Few musical performers have done as much for both music and politics as Linton Kwesi Johnson. There are many causes and struggles that musicians take up to support now and then but LKJ's whole career has been based on putting stories of struggle and oppression into his audience's lives as well as leading organizations to battle racism in his native England. Starting out in the early '70s, LKJ became a founder of the style of dub poetry- a mixture of Jamaican-styled speech mixed with the slippery, ghostly sounds of dub music. As a poet, he is easily the equal of Allen Ginsberg. As a sharp political theorist, he's right up there with Noam Chomsky. As a musician/performer, he is a pioneer.
Special thanks to KEVIN SUSSMAN and PETER HITCHCOCK for helping add some good insights.
YOU WERE ORIGINALLY BORN IN JAMIACA AND CAME TO ENGLAND AT A YOUNG AGE. WHAT DO YOU CONSIDER YOUR REAL HOME TO BE?
My parents came to England and I was told to come over at their request. At first, it was traumatic because of the hostility of racism and so on. But when you're young, you tend to adjust to new situations pretty quicky. So I adjusted quickly and I've been settled here ever since. I do have a strong attachment to Jamaica. I have brothers and sisters there, aunties, cousins and others too numerous to mention. My mother retired and went to live back in Jamaica. I'm living here for 33 years now but I do intend to retire in Jamaica. I'm Jamaican-domiciled in fact.
DO YOU FEEL IT'S MORE IMPORTANT TO DO YOUR WORK IN ENGLAND FOR NOW THEN?
Yes, we've been doing important work over the years. It still needs to be done. There's a new generation coming up but I'm not sure that they're historically aware as my generation were. So there is that need to pass on to the next generation some institution building that my generation embarked upon. But I would like to contribute something to the land of my birth as well.
WITH YOUR WORK WITH IN THE BLACK PANTHERS, GREATER LONDON COUNCIL AND CREATION FOR LIBERATION, DID YOU YOUR FIND THAT THE WORK OR MISSION DIFFERED FOR YOU?
The GLC was a job. In the Panthers, I was an activist. I was a Young Panther. That's where I learned my politics and about my history and my culture. That's where I discovered black literature, particularly the work of W.E.B. DuBois, the Afro-American scholar whose SOULS OF BLACK FOLK inspired me to write poetry. The work I did in Creation For Liberation, a lot of the things we initiated are now happening on a big scale. In a sense, our organization became redundant. For example, there were no art exhibitions done for black artists. Now there are open on a very big scale and there are quite a few black art galleries open up and down the place. Writers' Forum, inviting black writers from America, the Caribbean and Africa. Having their work exposed to audiences here. Having them talk about their work and so on. That's just some of things that people are doing right now.
I KNOW THAT YOU'RE NOT A RASTA BUT HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT THE RASTAFARIAN MOVEMENT?
Rastafari is a part of my historical heritage and a part of my cultural roots. Rasta has influenced Jamaican culture in a very big way. Not only in terms of the music but in terms of spirituality that it lent to reggae. Also in terms of the language, the Rastafari that has become a part of everyday Jamaican parlance, spoken by non-Rastafarians. My very first group was, in fact, called Rasta Love, which was a group of rasta drummers. We used to accompany my poetry with bass drum, funde drum and repeater drum. In all of my albums, there's also some repeater playing percussion in the background. Rasta is important for me on that level- as a cultural force that broadened our consciousness and opened our consciousness to our African hertitage and our African ancestry.
WITH YOUR POETRY AND LYRICS, YOU USE A CREOLE, JAMAICAN TYPE OF ENGLISH TO CRAFT WORDS. IS THIS A MORE PERSONAL WAY TO EXPRESS YOURSELF, BY RESHAPING THE LANGUAGE?
It's interesting that you should ask that because only this year a book came out that I reviewed for the Guardian newspaper. It's called A DICTIONARY OF CARIBBEAN ENGLISH by Richard Allsop. He tries to codify a lexicon of Caribbean speech, given the different island variations. For example, one fruit could be called one thing on one island and could be called an entirely different thing on another island. There has been, from the late sixities, a dictionary of Jamaican creole which was compiled by a man named Cassidy.
As far as the writing is concerned, a revolution was started in Caribbean poetry by Edward Brathwaite where he was trying to create a new aesthetic that wasn't based on the meter of English poetry, the iambic pentameter. He incorporated the rhythms of Caribbean speech, jazz rhythms, blues rhythms, calypso rhythms and so on. In a sense, what I've been doing with reggae, what I call reggae poetry is to consolidate that revolution that was started by Brathwaite in terms of the language and in terms of the aesthetics.
