Jamaica ’82: The DJs rule the nation’s charts and hearts but alternative voices are making themselves heard in the roots poetry of artists like MUTABARUKA and MICHAEL SMITH.
PAUL BRADSHAW chews over the muse in two exclusive interviews, and declares the matter crucial.
One of the high points of this summer’s Reggae Sunsplash festival was the performance of Mutabaruka. His poetry provided an oasis of powerful, vibrant lyricism and some swingeing attacks on Jamaican society at all levels.
Muta lives high in the mountains in the Potosi District overlooking Montego Bay and spends little time in Kingston, but as luck would have it at the end of an afternoon idling and sweating in the 94 degree heat of downtown Kingston, I sighted his distinctive figure emerge from Chancery lance.
A dark, stocky, barefooted and shirtless dreadlocks, Muta is easily identifiable by a conspicuous forelock of white hair as striking as the white streak that flashed in the beard of the late great spiritual tenor player Albert Ayler.
Muta is an articulate and off the shoulder 29 year old who lives and breathes Rastafari, and as we sit in the service alley behind the High Times record store he’s quick to inform me that few of the interviews he’s given have been printed. A controversial figure, his poems won’t have won him many friends amongst the international dread set; at Sunsplash he dedicated his forthcoming disco ’45 ‘Drug Culture’ to all those dreads who “use their nose as a vacuum cleaner”. Muta is not impressed with the superstar living of some reggae artists, seeing it purely as a projection of “locks and ‘erbs” with little else on offer. He insists that it is spiritual purity and consciousness – “the Livity of I and I” – that must be put forward now.
Strong words, but then Mutabaruka does not regard himself as a reggae artist. Reggae is his medium, a way to reach the people, just as his poetry is a tool. Like how a man has a gun or a machete or a rock.
Growing up in poverty in Kingston, it is some 14 years since he first put pen to paper as a response to both the seeming irrelevance of the English literature taught at school and the emergence of the black power movement. “In them days we were revolutionary a way and bitter within certain vibes.”
Swing magazine, once JA’s premier music mag, published Muta’s first poems in 1973 in a volume called Outcry and in ’76 he jointly published, with Fabian Miranda, Sun And Moon. Both volumes were reprinted as Mutabaruka – The First Poems last year and he is enthusiastic about the book’s reception with it being used in schools and for Jamaica’s Festival.
From the early days Muta did readings and set his poems to music – he recounts his involvement with Jamaican percussionist Larry MacDonald, who has since worked with Taj Mahal and Gil Scott-Heron.
Last year he teamed up with earl ‘Chinna’ Smith, the high priest of reggae guitar, to produce a dramatic reworking of an old poem entitled ‘Every A Ear De Soun’, and what an evocative platter of dub poetry it turned out to be. It surfaced on a 7” single in Britain and despite limited distribution established Mutabaruka as a poetic force alongside Oku Onuora and Mikey Smith.
The aim, says Muta, is to fuse the reader with the listener; giving the ghetto youth the impetus to check out a book and the middle class poetry an inroad reggae music. He rejects the label of ‘dub poet’, seeing it as potentially limiting, as he has poetry which uses neither reggae nor dub.
Neither does Muta like to be categorised with the DJs. He is particularly scathing about their “down grading women” through “slackness” and considers that most DJs are hooked on gimmicks and looking only for rhyme.
“I can’t deal with that,” he says emphatically. “We a deal with a work. We a deal with words. We a deal with certain things that if you not writing poetry then you’d pick up a gun. But you know that you can’t win with a gun right now so you have to raise the consciousness of the people by using the word. The word is power; politicians use the word, preachers use the word. I feel we can generate a certain interest in terms of the liberation struggle in South Africa or what’s takin’ place in England right now just as Linton Kwesi Johnson is doing. Linton is doing great work.”
LKJ’s activities on the political front with the Race Today collective are well known, but political activism for Muta is an ism which generates little enthusiasm.
“I is not a politician. I’m not a Marxist, or a capitalist. I feel that black people can’t use another man’s ideology to free themselves. African people must use African influences to free themselves.
“Right now is a crisis we face. We are a people not even at the bottom of the pyramid, we are under the pyramid. We have to deal with our own house before we can relate to that wider universality.”
Muta’s growing reputation has led him to perform in Cuba alongside Jimmy Cliff and more recently Nigeria with Steel Pulse. He and the Handsworth posse are very close – “coming like a big family” – and though the tour was marred by bad organisation Muta performed with Fela and met both the Ju Ju King, Sunny Ade and Sonny ‘Fire In Soweto’ Okuson. The African experience was invigorating and educational and the reception contrasted sharply with an LA audience who were outraged at a Mutabaruka, dressed in rags and performing a poem called ‘It Nah Good To Live In A White Man Country Too Long’.
“Some of the white people in the audience were not too broad minded about that poem which, as a matter of fact, was motivated by Linton’s ‘Inglan Is A Bitch’.
My reasoning is that there’s a lot of black people in England saying, England is no good and yet they’re trying to be British. Now, I don’t see black youth surviving in Britain, because you are a minority and history does not teach that the minority will ever govern, especially when you are suppressed.”
Mutabaruka’s humanity and insight into the survivalism of Jamaica’s sufferers is vividly projected in his ‘Hard Times Love’ and the stunning ‘Wid Me Lickle Butta Pan’, a story of the down and outs, or “mad people” as they’re labelled in JA, who dress in rags or go naked, are found lying by the roadside or seen walking nowhere in particular and who always carry a tin which once held cheese, called a ‘butter pan’, for cooking or water. The poem was first performed at the Belle Vue mental hospital.
“We decide to present it visually, so we tek slides of the people walking in the streets and also the Salvation Army late at night giving them food. Well, bwoy I put myself inside that man deh and show them it’s not he that mek the bigger society stink, but if you check the bigger, wider society is a bigger Belle Vue out deh, ‘cause this man don’t trouble nobody … ‘A jus me one travel de lan’ wid me lickle butta pan an’ dem nah understan’…”
From the pressures of ghetto life to its ironies – as reflected in his “A siddung pon de wall a watch im a watch me” – Mutabaruka’s poetry demands no more than the title of his forthcoming album suggests – ‘Check It’.