Donna Bailey Nurse
Johnson’s Thatcher-era poems condemning racist British police speak more to the U.S. these days.
On vacation in London a few weeks ago I traveled to Brixton to visit renowned reggae poet Linton Kwesi Johnson. Johnson, 62 is by now an elite member of the literary establishment, recognizable across the country in his distinguished trilby hat. His body of work, written mostly in and around the economically stringent Thatcher reign, has received myriad prizes, including, most recently, Pen England’s Golden Pen Award for Lifetime Achievement. In 2002 Johnson was one of only two living poets included in the Penguin Modern Classics Series. Such prestigious accolades have come as something of a surprise to a poet whose best known work is a caustic chant: Inglan is a Bitch.
Johnson’s lyrics, often recited in monotone against a pronounced reggae beat, articulate the rage of a generation of black youth oppressed by a racist police force. His works are documentary in quality. They provide an aural, historical account. In Sonny’s Lettah, a young man writes home from prison about a vicious police beating. It Dread Inna Inglan (for George Lindo) tells the story of a black man falsely accused of robbery. The Great Insohreckshan and Five Nights of Bleeding commemorate the Brixton riots of the 1980s, the black uprisings against an ongoing campaign of police harassment.
More than 30 years later it is the wave of police killings of African Americans that call Johnson’s poems to mind: The deaths of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray and so many others have resulted in protests unseen in America since the days of Civil Rights. In Toronto, my hometown, the installation of the first black police chief has only served to heighten outrage over the racist practice of carding. What does Johnson think about the relevance of his poems in Obama-era North America? “The most surprising thing to me,” Johnson said, “is the amount of media attention the police violence has been getting. I guess that’s because of the revolution in new technology, insofar as people can film things on their telephone mobiles and it gets put up on the internet. There is more information out there about what’s happening.”
“But in spite of the changes that have occurred in the last 30/40 years,” Johnson continued. “In spite of the fact that black people are no longer as marginalized as we used to be; in spite of the fact that the United States of America has a black president, some things have not changed: The struggle for racial equality, the struggle for justice continues.
“The culture of impunity that exists in the United States of America within the police force in terms of violence against black people is one we share in this country. Here there is also a similar culture of impunity. But I mean, one could say that about Jamaica.”
We are sitting on a low couch in the living room of Johnson’s modest row house opposite a large front window that looks out onto the street, bright and empty at midday. My head swims with deja vu in this archetypal setting, so common to Jamaicans of a certain generation. Random photos of loved ones hang high on the walls or smile out from shelves piled with newspapers and magazines. There are stacks of record albums and CDs. Suspended next to the window is an image of Johnson in conversation with the Reverend Desmond Tutu. Both men are beaming.
Johnson is not beaming so much today. His fine, chiseled features are firmly set as if to reinforce the deliberateness of his opinions. Despite recent health challenges he looks extremely well. His lithe frame sports a crisp, yellow shirt. I was a little surprised, however, to find him without his trilby hat; of course, we were sitting indoors.
A father of three and a grandfather as well, Johnson has resided at this address for 20 years. Indeed, since arriving in England at the age of 11, he has rarely lived outside of Brixton. “You put down roots,” Johnson explained. “You make friends. And then there is the familiarity. You become accustomed to your environment and form some kind of affinity. So I’m still here,” he said, matter-of-fact.
Brixton is in Lambeth, South London where much of the area is currently under construction. The word is gentrification. Young families from London are snapping up property. Starbucks are popping up all over. This is not the Brixton of the 60s 70s and 80s which was a very tough place to grow up: “It was a racialized environment,” said Johnson, “where black youth were picked upon by police, harassed and intimidated by authority figures in general. But we were young and full of defiance. We weren’t prepared to tolerate the things our parents had tolerated.”
Johnson was born in Jamaica in the rural parish of Clarenden in 1952. He was raised by his grandmother after his parents separated, and then joined his mother in London in 1963. Upon his arrival he was dismayed by the dullness of his surroundings. He was taken aback by the racism of many of his classmates and teachers at Tulse Hill Comprehensive School. Nevertheless, he was a bright, mischievous boy. He remembers many good times.
“I attended a youth club and participated in what little boys of 11, 12 and 13 participate in: I played table tennis, card games and whatever else they had going on. I think, I went on a couple of camping trips.”
In his teens he began collecting records, purchasing mostly ska and rocksteady. “At that time there were a few stores in the area specializing in Jamaican music and soul music imported from America,” Johnson recalled. “There was Hip City at the corner of Atlantic and Cold Harbour and there was also a hairdresser on Atlantic who sold records. The first record I ever bought was Hold Them by Roy Shirley.”
On Friday nights Johnson and his friends would pool their record collections to entertain their friends. In the beginning they would gather at the Catholic Youth Club. Later on, they met at a Methodist club on Railton Rd. named for Gavton Shepherd, the organization’s first black youth leader.
“Shepherd’s had a regular sound system” said Johnson. “There were other sound systems that also played there regular over the years - like Soprano B and Barry King. From time to time we would have sound system clashes.
“Sound systems provided the nexus for black youth culture, “Johnson explained. “It was all about reggae music and it was all about identifying with our Jamaican roots. We were living in a racially hostile society that rejected us. We were able to draw on our own cultural heritage and our own cultural roots and it gave us an independent identity.”
Around that time Johnson was profoundly impacted by an encounter with a speaker from the Black Panther Party. Her name was Althea Jones-Lecointe and she came to address the sixth form debating society. “I was so inspired by her passion and by what she had to say,” Johnson said, “that I decided to go and check out this Black Panther Party.”
