Tag Archives: Linton Kwesi Johnson

Linton Backlash

Black Echoes, 14 April, 1979 reports on the BBC’s decision to postpone the Omnibus screening of LKJ’s film Dread, Beat an’ Blood.

Linton Backlash

Following the BBC’s decision to postpone the Omnibus screening of ‘Dread, Beat an’ Blood’, the following press statement was issued last Friday by the Race Today Collective, the Bradford Black Collective and the George Lindo Action Committee:
The Race Today Collective, the Bradford Black Collective and the George Lindo Action Committee record, in a letter to the Director General of the BBC (copies to Merlyn Rees and William Whitelaw), strongly protest at the postponement of the screening iof the film Dread Beat an’ Blood on the Omnibus programme from Thursday, April 5 to June 7.
The film is about the life and development of black artist Linton Kwesi Johnson and the impact of white British society on his life and the lives of his people.
The garbled statement from the BBC official published in the Guardian of April 3 is but a cover-up for the real reason why the film is not being screened on the original date which falls during the election period.
The film has been postponed only because it contains statements which are critical of the Conservative leader, Margaret Thatcher.
Filming took place during the period when repercussions from Margaret Thatcher’s comments about blacks swamping the country were being felt throughout the black community in Britain. References to Thatcher were, therefore, both unavoidable and politically necessary.
The Race Today Collective, the Bradford Black Collective and the George Lindo Action Committee accuse the BBC of, at best, being journalistic cowards, at worst, political censors.
The BBC is urged by the signatories of the enclosed letter to screen the film during the election campaign.
For further details contact: Race Today (737 2268).

Pedro Pietri – LKJ

Linton Kwesi Johnson reviews Pedro Pietri’s collection Puerto Rican Obituary in Race & Class, Volume XVI, Number 4, April, 1975.

Puerto Rican Obituary
By PEDRO PIETRI (New York, Monthly Review Press, 1973). £1.25

For the committed poet, words cannot be shallow echoes of themselves, or poetry the outer thrust of the inner cry, nor yet the cryptic construct of abstract ideas with hidden meaning. The poet who is making a political statement and is dealing with a social situation – who is writing from the people to the people – must perforce use the language of the people, not the private rarified language of the poet. Pedro Pietri’s Puerto Rican Obituary is ‘a political art’; it is tenderness. His words might not be as ‘hip’ as those of a Imamu Baraka or Sonia Sanchez or the Last Poets, but they are certainly ‘live words of the hip world’ – of Pietri’s world, the ghetto world of the Puerto Ricans in America.
It is the real life images of the ghettoes of Spanish Harlem, of New York, of America, which are the real life images of Pietri’s poetry that comes at you like a reel from a real life movie. In Pietri’s world people live together and yet apart, not knowing their next door neighbours for they are completely estranged and separated from themselves:

isolation is the name of the game
you do not know
your next door neighbour’s name
your next door neighbour
does not know your name
you have been living on
the same floor since this
so-called promised land opened
the only way you get to know each other
is after one or the other dies.

It is a world of ‘muggers’ and junkies and pushers’ and housing projects and poverty programmes and prostitution and ‘white owned stores’ and ‘bill collectors who are well train/to forget how to hubla espanol/when you fall back on those weekly payments’. It is a world of ‘Dead-End Streets’ where religion is not the opium of the masses but the ideological wool pulled over their eyes, a big con trick. It is a world where junkies daily practise the cult of death and hope is those ’empty dreams/from the make-believe bedrooms’.
Pietri sees his people’s world not through the poets contrived eyes, but through his own eyes. He writes with sarcasm, irony, cynicism and a harsh witticism. The Puerto Rican is likened unto a cockroach in a low income housing project where he is ‘dejected’, ‘rejected’, ‘neglected and disrespected’ and genocide is the only reality that is projected:

The life expectancy
of a cockroach in those days
was ten times longer than it is today
Ten seconds to ten minutes is the new limit
those damn housing projects are to blame.

As the title of the book suggests, the death of his people is the central theme to which Pedro Pietri addresses himself in Puerto Rican Obituary. His people live to die and work to live to die in a dying world where

From the nervous breakdown streets
where the mice live like millionaires
and the people do not live at all
are dead and were never alive

There is a sort of tension between life and death, between living and dying, throughout the poems. Here living is dying and life has no meaning. There are only dreams. ‘Vanity of vanity saith the preacher, vanity of vanities, all is vanity. What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?’ is the question posed by the ‘wisened’ Soloman. ‘One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but for the Puerto Rican, death abideth forever, says Pietri. ‘They worked/they worked/they worked/and they died’. They all died hating, dreaming, waiting.

