johnson turned down a multi–album deal with the successful reggae label Island Records, instead founding his own label, LKJ, in 1981. He hoped, he told the Guardian, to make “thinking man’s reggae, instead of a pulse from a computer.” When not on tour, Johnson worked as the arts editor of the periodical Race Today and produced a ten–part series on Jamaican music for the British Broadcasting Corporation.
The continuing sharp edge of his poetry showed in 1984’s “Di Eagle an’ Di Bear,” which expressed an attitude of equanimity toward a looming U.S.–Russian nuclear war: “as a matter of fact/b’lieve it or not/plenty people don care wedder it imminent or not... dem life already comin’ like a nightmare.” As the fervor of left–wing movements declined in the 1980s and 1990s and reggae’s popularity was dented by hip–hop (for which he showed little enthusiasm), Johnson’s productivity slackened. In 1984 Johnson released Making History. Johnson waited until 1998 to deliver his next album of new musical material, More Time. Several albums of spoken–word recordings, however, kept Johnson’s name before CD buyers in Britain and in the United States, where he had a small but devoted cadre of fans.
Johnson’s poetry of the 1990s mixed his trademark political subject matter with more personal reflections, occasioned by his 1994 divorce from his wife Barbara and subsequent relationship with his partner Sharmilla Beezmohun. By the early 2000s Johnson had emerged as a classic figure in both the poetic and musical realms. His rare live performances were eagerly devoured by concertgoers, some of whom hadn’t even been born when Johnson penned such hard–edged pieces as “All Wi Doin Is Defendin” and “Di Great Insoreckshan.” Johnson was often compared with another key precursor of rap music, the politically oriented U.S. spoken–word artist Gil Scott–Heron.
And, in 2002, the one–time alienated revolutionary was given an honor that signified the highest degree of British literary respectability: Mi Revalueshanary Fren, a volume of his collected poetry, was included in the Penguin Modern Classics series, a widely sold set of paperbacks that formed a central part of many school reading lists. Some traditionalists deplored the Penguin publishing company’s move: a Times Literary Supplement writer quoted in the Guardian complained that some “may find the ushering of Linton Kwesi Johnson into the circles of the immortals a little premature.” Many other critics, however, placed Johnson in a long line of outsider writers who had remade the English language, running from the Scottish poet Robert Burns to Irish novelist James Joyce and beyond. The revolutionary thinking of Linton Kwesi Johnson, it seemed, had become an honored part of the literary mainstream.
Voices of the Living and the Dead, poetry, 1974.
Dread, Beat, an’ Blood, dub poetry, two versions, 1975, 1977.
Forces of Victory, reggae recording, 1979.
Bass Culture, reggae recording, 1980.
Inglan Is a Bitch, poetry, 1980.
Making History, reggae recording, 1984.
Tings an’ Times: Selected Poems, poetry, 1991.
More Time, reggae recording, 1998.
Independent Intavenshan: The Island Anthology, collected reggae recordings, 1998.
Mi Revalueshanry Fren: Selected Poems, poetry, 2002.
Contemporary Poets, St. James, 2001.
Billboard, August 1, 1998, p. 38.
The Bookseller, March 8, 2002, p. 29.
Entertainment Weekly, October 30, 1998, p. 64.
The Guardian (London, England), May 4, 2002, p. 6.
Los Angeles Times, March 6, 1990, p. F6.
Washington Post, September 17, 2002, p. C3.
All Music Guide, http://allmusic.com
Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2002; reproduced in Biography Resource Center, Gale, 2002 (http://www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC).
—James M. Manheim
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