"There's been some progress, but yeah, England is still a bitch, with people dying in police custody and cover-ups of that. I'm involved in trying to get justice for that."
- Linton Kwesi Johnson, 2002
Watching the recent news about rioting and looting in London and beyond has been a bit of a sad flashback, as I was visiting there almost 30 years ago when riots broke out in Brixton and beyond. Then, the racial conflict element was undeniable and the Thatcher regime's culpability and reaction fairly clear. This time, things seem more equivocal. But it is more clear than ever that masses of unemployed, disenfranchised youth -- of whatever race -- can be a tinderbox. Prime Minister Cameron has echoed Thatcher in his reactions, but most would likely at least agree with his characterization of the violence as "senseless."
Still, two op-ed authors in the New York Times, one of them a London School of Economics professor, note that "the flip side of Britain's famed politeness is the sort of hooliganism that appears at soccer matches and in town centers on weekend nights -- an unfocused hostility that is usually fueled by vast quantities of alcohol." Looking for causality, they observe the similarities between London and American cities in terms of inequality and note that "Mr. Cameron's austerity program is the Tea Party's dream come true." This was no doubt intended as a warning.
One striking "flashback" element was a video interview of a senior black activist in London, commenting on the riots and arguing with the BBC newswoman. His name is Darcus Howe, and I recognized the name -- he was the topic of a song titled "Man Free" written and recorded in 1976 by the great reggae poet, musician, and singer Linton Kwesi Johnson. "LKJ" worked with Howe on an anti-racism journal called Race Today in the 1970s. Judging from the new video, Howe, now 68 years old, is no less angry about racism than back then -- and if you want to be appalled by the persistence of racism today, read some of the comments on the video here -- although they might make you despair for humanity (if you don't already, that is).
As for LKJ, he is still a renowned musical and poetic figure but does few interviews and tours and records rarely. The last time he gave a concert in San Francisco, in 2002. I was able to interview him for The BEAT magazine in the basement of Slim's nightclub. He had just been selected for a volume of poems published by the esteemed Penguin Classics series in England, where he's lived since childhood. I thought some readers might be interested in this unique and revered figure's own life story, politics, his critical views on other musical figures such as Bob Marley and the state of reggae itself, poetry, and more. I've sent him a message asking for comment on the current situation, but don't really expect to hear back -- I have not seen an interview with him in the intervening decade, nor any new recordings released. In any event, it was an honor to meet him.
LINTON KWESI JOHNSON:
Dubbing with the Living Poets' Society
Linton Kwesi Johnson, aka LKJ, is the intellectual conscience of reggae music. Since the early 1970s he has forged a melding of true poetry with roots reggae rhythms, holding to a political perspective honed by long involvement with movements for better living conditions and rights for Black people in England, where he has lived since he was eleven years old. As a university student, writer, editor and musician, his voice and words have been unmistakable -- unique within reggae, really. Arguably, LKJ invented dub -- or reggae -- poetry, and still does it best; he is thus both the premiere and premier exemplar of this singular genre of music.
Starting in 1978, he has released a series of albums which still sound timeless even as they address then-current events in the UK and beyond. Key to LKJ's music is the contribution of the unsurpassed bands he has worked with, most notably and lastingly the Dennis Bovell Dub Band. The arrangements LKJ and Bovell provide to surround his poetry are complex yet driving, with rich horn charts and, more recently, violin and flute flavorings.
So although it might seem ironic for a poet, it's really no wonder that the slogan on LKJ's website is "Putting the Music Back into Reggae." Albums like "Bass Culture,' "Making History," and "More Time" are treasures of stimulating thought, delivered in LKJ's resonant baritone over and within some of the hardest yet most melodic tracks in reggae. The live CD "LKJ in Concert with the Dub Band" captures his career-spanning shows as of the late 1980s, and the two-CD set "Independant Intavenshan" selects from all his work on Island Records from the years 1979-84.
On top of all his recorded work, LKJ has just this year been recognized with a printed collection of his writings published in a most prestigious series by Penguin in the UK. "Mi Revalueshanary Fren: Selected Poems" is an unprecedented accomplishment for a reggae artist, as LKJ is joined in the series by some of the most revered literary names of modern times.
A serious man, LKJ does not suffer fools gladly, if at all. On stage, his band is disciplined and follows a tightly-paced songlist in a manner reminiscent of tough taskmasters like James Brown. Nor does he seem particularly fond of doing interviews. But once he tests one's mettle and seriousness, as musician or interviewer it seems, he is quite willing to tell about his life and work.