IN YOUR EARLY WORK, YOU TALKED ABOUT TAKING ABOUT VIOLENCE TOWARDS BLACKS IN ENGLAND. BUT WITH MORE RECENT WORK, LIKE 'Mi Revolutionary Fren,' YOU SOUND LIKE YOU'RE SHIFTING YOUR FOCUS TO OTHER, OUTSIDE EVENTS.
'Mi Revolutionary Fren' was about the changes in Eastern Europe. I arrived at the position that Blacks don't live in isolation in England and that our fate is tied with other events that are taking place in other parts of the world. That's why I started to focus on other themes that the Black experience in Britian. I think that will probably be a feature of my work in the future.
WITH RELATION TO YOUR POLITICAL VIEWS, WHAT DO YOU THINK IS NECESSARY TO BRING ABOUT CHANGE? DO ENDS NECESSARILY ALWAYS JUSTIFY MEANS?
I don't know if means always justify the ends. I don't have any blueprint for solutions to problems. I think we made a tremendous amount of progress. We're no longer the marginalized immagrant group that we were 25 years ago. We've made progress, we've made strides as a consequence of our struggles. I think the only way forward is for there to be a political will on the part of the establishment to tackle head on, for example, the issue of rascism within the police force. In the last 25 years, at least 50 black people have died in police custody, which is disgraceful record for any democratic country. There needs to be a political will to tackle the issue of rascist and fascist attacks against the Black and Asian communities by terrorists. That, I think, can only be the way forward.
HOW DO YOU PICK AND CHOSE WHICH STRUGGLES AND CAUSES ARE WORTH BRINGING ATTENTION TO OR GETTING BEHIND TO SUPPORT?
There's no particular criteria I suppose. I get invovled in those struggles that I feel very strongly about and which I think that are organized properly. If it's just some rebel-rousers trying to peddle their ideological tendancy, I'm not interested in that. If, for example, people from Marxist groups, from Maoist groups, from Social Democratic groups want to form a broad front to tackle to the issue of racism and rascist attacks then that's the kind of thing that I would want to involve myself in.
WHICH THESE STRUGGLES THAT YOU'VE BEEN INVOVLED IN, WHAT'S BEEN THE COMMON ROOT OF MOST OF IT STARTING? FEAR, IGNORANCE?
I think a lot of it has to do with ignorance and a culture of racism that's been ingrained since the time of the empire. It can even be found in the literature of the late nineteenth century and so on. It's been ingrained in peoples' mentality. And the institutionalized racism of the state and the state instituition.
WHAT DO YOU THINK IS THE BEST WAY TO STOP THIS THEN?
One thing we can do I suppose is whenever people perpetuate racist and fascist attacks and they're apprehended, the due course of law should take place and these people should be convicted. That's very, very difficult in this country for a white jury to convict a white person of committing racist attacks. There was a case a couple of years ago where a black guy was stabbed by some racists and they were apprehended. The police messed up the case and organized it so badly that the Crown Prosecution Service figured out that there wasn't enough evidence to convict the people, even though they found the murder weapon and they had witnesses. The parents took out a private prosecution and of course, it didn't get very far in the courts. So, I think we need the will to use the law as it exists against these people, in the same way to use the law against racist police officers who kill black people.
DO YOU THINK THE RACE PROBLEMS IN ENGLAND ARE SIMILAR IN ANY WAY TO THOSE IN THE UNITED STATES?
There are some similarities and some parallels but I think it's always a mistake to draw broad comparisons between the black struggle here and the situation of blacks in America. To begin with and most importantly, blacks have only been here historically since the Second World War. There are blacks that have been here since ancient time but I'm talking about black community. It's a post-World War II phenmenon. We've making our history over the last forty, fifty years whereas blacks in America have a history that goes back to the time of slavery. We don't have segregation in this country, for example but you have it in the United States of America. There are lots of things that we can learn from the United States but I don't think we should ape what is going on there.
IN AMERICA, AFRO-CENTRIC TEACHING HAS BECOME POPULAR RECENTLY. WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ABOUT THIS MOVEMENT?
Frankly, I don't know what Afro-centric means.
BLACK CHILDREN ARE TAUGHT THAT CIVILIZATION BEGAN IN AFRICA.
So, once you learn that, so what? That's my attitude. Once you know that black people were a part of ancient cilivization in Africa and that African civilization has contributed a lot to world, what next? That's my position. Where do we go from there?
