Hello everyone! Today’s blog post is all about the Jamaican-British, Reggae-poet genius of the one and only LINTON KWESI JOHNSON, dub and rhyme master of the verse!!!!!
Before reading his poetry, I knew Johnson was the only living poet to have the honour of their work being published by Penguin Classics, normally reserved for deceased writers of greatness only. So he is a pretty big fucking deal to be a LITERAL living classic. To give a brief summary of him before I talk more about his poetry: Linton Kwesi Johnson was born in Jamaica, but moved to Tulse Hill to join his mother again in 1963. He was involved in the British Black Panthers during the the 70s and 80s, and now has poetry accolades and awards coming out of his ears! His engagement with combining music and poetry has led to the creation of an almost spoken-word reggae poetics on music albums, and is majorly interesting! If you don’t like reading poetry, just listen to his songs instead!
His poetry deals with the visceral ups and downs of life for Caribbean immigrants in London, the potentials for joy and violence in the instability of transitioning from one life to another in a hostile country. They celebrate brotherhood and youth culture, exploring the city and new language forming from the mixing of Creole and patois with standard English. A big fuck you to colonial logic, separatism and binaries, and the hierarchies of language alongside race. The poems spit in the face of authority: Johnson writes of police brutality with a fast paced anger, and whilst his poetry does not expand on imagery or soft lyricism, the guttural iterations of his reggae rhythms pack all the descriptive punch you need to grasp the systemic violence he sees. Sadly, its not just the police who instigate strife: Johnson also writes of the violence amongst immigrants at that time fighting with each other. It isn’t hard to work out how Johnson’s themes- immigration, law and order, racism, community and class- make his poetry timeless even today. What with Brexit, Windrush, the refugee crisis and general global disdain for immigrants and travellers of all kinds- Johnson’s poetry brings forth a marginalised displacement I am certain many still live through now, and that everybody must respect and pay witness to.
For better or for worse- depending on your preferred style- the only way to truly appreciate the sonic mastery and rhythmic precision of these poems is to read them aloud. I know! It does seem silly to read aloud sometimes, and especially if- like myself- you are a somewhat nerdy white girl who really has no idea how to pronounce some of the words and have no intention of being a culture vulture/ putting on a blaccent. BUT I STILL INSIST! Much of the language is more phonetic anyways, so even if you cant understand what a word is on the page odds are as soon as you say it aloud the meaning will reveal itself. And once you grasp the pattern of a verse, and feel the pauses in your breath- the reggae powers do the rest. I can attest from first hand experience, as me and my lover read some of these poems together aloud, and even though we did have a bit of a laugh at each other, hearing the words spoken really is captivating. We also decided the poetry was best enjoyed the most authentic way- with a fat zoot…
These are poems not to be dithered about, and so I will stop waffling here. These poems are for crowds- to read in the park, the pub or political rally- to hear rhythm and feel emotional truths, not silently in loneliness piking metaphor apart. They are bodacious in character and precious in history, with a distinct vernacular and vocabulary that still manages to talk to us in this moment, about problems which should have been solved a long time ago… I shall leave you with an extract from a poem both Elvis and I loved: INGLAN IS A BITCH. And it truly is. England is a fucking bitch, we have to do better. XOXOXOXOXO
Inglan Is A Bitch
well mi dhu day wok an mi dhu nite work
mi dhu clean wok an mi dhu dutty wok
dem seh dat black man is very lazy
but if yu si how mi wok yu woodah seh mi crazy
Inglan is a bitch
dere’s no escapin it
Inglan is a bitch
yu bettah face up to it