SH: I've read somewhere that you first acquired your love of words from your grandmother, who read the Bible to you when you were very young.
LKJ: Actually it was the other way around -- my grandmother was illiterate and as soon as I could read she had me reading the Bible to her. Whenever her spirit was troubled, she liked to hear the sounds of those words, and I too got to like the language.
But you did not really stay involved in that religious tradition...
No, but the Biblical stories were actually part of most children's education in Jamaica. And some particular parts of the Bible, the psalms and proverbs and such, are very poetic.
And you came to London as a child...
Yes, my mother came to England in 1961, and I went to join her in '63. It was a bit of an experience, actually.
In terms of what, racial issues in particular? I heard you were surprised to see a white man sweeping the street.
Yes, that was a bit surprising you know, as in Jamaica one associated all whites with wealth and power, and you'd never have imagined to see that in Kingston.
You seem to have been focused on education from an early age.
My generation was ambitious; we were the children of first-generation immigrants and we wanted to do something with our lives and make something of ourselves. And our parents had expectations of ourselves as well. So while I might not have attended classes as regularly as I should have, I was serious about my education. And after I left school and got married and worked for about 3 years, I went to the university and got a degree in sociology.
What kind of work did you do at that point?
I did several jobs -- first some accounting for a tailor, and on the switchboard there during lunch breaks as well. I also worked as a clerical officer in the civil service for a time.
When did you first become politically involved?
By 1970 I was involved in the Black Panther Youth League. This was a different organization than the USA group, but we were inspired by people like Huey P. Newton, Bobby Seale, and all those guys, and the fact that they were standing up and protecting their community, in a very militant kind of way. We weren't half as militant as they were, but this was my first real introduction to Black literature and history. It was a whole birth of consciousness for me. I was reading Soul on Ice, Manchild in the Promised Land, Richard Wright's work... It was a very exciting time for me.
Those are all African-American writers -- was there any equivalent among British writers then?
No, there was absolutely nothing like that. Well, there were some Caribbean writers doing novels set in London, but nothing with the kind of consciousness of those I mentioned.
And you learned yet more from direct experience, such as in prison?
Yes, for example if you saw a Black man being arrested, you at least tried to get their name and address, for example. I tried that in Brixton and was grabbed by some police officers and was racially abused and kicked and thrown to the ground, and then charged with two counts of assault. There was a demonstration outside the police station and I was released within hours. But once the demonstration started they increased the charges to three!
Were you starting to write poetry at this point?
Yes, I published a couple of short books; my first was in 1974. But I might have been doing my first dub poetry performances as early as 1972. People were just getting involved in rasta and I started doing poetry with them in kind of workshop situations, yunno, and I would improvise words to go over the riddims. And I liked that. At that time I had listened to The Last Poets and heard what they were doing with percussion and street language, and that inspired me too.
How did you first hook up with the Matumbi people and Dennis Bovell?
I first heard of Dennis through Vivian Weathers, my school friend who played some bass on my first couple of albums. He said to me "If you're ever gonna make records, Dennis Bovell is the man." I met Dennis through my work as a freelance journalist for the BBC world service, told him I was interested, and he said "Whenever you're ready."
And so your first recordings were as "Poet and the Roots?"
Yes, I called myself "Poet." Dennis was the engineer, and also played guitar and piano. And John Kpiaye played guitar, and Nick Straker keys, and they've been with me ever since. The original horn section went to UB40, and then we got Steve Gregory, whose been around long before us and played with Van Morrison and many others.
How do you work up your wonderful arrangements -- there's really nothing else like them in reggae. Do you start with the words?
I have a bass, and I have words and know what kinda beat I want to have, and I work out the basslines and the chords are based on that. Simple as that. Then I discuss the arrangement with Dennis and we exchange ideas -- Dennis usually comes up with the horn lines. And on the last couple albums I decided to bring in violin and flute as well. But it starts with the skeleton of my voice and basslines on a cassette...
So you are a musician as well?
People often don't believe that, but yes. (said with a look of mild exasperation)
Well, they'll have to believe it now as you play bass on on the new dub CD. Anyway, you started on Island Records, and then started your own label. Is that kind of control necessary?
It's hard work, it's just two of us running it, but yes we have control and that's the most important thing. We're doing our entire catalog now, after the Island stuff, which is collected on that 2-CD set titled Independant Intavenshan.
I heard you were unhappy when Island remixed your Making History LP for USA release, toning the bass down and so on...
Yeah, I still don't know why they did that, it was like they were trying to sabotage the album or something. It was Chris Blackwell's idea, but everyone prefers the original mix.