PART OF THE REASONING BEHIND THIS IS TO INSTILL A SENSE OF PRIDE IN THE COMMUNITY. THE CHILDREN ARE TAUGHT THAT THEIR ANCESTORS WERE KINGS AND QUEENS AND NOT JUST SLAVES THAT WERE BROUGHT OVER HERE.
Yes, that's alright. But once you've done that, where do you go from there? You can't tell the children that all of us were kings and queens because if there were kings and queens then they must have ruled over somebody else.
WHAT TYPE OF POLITICAL SYSTEM IS CLOSEST TO YOUR VIEW ABOUT HOW A COUNTRY SHOULD BE ORGANIZED?
Socialist democracy. Socialist in the sense that the state is in a position to protect those who can't protect themselves and to ensure to ensure that the basic human rights of food, clothes and shelter are taken care of. There is no one-party state but a plural democracy where governments can be elected and de-selected.
ARE YOU WORRIED THOUGHT THAT SOCIALISM HAS LED TO FASCISM AND COMMUNISM IN MANY COUNTRIES?
I don't think socialism has ever led to communism or fascism. I think that it's the dialectic opposite of fascism. The word 'socialism' is probably one of the misused terms in the history of words. When a lot of people talk about socialism, they don't really mean people power. As far as I'm concerned, socialism means more power to the people, more democracy, more freedom. What they had in the Soviet Union was a one-party state. Once you have the one-party state, that's the end of democracy. It creates all the conditions for corruption, nepotism. It has nothing to do with socialism.
HOW EFFECTIVE HAVE YOU FOUND YOUR RECORDS AND YOUR PERFORMANCES IN HELPING WITH ENLIGHTENING YOUR AUDIENCE AND OTHERS?
Well, it's very difficult to measure these things. One can speculate that people invite you to various countries to perform and people always turn up to hear you. That means that they're listening. I do know that a lot of people in Europe are informed a lot about the black experience in this country by listening to my records.
WHAT DO YOU FIND TO BE DIFFERENT ABOUT DOING A LECTURE VERSUS DOING A PERFORMANCE?
I don't really do lectures, I do poetry readings. The difference between that and performing with a band in front of an audience is that the audience that comes to hear the band are usually there for that element. When people come to hear the poetry reading, they come for the poetry and it's much more intimate. Sometimes, it's more rewarding than performing with a band. Sometimes you perform with a band in front of thousands of people and it's very impersonal whereas with a small theater with a few hundred people, you're looking into peoples' faces and they're looking into yours. You're feeding off their vibes and they're feeding off yours. I like both but I think that performing with a band is much easier because the attention is focused on the bass player, the drummer, the keyboard player. Whereas when I'm reciting poetry, it's just me and me alone.
YOU DECIDED TO RETIRE FROM DOING PERFORMANCES IN THE MID-EIGHTIES. WHAT LED YOU TO MAKE THAT DECISION?
There were a few things. One, I was a little bit tired of being on the road. Two, there were certain people in the organizations that I was invovled in at the time that felt that I was needed at the base to carry out organizational activities. Three, I wanted to take a little bit of time out to do a little bit of writing as well.
DO YOU HAVE PLANS FOR NEW RELEASES AND TOURS?
Yes I do. I'm planning to start working on a new CD sometime next year. I don't think I'll be doing as much shows. I'm doing quite a bit over the last five years. Touring all over Europe, Japan, Brazil, South Africa and all these places. So now I want to take some time out and do some production for my label (LKJ Records) and to do some creative work, some writing and some recording.
WITH THE NEW CD, DO YOU HAVE SOME IDEA OF WHAT IT'S GOING TO BE LIKE?
I never do. I'm just writing at the moment and once I have enough material that I think is good enough, then I'll go to the studio.
WITH THE MATERIAL YOU'RE WRITING NOW, WHAT KIND OF THINGS ARE YOU THINKING ABOUT?
There's a lot of things. I'm preoccupied by death, love, struggle, politics.
YOU MADE A QUOTE ONCE THAT YOU THOUGHT THAT BOB MARLEY HAD WATERED DOWN HIS MUSIC AND HIS MESSAGE ONCE HE SIGNED TO A BIG LABEL.
I know. I'm afraid I'll have to live with that statement. That was when I was in my more furious frame of mind. But I regret having said that because it's not really true. I believe that the music was internationalized to reach a greater audience but I don't think it effected his message in any way.
Contact LKJ Records at P.O. Box 623, Herne Hill, London England SE24 OLS
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