In advance of his reading in Cork, dub poet and reggae superstar Linton Kwesi Johnson tells Ed Power about the links between the Irish and the Jamaicans.
Coming to Ireland to perform his radical dub poetry will be like going home, says Linton Kwesi Johnson.
Jamaican-born, and raised in London, Johnson (66) is one of the most acclaimed chroniclers in the UK of the immigrant experience.
Writing in the street vernacular of Jamaican Britain, he has been heralded the voice of the ‘Windrush Generation’, or those who came to Britain from the Caribbean between 1948 and 1971. He coined the term ‘dub poetry’ for his blending of poetry and music. And he is only the second living poet to have his work published by Penguin Modern Classics.
But despite all his time in London, the quietly spoken Johnson sees himself as an outsider. Bound up with that is kinship with the Irish community, historically shunted to the margins and ‘other-ised’ by the Anglo-Saxon world, just as the Jamaicans were.
“A lot of indentured Irish labourers went to Jamaica and interbred with the populace,” he says. “There were Irish influences — Irish jigs and all of that. The folk songs seeped through and became Jamaiscanised. We both tend to drop our ‘h’ sounds; to pronounce ‘three’ as ‘tree’.”
He’s been to Ireland many times and has always felt at home. “We do have an affinity. Not only because Jamaicans have Irish ancestry, but also because you guys were the first ‘n*****s’, before we ever arrived.”
Johnson was just 11 when he moved to Brixton, where he was reunited with his mother and father, who had earlier left Jamaica in search of a new life. Johnson vividly remembers how the Irish community’s experiences in Britain paralleled those of the Jamaican community.
“If you went into a pub, you’d see that the saloon bar was mostly the English, and in the public bar it was the blacks and the Irish. A lot of West Indians worked in the building trade. Lots of Irish were doing so, as well.”
He was a teenager when Enoch Powell delivered his notorious ‘rivers of blood’ screed against immigration. A generation later, amid Brexit and the rise of the radical right in Britain, the déjà vu is unsettling.
“It’s a frightening time,” he says.
He had assumed the racial chasm had largely been bridged. The past decade has seen a slide backwards. “As a consequence of globalisation, many people were left out and felt hard-done-by. And then, you have the financial crisis of 10 years ago.”
In the 1970s, Johnson wrote for NME and Melody Maker music magazines and penned sleeves notes for reggae albums. In 1978, at the height of punk, he released his arguable masterpiece, Dread Beat An’ Blood, a collaboration with producer Vivian Weather and credited to ‘Poet and the Roots’.
The Roots were a scratch reggae band consisting of Dennis Bovell, Lloyd ‘Jah Bunny’ Donaldson, Desmond Craig, and others. The Poet was, of course, Johnson. The project came about after Johnson was hired by Richard Branson to write introductions to Virgin Records reggae releases.
'Writing was a political act and poetry was a cultural weapon.'June 6, 2019
In a studio one afternoon, Johnson suggested recording poetry with dub accompaniment. Branson was up for it, and stumped up £2,000.
“On Dread Beat An’ Blood, Linton Kwesi Johnson expressed the black British experience as it has never been heard before, using the language of Jamaican patois set to a rocking roots reggae beat,” said British poet Benjamin Zephaniah, in a BBC documentary about the making of the LP. “LKJ voiced the anger and frustration of a generation.
This was the era when the police had the right to stop and search people simply because they suspected they had done something wrong. And, most of the time, the people they stopped were young black people.”
Johnson has spoken movingly about the Grenfell towers tragedy, in which 72 died when a public housing block in one of London’s wealthiest neighbourhoods burnt down in June 2017. But current events are not the only thing that inspires his writing.
“Life in general offers a multiplicity of topics,” he says.
He was politicised in his teens as the black power movement spread to the UK from America.
His work has documented the hardscrabble existence in the ethnic neighbourhoods of London. Yet, he has never forgotten his roots, and the Jamaican village where he grew up.
“I’m a country boy,” he laughs. “That was key to my formation and where I became socialised into Jamaican culture, Jamaican folk culture, specially. To go from there to a modern city such as London, it was a a rude awakening.”
Linton Kwesi Johnson performs at Live at St Luke’s, Cork, June 21, as part of the Crosstown Drift strand of Cork Midsummer Festival.