They all died
like a hero sandwich dies
in the garment district
at twelve o’clock in the afternoon
social security numbers to ashes
union dues to dust

In the poem titled ‘O/D’ we see the junkie who has given himself up to the cult of death, practising the cult of death in an attempt to escape from the living nightmare that is the reality of his existence.

is your birthday again
and you are inside the cake
baked from the flesh
of the dead mice that fell
from your mouth while
you bathe in the urine
after accidently falling into the toilet bowl
trying to spit out the nails
that your blood swallow
when your eyeballs become
the definition of wrong numbers
trying to light the ice cubes
that replaced the candles

Pablo Pietri is a politically conscious artist who knows that art is an instrument or vehicle for the communication of ideas and the transformation of consciousness. He knows the power of the word as a catalyst of consciousness. His poetry therefore cannot but be political since his concern is the predicament of his people in the belly of the monster. It is the reality of his people’s situation in all its sordid nakedness that is mirrored in Pietri’s Puerto Rican Obituary. The poems are addressed to Puerto Ricans in particular and the rest of America in general. The poet writes from a labyrinthine love for his people; he is speaking as one of his people to his people, and writes with a certain knowingness. Puerto Rican Obituary is a mirror in which the Puerto Rican can see himself through his own eyes, through Pietri’s eyes.
It is only by showing people themselves and their situation through their own eyes that the artist can hope to transform their consciousness, and this is the formidable task Pedro Pietri pursues in his poems, which are simple truths whose very simplicity can be fightening. Puerto Rican Obituary is a social critique, but more than that, it stands out as one of the most forceful indictments against America for perpetuating and making the fetish of the cult of death both at home and abroad. In the words of one of my bretheren, Vincent Myrie, Puerto Rican Obituary ‘is a jewel of thought which is living reality. It is present testimony of present wrongs. It is beautiful.’

University of London
Linton Kwesi Johnson


Black Echoes, July 25, 1981 reports on the Scarman inquiry going to the cinema.
The Lord Scarman report was commissioned to hold an inquiry by the UK Government following the 1981 Brixton riots. Lord Scarman was appointed by then Home Secretary William Whitelaw on 14 April, 1981 (two days after the rioting ended) to hold the enquiry into the riots. The Scarman report was published on 25 November, 1981.

The Scarman inquiry is to view the films ‘Babylon’ and ‘Dread, Beat & Blood’, in the course of its ever broadening investigation into racial and cvil unrest in Britain. The inquiry was set up following the disturbances in Brixton in April.
‘Dread, Beat & Blood’ is an Arts Council Film which features Brixton-based roots poet Linton Kwesi Johnson, while ‘Babylon’ was a portentous feature film, focusing on racial tensions on the streets of south London. Both were directed by Franco Rosso.

Linton’s History Claas

LKJ’s Making History album reviewed in the NME, 25 February, 1984.

Linton Kwesi Johnson

Making History (Island)

If Linton Kwesi Johnson was a mere polemicist, his records would be unnecessary. You could get approximately the same hit by playing some heavy dub and reading Race Today or even New Statesman along with it: a hard shot of information and opinion with a groove behind. Alternatively you could simply check the deejay of your choice if all that attracted you to his work was the sound.
But Linton Kwesi Johnson is a poet in any sense of the word that you care to proffer: some of the work on this album has a linguistic depth, sophistication and precision that goes well beyond even the best of what he has done in the past. His three-year layoff from recording has resulted in much growth; not only in LKJ’s choice of subject matter and in the skill with which he explores it, but in the blending of the spoken word with the music of Dennis Bovell’s Dub Band. Never has it sounded less like a rap-over-a-track and more like a single, unified whole.
In 1984, the perspective is both wider and deeper. From his initial beginnings in the chronicling of the sufferation of blacks in the urban UK, LKJ broadens out to examine the effects of the ideological struggle between East and West on the Third World (in ‘Di Eagle An’ Di Bear’), the worldwide repression of people without much money (‘Wat About Di Workin’ Class?’), and the fate of Guyanese activist and historian Walter Rodney, assassinated by the army (‘Reggae Fi Radni’). For each one, Johnson and Bovell have conjured up entirely but appropriate settings: ‘Reggae Fi Radni’ has a jauntily sinister Mediterranean lilt and a solid thunk. ‘Wat About Di Workin’ Class?’ has a bluesy lope and simmering, tangy guitar from John Kpaye, and ‘Di Eagle An’ Di Bear’ swaggers along to a seriously martial horn line.
But everything comes together on ‘Reggae Fi Dada’, the most powerful and affecting performance of Johnson’s career. In June of ’82, Johnson’s father died in Jamaica after a long illness, and LKJ flew over to be with him. The poem is filled not only with the pain and love that welled up for his father, but the pain and love experienced at the sight of the suffering of the people and the astonishing skill that Johnson displays in creating the realisation that both ‘aspects’ of the poem represent the same issue (“just people live in shack people livin’ back to back/mongst cockroach and rat, mongst dirt and disease/subject to terrorist attack an political intrigue/constant grief an’ no sign a relief…”)
The band match him with music that melts from rhapsodic blues to a light reggae groove to a beat that could mash down a building… and with silence. It is Johnson and Bovell’s most perfect collaboration, but the screws tighten still further as Johnson transports the listener into the heart of the purest terror, anger and pity in ‘New Crass Massahkah.’
The poem is already justly celebrated in live performance, and LKJ has delivered it on TV, but this version goes further and deeper. Again it melds Johnson’s political rage and personal sorrow to devastating effect.
There are a couple of tunes on the album which are expressions of what he’s done before: ‘Di Great Insurreckshan’ – gorgeous skalypso groove! – and the title piece could have come from either of his last two albums (stylistically, that is – their theme of the battles of ’81 is more topical) and while they are none the worse for that, it is the tunes that most graphically depict Johnson’s development as an artist that are both the most moving and the most politically eloquent.