Johnson has repeated this story countless times and yet he is still visibly moved by the memory. His whole being is immediately animated. “There was a place just down the road on Shakespeare,” he said nodding his head in the direction of the street. “I went and began asking questions. And the more answers I got, the more questions were raised in my own mind. Eventually I became so enthralled by this organization called the Black Panthers, and what they were saying, that I felt I wanted to be a part of it.”
Johnson joined the organization’s Youth League. Part of his duties entailed monitoring police. If he came upon officers detaining a black youth, he was to collect the young person’s name and address, and inform their parents. He was also required to write down the names of the arresting officers. Policemen were outraged by this affront to their authority, by young black people no less. After one attempt to collect information, officers beat Johnson badly, tossed him into a van and hauled him off to jail on a trumped up charge. Friends gathered outside the courthouse to protest his mistreatment. The judge threw the case out of court.
Apart from a heightened racial consciousness and a commitment to political activism, the Black Panther Party provided Johnson with an education in black history. He was exposed to black literature for the first time: “Books written by black authors about black experience.” Johnson inhaled The Souls of Black Folks by W.E.B. Du Bois, Soul On Ice by Eldridge Cleaver, Seize The Time by Bobby Seale and Manchild in the Promised Land by Claude Brown. He listened to Malcolm X’s recording Message to the Grassroots, over and over again.
Another album, The Last Poets, influenced him as a burgeoning artist. It featured a collaboration of poets and musicians prominent during the Civil Rights Movement.
“That LP had a big impact on me,” Johnson said. “It was the first time I heard spoken word performed with accompaniment in the everyday language of African Americans which led me later on to discover- to rediscover- the poetry of Louise Bennett. As a child in Jamaica Louise Bennett was an icon, this larger than life figure. But in those days I didn’t really understand anything about her poetry.”
With The Last Poets Johnson made the link between spoken word in the African American vernacular and spoken word in the Jamaican vernacular, laying the foundation for the evolution of his unique literary genre: reggae poetry.
The first time I ever saw Linton Kwesi Johnson he was performing alongside Amiri Baraka at the Calabash Literary Festival in Jamaica. He read poems from Ma Revalueshanary Fren. As always he was wearing his trademark trilby, a hat that in the 20th century epitomized the British male. I asked Johnson about the irony of reading Inglan is a Bitch while asserting his essential Britishness with a trilby hat. Johnson leaned his head to one side and eyed me quizzically. “What?” I asked. “Am I reading too much into your hat?” Sometimes a trilby is just a trilby.
“Yes, I think you are reading too much into the hat,” he said. “You’ll find that the hat is something that has come down from one generation to the other as style. If you looked at photographs of that first batch of Caribbean immigrants (disembarking from the Windrush Empire in 1948), all the men were wearing hats. So for a second generation Caribbean person like myself to be wearing a hat is not particularly significant. And that hat people see me wearing is not particularly British,“ he said. “I bought it in Marseilles, France.”
This line of reasoning sounded eminently sensible. Yet, I was not convinced – especially as he soon went on to assert his quintessentially British experience.
“Yes. I am British,” he said. “Even before coming here. I grew up in Jamaica as a Jamaican country boy, socialized in the Jamaican culture. But let us remember: Jamaica was British before we became independent. The English speaking Caribbean islands were artificial societies created by British tradition, British education, British language and so on and so forth.
“I’ve been living here for 50 years or more, so yes: What else could I be except British?” Johnson laughed somewhat ruefully. “But I have never seen a contradiction between my Jamaican-ness and my British-ness. They are part and parcel of the same thing.”
In Brixton, Johnson’s days unfold in an easy manner. He has not written a poem in almost a decade and that does not trouble him one bit. He sometimes publishes essays or articles or writes an introduction or a preface to a book, though nothing too onerous. He used to go out to the studio to run his company LKJ Records. But now he works from home. Some days he meanders over to Joseph’s, a local pub. “I don’t have any particular schedule,” he said. “I’m in my office maybe four hours a day taking care of business, doing mundane things, replying to emails, filing, whatever. I go on walks in the park. I cook.”
“What do you like to cook?” I asked.
“Food,” he laughed, suddenly playful. His demeanour eased up as our talk wound down. “I like West Indian food,” he said. “At my age now, I am trying to cut down on red meat.”
Johnson has permitted himself to relax his stance as life for the majority of blacks in Britain has improved. “Black people are no longer on the periphery of British society,” he said. “We’re a little closer to the centre. When I was growing up it was not uncommon for someone like me to be living in a one room apartment; the whole family - in one room. Now I am over 60 years old and a significant number of my generation own their own homes. Black people now by and large have council housing or social housing. All those things did not exist when I was a kid.”
While far from perfect, the relationship between blacks and police in Britain has improved as well, especially since the Macpherson inquiry into the racially motivated murder of Stephen Lawrence. These days Johnson’s concerns take a more international turn. He is deeply disturbed by the setback in the struggle for world justice: “With the implosion of the Soviet Union and the ascendency of capitalism, there is hardly any left-wing anymore,” he said. “Anywhere you go, whether in the Caribbean or in Europe – all politics have shifted to the centre ground.”
Still, he sees signs of hope: “Some enormous strides, significant strides, have been made in certain parts of South America,” he said. “In particular, the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela. This is keeping in mind that, on the one hand, the United States is enjoying rapprochement with Cuba, while, on the other, working for the destabilization of Venezuela.
“There are also strides that have been made in places like Brazil and Ecuador and Bolivia,” Johnson said. “There is some hope for meaningful change that will transform the lives of ordinary working people.”
Our conversation comes to an end. Johnson kindly offers to walk me to Herne Hill Station where I can catch the overhead rail. He slips on his jacket, lifts a flat cap from a peg on the wall, fixes it firmly upon his head; there will be no trilby today. Then he opens the door and leads me back out onto the streets of Brixton.
This interview took place on May 13, 2015 at Johnson’s home.