Tag Archives: Mutabaruka

John Bitumen – This Joke

From the Nottingham lad’s 1988 pamphlet Personal Vendetta.

There should be more to alternative comedy than saying FILOFAX. This is a designer poem aimed at getting cheap laughs at an alternative cabaret based loosely on Mutabaruka’s ‘Dis Poem’ (apologies).

This joke …
this joke is not about laughing at our own jokes
this is a serious joke
this joke is not about laughter at all
this joke however, is funnier than Jim Davidson
this joke is NOT about the Irish, mothers-in-law, the size of breasts or limp wrists
this joke is not about the colour of skin, the fat and the thin medallion man and his fake tan
oh no
this is a new joke
this joke is alternative
this joke is middle-class angst
and justifications for watching Dallas
this joke is for half-sharp students
who can laugh at themselves (why not? everyone else does)
this joke is acne, muesli and a Citroen 2cv
this joke is wee-wee, VD, MSC, and PMT
this joke is the BBC, 18 to 30
the morning after a curry
the voice of God and the CID
this joke is social workers and Star Wars


The Funeral of Michael Smith

From the NME, 24th September, 1983

“What kind of society are we that we stone our poets to death?” asked Rastafarian Dr Freddie Hickling at the funeral of dub poet Michael Smith.
Held at St Judes Church in Stony Hill, not far from where Smith had been attacked and killed, the large congregation of mourners included fellow poet Oku Onuora, Judy Mowatt and Mrs Michael Manley. A petition signed by prominent artists and musicians was read by journalist John Maxwell – who Smith was on his way to visit before being murdered – which called for justice and thorough police investigation.
Following the service a silent protest was held outside the church and placards declared “Who dead you dead! Investigation now!”; “Who killed Mikey Smith?” and “Murder in Stony Hill. Residents silent.”
On the following Friday a concert was held at the Little Theatre in Kingston to celebrate the poet’s life and to raise money for his family. The powerful line up included Third World, Mutabaruka and the Hi Times Band, Oku Onuora, up and coming dub poet Jean Breeze, Cedric Brooks and United Africa, and readings by the Poets In Unity group.
A similar tribute is being organised here for November by Creation For Liberation who plan to bring both Oku Onuora and Mutabaruka from Jamaica to perform.
It is felt both here and in Jamaica that the wave of international protest and media coverage of Smith’s death has forced the Jamaica press, all sympathetic to the JLP, to give more coverage of the tragedy. But if his killers are to be caught then the pressure must be maintained. To date only one the men identified by witnesses has been arrested, and it has been suggested that the murderers are being hidden in Boon Hall, in Stony Hill and in Tivoli Gardens in Western Kingston – the constituency of JLP Prime Minister Seaga.


The Bard Of Stratford – Benjamin Zephaniah

…Stratford, East London that is. Originally from St. Elizabeth, Jamaica, Benjamin Zephaniah is a self-proclaimed dub ranter who is “bringing Godliness up to date”, and the government to task.
Interview by Paul Bradshaw, photos by Peter Anderson, NME 27th November, 1982

“I sing/I don’t like the thatcher/I said I don’t like that girl/her I want to batter/she is the worst girl in the world/I don’t like her dictation/and her laws on immigration/so I fight in this timeation/for to build a better nation.”

Dreadlocks hauled up inside a bulging tam, Benjamin Zephaniah stood sipping a Britvic orange beneath a snapshot of the Queen Mother playing pool.
A working poet in recession ridden Britain, he’s taken the Alternative Cabaret scene by storm with his rhythmic rantings, and the Anti-Nukes section of the national press gathered at the salubrious Press Club in London’s Shoe Lane were not to be disappointed.
Once onstage he advanced through a memorable and well crafted repertoire, including ‘War Is A Danger To Your Health’, ‘African Swing’, ‘There’s An Uprising Downtown’ and ‘Margaret Thatcher’. But as black as he is unusual, and his delivery and wit are more akin to John Cooper Clarke than to Linton Kwesi Johnson.
His impact in print and on record is likely to be as strong too: the reprint of his first book Pen Rhythm is imminent, and a second volume is already at layout stage; and his EP ‘Dub ranting’ will be out before Xmas. Not surprisingly, he is the subject of a forthcoming Channel 4 documentary.