Charles Shaar Murray

Verbal Riddim

‘What poets like Benjamin, Attila the Stockbroker, Seething Wells, John Cooper Clarke and Linton Kwesi Johnson have done is to demystify poetry and to make it relevant to those people who are likely to listen.’
Benjamin Zephaniah in a decent interview with Soundmaker, 22 January, 1983.

News For Babylon

An anthology of Caribbean British poetry reviewed in Poetry Review, Volume 74, Number 2, from 1984. There is some language in the review that wouldn’t be used today.

News For Babylon: The Chatto Book of Westindian-British Poetry,
edited by James Berry, Chatto, £4.95

‘Educated’ writers whose native speech is a dialect of English rather than the standard variety (itself, ironically, once a regional dialect) are likely to find themselves suspended precariously between two languages, the one vividly experiential, the other conceptually elaborate. Both, to adopt Theodor Adorno’s comment about high and mass culture, ‘are torn halves of an integral freedom, to which however they do not add up’. Exactly how they don’t add up is one of the fascinations of this rich collection. From the calculated burring of William Barnes to the carefully dropped aitches of Rudyard Kipling, mainstream English poetry has dipped condescendingly into dialect from time to time, but such linguistic slumming has usually been firmly distinguished from its more ‘proper’ achievements. Only with a Hardy or a Lawrence does one hear dialect as a kind of resonance of strangeness within formally ‘standard’ speech, inscribed within it as overtone rather than oddity. Contemporary Westindian-British poetry, by contrast, seems to slip unselfconsciously from Creole to standard English between or within poems, creating a dialogue or polyphony of discourses in which the unequal encounter of two cultures is directly enacted.
Grace Nichols’s fine long poem ‘I Is a Long Memoried Woman’, which takes women’s oppression as symbolic of a whole history of Caribbean slavery, starts off in the Creole of its title –

From dih pout
Of mih mouth
from dih
calm of mih
you can tell

I is a long memoried woman

– but veers within a page or so into the imagistic notations of a more recognisable English:

an arc
of black moon

I squat over
dry plantain leaves

and command the earth
to receive you

in my name
in my blood

to receive you
my curled bean

my tainted
perfect child.

Linton Kwesi Johnson pushes Nichols’s Creole to a flamboyantly ‘outrageous’ extreme, spontaneously reinverting the graphic appearance of the later Joyce:

it woz in April nineteen eighty-wan
doun inna di ghetto of brixtan
dat di babylan dem cause such a frickshan
an it bring about a great insohreckshan
an it spread all ovah di naeshan
it woz a truly an hisarical okayjan.

The self-parodic feel of this hints at a certain calculation: what Jim Rand defiantly calls ‘nigger talk’ is a conscious political act, an oppositional mode of linguistic identity rather than some nostalgic regression to roots:

Ya dig de funky way to talk
Talk talk?
Dis na white talk:
Na white talk dis.
It is coon, nignog samba wog talk;
Sweetsweet talk.
Na pussyfooting talk dis.

Rudolph Kizerman, sardonically mourning a compatriot hopelessly lost to the high-falutin white intelligentsia, ends on a satirically compassionate note:

Let the brother be;
the cat’s just trying
to find his way
back to the tribe
on a new
word train.

Most poetry of exile and oppression is likely to evince the same, sometimes contradictory spiritual conditions.