Linton Kwesi Johnson ► A Monday Musical Appreciation

Celebrating a birthday today is Linton Kwesi Johnson, the first Dub Poet. I first became aware of him through Island Records Canada, which I worked for in the ’70s, and he was already a force in Britain. In 2012, according to the The Guardian:

Father of dub poetry Linton Kwesi Johnson will join names including Harold Pinter, JG Ballard and Doris Lessing as winner of the Golden PEN award, for a lifetime’s distinguished service to literature.

Known for his controversial poem “Inglan Is A Bitch“, and for “Di Great Insohreckshan“,
a response to the 1981 Brixton riots in which he stated “It is noh
mistri / we mekkin histri”, Johnson writes what he calls “dub poetry”, a
blend of reggae music and verse written in a Jamaican-London
vernacular. Often performing with the Dennis Bovell Dub Band, he has
been writing and performing since the mid-1970s. In 2002, he was the
second living poet, and the only black poet, to be included in the
Penguin Modern Classic Series.

Linton Kwesi Johnson accepting his Golden PEN award

Johnson was chosen by the trustees of English PEN to receive the
honour. President and author Gillian Slovo described him as “an artistic
innovator, a ground-breaker who has used poetry to talk politics and
who first gave voice to, and who continues to give voice to, the
experience of moving country and of living in this one”.

Johnson himself said he was “surprised and humbled” to win the prize,
because his poetry is from the “little tradition” of Caribbean verse.
“I hope that by conferring on me this award, English PEN will involve
more black writers in its important work and that more black writers
will support English PEN,” he said.

His British Council Literature page says, in part:

He joined the Black Panther movement in 1970, organising a poetry workshop and working with Rasta Love, a group of poets and percussionists. He joined the Brixton-based Race Today Collective in 1974. His first book of poems, Voices of the Living and the Dead, was published by the Race Today imprint in 1974. His second book, Dread, Beat An’ Blood (1975) includes poems written in Jamaican dialect, and was released as a record in 1978. He is widely regarded as the father of ‘dub poetry’, a term he coined to describe the way a number of reggae DJs blended music and verse. Johnson maintains that his starting point and focus is poetry, composed before the music, and for this reason he considers the term ‘dub poetry’ misleading when applied to his own work. He recorded several albums on the Island label, including Forces of Victory (1979), Bass Culture (1980), LKJ In dub (1980) and Making History (1984) and founded his own record label – LKJ – in the mid-1980s, selling over two million records worldwide. 

According to John Dougan’s Artist Biography at All Music:

Although he has only released one album of new material in the last ten
years, and virtually retired from the live stage after his 1985 tour, Linton Kwesi Johnson remains a towering figure in reggae music. Born in Kingston, Jamaica and raised in the Brixton section of London, Johnson invented dub poetry, a type of toasting descended from the DJ stylings of U-Roy and I-Roy. But whereas toasting tended to be hyperkinetic and given to fits of braggadocio, Johnson‘s
poetry (which is what it was — he was a published poet and journalist
before he performed with a band) was more scripted and delivered in a
more languid, slangy, streetwise style.

But, as always, it’s all about The Music:

The Monday Musical Appreciation is a brand new Not Now Silly feature, bringing insight into the music that turns me on.

About Headly Westerfield

Calling himself “A liberally progressive, sarcastically cynical, iconoclastic polymath,” Headly Westerfield has been a professional writer all his adult life.

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