Dub Poetry

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Dub Poetry

The word "dub" in "dub poetry" is borrowed from recording technology, where it refers to the activity of adding and/or removing sounds. "Dub poetry," which is usually in Jamaican Creole, incorporates a music beat, often a reggae beat. It is often performed to an accompaniment of instrumental music, recorded or live. Although dub poets sometimes publish books, most of their work is designed for presentation live and is marketed in recordings. Some "dub poets" prefer not to be called by that name: They say they are simply poets, that some of what they write is manifestly not "dub poetry," and that, even in performance mode, they sometimes draw on musical forms that are not reggae or dub.

Dub poetry invites comparison with oral performance in any culture. In tracing its lineage, some commentators begin with African griots. Some point to more immediate connectionswith Jamaican DJs of the 1970s, figures such as U. Roy, I. Roy, and Big Youth. "The 'dublyricist,'" wrote Linton Kwesi Johnson, "is the DJ turned poet. He intones his lyrics rather than sings them. Dub-lyricism is a new form of (oral) music-poetry" (Johnson, p. 398).

Early in 1979 a group of young poets in Jamaica began to promote the term "dub poetry" (adumbrated by Johnson) to identify work then being presented by Oku Onuora, Michael Smith ("Mikey"), and others. They paid frequent tribute to Jamaican poet Louise Bennett for having shown that Jamaican Creole can be the vehicle of significant art. Onuora (formerly Orlando Wong) was inspired by Bob Marley and the Wailers and other Jamaican reggae artists; he also learned from Langston Hughes, The Last Poets, Gil Scott-Heron, Kamau Brathwaite, and others steeped in the rhythms of black music.

The pioneer theorist on dub poetry, Onuora initially talked about its form: In a dub poem, he argued, reggae rhythms can be heard even when the poem is presented with no instrumental backing. By 1986 he was also highlighting sociopolitical content: "Dub poetry simply mean to take out and to put in, but more fi put in more than anything else. We take out the little isms, the little English ism and the little highfalutin business and the little penta-metre. It's dubbing in the rootsical, yard, basic rhythm that I-an-I know. Using the language, using the body. It also mean to dub out the isms and schisms and to dub consciousness into the people-dem head" (into the people's thinking; Morris, pp. 37-38).

Expressions such as "rootsical" (grounded, relating comfortably to poor black people), "I-an-I" (we), "isms and schisms" (pretentious ideologies and ideological disputes), and "consciousness" (progressive black consciousness) do not necessarily identify the speaker as Rastafarian, for Rastafarian influence is widely diffused. It is true, however, that a number of well-known dub poets are Rastafarian or have passed through a Rastafarian phase.

Like Rastafari and the Black Power movement (another major influence), dub poetry typically seeks to promote black consciousness and to confront injustice. Politically focused, it does not often explore subtle shifts of feeling or ambiguities of self-discovery. Some critics have noted with disapproval what they adjudge to be its limited emotional range and its tendency to rely on direct statement. Others commend dub poets for rhetorical force and political clarity and are critical of commentators who, invoking broad categories such as "performance poetry," seem inclined to blunt the political force of "dub." Various academics, including Gordon Rohlehr in Voiceprint (1989) and Carolyn Cooper in Noises in the Blood (1993), have praised particular pieces or poets, without seeming to endorse dub poetry in general as Christian Habekost does in Verbal Riddim (1993), which is an invaluable source of information.

Well known "dub poets"though some resist the categoryinclude Mutabaruka, Oku Onuora, the late Mikey Smith, Yasus Afari, Cherry Natural (Jamaica), Linton Kwesi Johnson, Benjamin Zephaniah (resident in the United Kingdom), Jean Binta Breeze (Jamaica and the U.K.), Lillian Allen, and Afua Cooper (based in Canada). Each is a compelling performer whose work has been available in recordings and in print. In 2002 Mi Revalueshanary Fren: Selected Poems by Linton Kwesi Johnson was published as a Penguin Modern Classic.

See also Bennett, Louise; Literature of the English-Speaking Caribbean; Rastafarianism; Reggae


Brown, Stewart, Mervyn Morris, and Gordon Rohler, eds. Voiceprint: An Anthology of Oral and Related Poetry from the Caribbean. Burnt Mill, U.K.: Longman, 1989.

Cooper, Carolyn. Noises in the Blood: Orality, Gender, and the "Vulgar" Body of Jamaican Popular Culture. London: Macmillan, 1993. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1995.

Habekost, Christian. Verbal Riddim: The Politics and Aesthetics of African-Caribbean Dub Poetry. Amsterdam-Atlanta: Editions Rodopi B.V., 1993.

Johnson, Linton Kwesi. "Jamaican Rebel Music." Race and Class 17, no. 4 (1976): 398.

Morris, Mervyn. Is English We Speaking and Other Essays. Kingston, Jamaica: Ian Randle Publishers, 1999.

mervyn morris (2005)