Linton Kwesi Johnson – 1981

An interview with Desmond Hunt from The Other Side ‘zine, September 1981

Equality Justice Peace

“Inglan is a bitch, dere’s no escaping it. Inglan is a bitch, you haffi know how fi survive in it” LKJ 1981

Poets today, in this world of escalating violence, social pressure and greed, have to make one of three choices. They can be escapist and lapse into mysticism and hallucinatory drugs. They can compromise their views and try commercialism. Or they can do as Linton Kwesi Johnson has done, that is face up to injustices and write dear, invincible poetry, about black working class experience – and set it to accessible and very beautiful reggae music. The result is that the poet draws upon the dialects of the black community and gives it a sense of gut-solidarity.
Linton was born in August 1952 in Chapelton, Jamaica. He left to loin his mother who had emigrated to England in 1961. Between 1963 and 1970 Linton attended the Tulse Hill Comprehensive School in Brixton, graduating with six O levels. He then went on to attain 2 A levels. In 1973 he entered Goldmiths College where he got a B.A. Degree in Sociology. After a spell of unemployment he worked as an assembly worker at Twinlocks in Croydon.
In 1977 Linton was awarded the Cecil Day Lewis Fellowship as a writer in residence in the Borough of Lambeth. His first work was published in Race Today in their monthly journal and soon they were to publish his books of poems, namely “The Voices of the Living and the Dead”. Boyle L’ouverture published his second volume “Dread Beat and Blood” and Race Today have recently put out “Inglan is a Bitch”.

Although not disillusioned with record companies “They only exploit artist, they act like they’re doing you a favour just by releasing your work”, he recorded “Dread Beat and Blood” on Virgin and “Forces of Victory”, “Bass Culture” and “LKJ in Dub” on Island.
Perhaps the biggest break through was when a documentary of the poet-at-work was financed by the Arts Council of Great Britain and screened by the beeb of all people, at peak viewing time!
Ever since leaving Comprehensive School, Linton has been active in the black struggle. At 18 he joined the Black Panther Movement, a mass organisation of working blacks mobilised to pursue the liberation of blacks from what they called “Colonial oppression” in Brixton. He is now working passionately with The Black Parents Movement and The Race Today Organisation.
You can’t miss LKJ, he still wears his characteristic trilby hat and black framed, rounded spectacles, he speaks with the same artless lick and lash of his music, with concern, with intensity, and with a deep humanity.
He looks at me angrily, “No I’m not doing anymore interviews. I’ve nothing new to say”. Then he becomes the man of reason. I mention the New Cross Fire, Brixton and Race Today, and he ushers me in having vetted and accepted me.
“Race Today is an independent black organisation which puts out a monthly journal. It is important because it mobilises support for campaigns and tries to heighten the consciousness of black and white people involved in the same causes. We want to work with those whites who are interested in isolating the fascists among them and dealing with them in the same way that we have to isolate those backward racists amongst us as well. We have the small minority of blacks who believe in the “back-to-Africa” idea, or nonsense like hating the white man. These elements represent the ass-hole end of black politics. They preach the same kind of race hatred that the British Movement and the national Front preach. You saw what happened at Brixton when the police started their swamp intimidation. Black and White people rose to the occasion and made their protest that they were not going to take any more of this. As long as these conditions prevail acts of insurrection will happen.” How right he was in retrospect with further rioting at Southall, where Blair Peach’s memory lives on and later-all over the country.
LKJ is hardly what the Daily Mail would call a “Wild rampaging black”, he is the representative voice of a troubled black community. In fact he was one of the main organisers of the recent “Black Peoples Day of Action”, a march of Black Solidarity through Fleet Street, and the centre of London, to protest at the media wall of silence to the fire in New Cross which claimed the lives of 13 and injured 26 others.
“In Dublin when they had the fire in the discotheque, they had a day of mourning and the Prime Minister made a speech, but not a single member of our parliament mentioned the massacre. That is why we demonstrated to show the country at large, the police, the government, and the fascists, that we’re no longer prepared to have so many people killed and say nothing about it, but we’re here to stay and if it comes to it we’re prepared to fight and soon. The inquest was a farce, the jury were totally misled and confused and lots of important evidence was mysteriously covered up by the police which was later revealed”.
Linton has always associated himself with reggae music, although he doesn’t believe that Rastafarianism is the answer to the black problem. He feels there is a danger of mystifying the struggle and he feels there is a Rasta trap.
“Music is a weapon, it is a vehicle for transmitting ideas, so many Rasta get sucked into Bob Marley imitations. The role of black music should be to create something out of your own experience. They should have some integrity instead of getting bogged down with this ever changing religion. They’re saying “Jah” will help us, and talk about leaving for Zion, but there’s so much more happening in this country. People are being killed by fascists and we’ve had a constant struggle with the police since we’ve been here, we don’t proper housing, health services or education. The Rastas, to a large extent, have completely ignored those things. I think it’s a bit of a cop-out, it’s reactionary and it’s not taking us anywhere.”
He then seethes with a glowing rage! “You think of the colonial conditions, a white guy working in the Tate and Lyle in some cushy office job gets six or seven times the amount of money as the black guy working on the sugar plantation. He’s actually helping produce the sugar and picking it. You can’t say that black exploitation doesn’t still go on.”
So far after setting up his own LKJ label, he has released only one 12in single “Solitude”. “It’s a new direction for me, it’s very traditional, there are jazz nuances, blues roots, reggae music has come through many stages such as Ska, rock-steady and variations of reggae dub, skanking, toasting and so on.”
What was the purpose of his excellent Dub album? To showcase some of Britain’s best reggae players? “Exactly, I felt the music was so powerful that maybe it’s excellence had been neglected because of my words. So to get the effect I made a dub album of all the tracks that I thought were strong enough to stand up on their own. Also they featured some of my favourite musicians like Floyd Lawson, Vivian Weathers, Rico, John Kpiaye the hardest guitarist ever, and Jah Bunny to name a few.”
Which number means the most to him? “Well on an emotional and artistic level, Sonny’s Lettah (anti-sus poem) still leaves a tremendous impact on me. I feel it is an accurate reflection of the mindless violence going on around us. It is also a plea that self-defence is no offence”.
Mama more policeman come down and beat me to the ground
dem charge Jim fi suss, dem charge me with murder

Mama don’t fret, doan get depress and doun-hearted
Be of good courage till I hear from You
I remain your son,

What association does Race Today have with other political groups? “Well we will work alongside them. We got involved in the right to work campaign and some in the People’s March. However as I said in the song “Independent Intervention”, they have a cheek saying we are weak and can’t speak up for ourselves. They try to act on our behalf, yet we are well organised. I am all for Black and whites joining forces, and co-operating, but it is us who will have to really ride the storm.”
The message speaks for itself, direct and uncluttered by pretension. As I leave the room I turn round and shake his hand firmly. I wanted to hug him and say what he’s doing is fabulous. But that’s not something read journalists do surely?…..

lkj 80


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