Benjamin Zephaniah hails from St Elizabeth, Jamaica but his formative years were spent, or more appropriately misspent, in Birmingham where conflict with the law meant he served considerable time at her Majesty’s pleasure. The periods of incarceration gave him grounds for thought; combined with a fascination for the lyricism of Big Youth, it led to his first flirtation with Rasta.
Back on the street as a DJ for Meritone Hi-Fi, he became a local sound system hero and rapidly acquired a reputation as fastest tongue in Handsworth. He secured his twin ambitions of “having a sports car and six girlfriends”, but found the gigolo mentality spiritually bankrupt. His unfolding consciousness caused him to write, and also develop his sound system talkover. After seeing the work of other young black poets he became convinced he could do better. Benjamin Zephaniah, as his name suggests, had found his calling as a modern day Isiah, dealing with modern issues in an ’82 style – “bringing Godliness up to date.”
Reluctantly, he left Handsworth and its Rasta community to settle in Stratford, in London’s East End. Through his friendship with Neville Staples, who he’d met during Meritone’s forays to Coventry, he worked briefly as a roadie for The Specials, and at the same time organising small readings in local community centres.
“Yeah, me just print some leaflets, book a room, bring in some people and do a reading. Them times deh, I was probably more energetic. I used to run through the audience, jump over the audience and pick on certain individuals and pump certain lines at them. A lot of people know me in the East End and I can do gigs, at say North London Poly and they sing and chant along with the poems. ‘Fite Dem (Not Me)’ is a favourite.”
His reputation has grown by word of mouth and he laughs at an early gig at Warwick University.
Someone told them I was good and them book me just two weeks after Linton Kwesi Johnson. It was a show of my own, and a real professional fee. Them book me for one and a half hours and I can only do 20 minutes before I start sweat. Well I said, How am I goin’ to do this? So I crammed together 25 poems, went up there and sweated it out.”
Nowadays he plays mostly CND benefits, colleges, Rasta gatherings and the Alternative Cabaret circuit popularised by the likes of Alexi Sayle, Rik Mayall, Pauline Melville and Keith Allen. This area has developed to encompass a wide variety of radical entertainment, and Zephaniah is enthusiastic about the fresh opportunities it creates and perspectives it offers.
“I want to go on doing plays and some acting, but do as much as I can without doing all the conventional things, ’cause I feel I’ve been fully educated in Ghettology. I don’t have to think too hard or imaginative to write my poetry, ’cause it’s there all the time. If it’s not somethin’ on the news, then it’s somethin’ that happen to me.
But I want to know that what I’m saying is really relevant to every person in the audience. So if I say, ‘The boat is sinking, we’re goin’ down, do you want to sit there and let these people drown, on this automatic star? The boat is sinking, we’re goin’ to drown, young ones don’t jus sit there’, everybody in the audience knows I’m talking to them. Sometimes I don’t even know if we should call it poetry.”

Unlike Linton Kwesi Johnson, Benjamin Zephaniah does not focus his poetry on the black youth experience or the survival of the black community.
His reasoning reminded me of a session with ex-Aswad bassie George Oban, who felt strongly that the days of laying the Rasta doctrine on people at every possible opportunity were finished – it was a question of putting your beliefs into practice. The Rastafari call is ‘Livity’ and like JA poet Mutabaruka, Zephaniah launches his universal dread attack from the same theological vantage point.
“I really write what I see and how I feel. I like Rasta company more time, but I live very cosmopolitan amongst a very diverse set of people. All of them is important. Who feels it knows it, and a lot of the things I’ve felt have been because I’m black. A woman will feel it because she is a woman. If I take my experience out there people will learn to understand, ’cause a lot of racism stems from fear.
“One time I just understand black people struggles; then I start to understand white people in England are struggling; then I get to understand it’s international.
“Well right now one of the things that concern me most is peace. . .war and peace…and that concerns all of us. An end to war is just a natural thing if you’re young. It’s just a simple love of humanity.
“People don’t want to take on the responsibility though. A lot of artists feel for it, but. . .I know if I wasn’t talking about the things that I am and was doing a straight Lenny Henry thing, it would probably have been the BBC and a nice likkle show already. Instead of me just doing a black Pam Ayres (Laughs). . .Yeah, it would just be a novelty thing and they would have a likkle Rasta up there a chat a whole heap of shit ‘n’ mek jokes about cannibals.
“You have to have responsibility. My mum thinks someone is going to assassinate me one day.; she’s really concerned about it.”

Amazed at the number of people who refer to him as a comedian, Benjamin Zephaniah is unquestionably possessed with a righteous wit. Onstage he’ll announce it’s time to get religious and drop to his knees to offer a prayer to the Lord. . .“Lord Scarman, the dread controller and dub co-ordinator of Frontline”, and steam into an almost manic, ‘This Policeman Keeps On Kicking Me To Death’.
Humour in face of the Iron Lady’s barbarism is essential.
“I’ve always had humour in me and I say to myself that when you suffer you’re supposed to keep your head up and smile and have fun as well – ’cause when the wicked are oppressing you they’re smiling.
“So when I go in front of an audience I am conscious that I a tell them something serious, really serious, and at the same time them good fe laugh at a certain line. I don’t want to put people down all the time; I want to entertain them and make them think of me and what I’ve said.”
His poems are effective at many levels and occasionally receive different reactions. For example, at a reading with the Twelve Tribes Of Israel, the dreads saw the poem ‘Margaret Thatcher’ as a comedy rather than political, but some nights later in the East End it was the opposite.
“It’s funny, ’cause with the said person I really learnt a lot about how wicked right wingism is. She’s done so much in such a short space of time, she’s really brought it down to earth in a crucial way.
“Like, I did this show at the Half Moon Theatre and this little yout’ come up to me an’ says, I like the one about Mrs Thatcher. I HATE her! I thought, this yout’ probably doesn’t understand politics, but he knows the reason he’s not having milk is because of this woman.
“She’s so effective, she reaches the hearts of a lot of people who I know and are not politically inclined; but all of a sudden. . .BUFF. . .the schools are gone. . .BUFF. . .you walk into the Social Security and you might get nothing ’cause you haven’t been looking for a job. That really gets them.”
In this age of austerity, Benjamin Zephaniah’s poetry is part of the jigsaw of resistance – a shout and a complaint. Destined to reach a wider audience, his work is a powerful, upful statement.
Flash it and see for yourself.

Dub Poets – Mutabaruka

MutabarukaNME 30th Oct 1982 – this is the first part of a Dub Poets feature. Also featured is Michael Smith and that will also be posted here.

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’.