Well, that happened to Bunny Wailer's classic "Blackheart Man" too so at least you were in good company. Speaking of remixes, back in 1975, you wrote in Race Today when Bob Marley's "Catch a Fire" came out that Marley had become a sellout, by adding rock guitar and so on; you wrote "There is no more dread in Marley's music; the dread has been replaced by howling rock guitar and funky rhythm." 1975 was early to be saying that, although others, like Lee Perry even, made similar complaints much later in Bob's career. Any reflection on that?
There's nothing to reflect on. That was written from a very "reggae purist" perspective, and I take everything back. I was wrong in the way I was looking at it. Yes, he commercialized reggae in a sense, and it was part of the marketing strategy. But you know, how do you sell good music? Marley was a genius, and he reached a lot of people, right? In hindsight I would say that I was being very cheeky there.
You're not a rasta, at least not obviously. How do you relate to the mainstream of reggae?
Well, Haile Selassie and Marcus Garvey are icons to Black people all over, regardless. My position is, I love the music of Burning Spear as much as anyone on earth, yunno? I love Culture, the Gladiators, Toots. They are the backbone of this thing, who keep it going. Others are trying to take advantage and are taking reggae down.
Some of those hustler producers, who put out what I call disposable music. I mean, we are living in the era of the ascendancy of the word in music, whether it's hip-hop or whatever, and the words have come to the fore. But it does not have to mean a complete negation of the music. If all you get is a pulse and beat and nothing else, something important is missing.
Alton Ellis (legendary reggae singer -- ed) once told me, "There are over 800 instruments in the world and these guys are using just two -- drum and bass -- and even those are fake."
There you have it. I think reggae in general has suffered from the proliferation of dancehall music, from some guy lining up about 20 deejays to come and talk over one riddim; it's like fast food. They don't stand the test of time.
Like even overnight. Who do you enjoy from today's crop?
I like Luciano, Morgan Heritage, Tony Rebel... but there's room for everybody, and a lot of talented people in that scene, and good luck to them.
Your newest CD, LKJ in Dub Volume 3, includes dubs from your last album plus some new tracks, but no real vocals of course. Are you working on any new reggae poetry?
Not at the moment. I started to work on reggae renditions of some of my favorite poetry from others like T.S. Eliot but could not get copyright clearance on things, so I put it aside. So my next project will be a live album, since it's at least 15 years since the last one.
Will that include new songs?
No, just like my live shows, poems from throughout my career.
Well, I must say, you couldn't be called prolific. New records from you are few and far between. Why is that?
I haven't written anything. I'm not one of these people who get up everyday and say it's time to write a poem. I write when I'm inspired and feel like it. I admire people who work at it on a daily basis but I could never do that. Writing a poem for me is a special experience that does not come on a regular basis; it's almost like magic. And as I get older I find writing even harder, because of the standards I set myself. But I am very active in Europe, still, touring and doing many poetry readings.
Do you still make a distinction between "dub poetry" versus "reggae poetry?"
Not really. I like to see myself as a person who writes verse, full stop. I write verse that aspires towards poetry. I've just been published in the Penguin Modern Classics series, a collection of all my poetry. I'm only the second living poet in that series. So I've joined the Dead Poets' Society.
Who is the other living one?
The Polish poet, Czeslaw Milocz, 91 years old...
A Nobel Prize-winner. That's pretty lofty company. Congratulations.
Thank you. There's also a new German bilingual collection titled New World Order.
Have you been writing anything about the last year, since September 11th?
Not directly. But it does effect us too in Britain. The threat of war has caused demands that our Parliament debate it so we do not blindly support war. It seems to me that since the Cold War ended, Islam has become the new "communists." We saw an extreme reaction to extreme policies; in no way does that justify it, but it just didn't come out of nowhere. And seeing every Muslim as a potential terrorist is no answer.
You wrote some of your most scathing words about the lives of Blacks in England during the Thatcher regime in the 1980s. Is it any better, or is England still "A Bitch?" (one of LKJ's songs is titled "Inglan is a Bitch")
There's been some progress, but yeah, England is still a bitch, with people dying in police custody and cover-ups of that. I'm involved in trying to get justice for that.
How? As some kind of spokesman?
No, they've been trying to make me into some kind of "black spokesperson" but I'm not having it. If they call me, I speak. Nobody appointed me leader or anything.
But you might be an appropriate candidate for that, being an educated, intellectual presence, published poet, and so on...
I'm just a thinking person.
OK. And do you think that, as you get older, you get mellower in your views?
Well... I think it would be unnatural not to get a bit mellower with age. But that does not mean that you have abandoned your convictions.
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