By S. Heilig
Linton Kwesi Johnson, aka LKJ, is the intellectual conscience of reggae music. Since the early 1970s he has forged a melding of true poetry with roots reggae rhythms, holding to a political perspective honed by long involvement with movements for better living conditions and rights for Black people in England, where he has lived since he was eleven years old. As a university student, writer, editor and musician, his voice and words have been unmistakable – unique within reggae, really. Arguably,LKJ invented dub – or reggae – poetry, and still does it best; he is thus both the premiere and premier exemplar of this singular genre of music.
Starting in 1978, he has released a series of albums which still sound timeless even as they address then-current events in the UK and beyond. Key to LKJ’s music is the contribution of the unsurpassed bands he has worked with, most notably and lastingly the Dennis Bovell Dub Band. The arrangements LKJ and Bovell provide to surround his poetry are complex yet driving, with rich horn charts and, more recently, violin and flute flavorings.
So although it might seem ironic for a poet, it’s really no wonder that the slogan on LKJ’s new website (http:www.lkjrecords.com) is “Putting the Music Back into Reggae.” Albums like “Bass Culture,’ “Making History,” and “More Time” are treasures of stimulating thought, delivered in LKJ’s resonant baritone over and within some of the hardest yet most melodic tracks in reggae. The live CD “LKJ in Concert with the Dub Band” captures his career-spanning shows as of the late 1980s, and the two-CD set “Independant Intavenshan” selects from all his work on Island Records from the years 1979-84.
On top of all his recorded work, LKJ has just this year been recognized with a printed collection of his writings published in a most prestigious series by Penguin in the UK. “Mi Revalueshanary Fren: Selected Poems” is an unprecedented accomplishment for a reggae artist, as LKJ is joined in the series by some of the most revered literary names of modern times.
A serious man, LKJ does not suffer fools gladly, if at all. On stage, his band is disciplined and follows a tightly-paced songlist in a manner reminiscent of tough taskmasters like James Brown. Nor does he seem particularly fond of doing interviews. But once he tests one’s mettle and seriousness, as musician or interviewer it seems, he is quite willing to tell about his life and work.
SH: I’ve read somewhere that you first acquired your love of words from your grandmother, who read the Bible to you when you were very young.
LKJ: Actually it was the other way around – my grandmother was illiterate and as soon as I could read she had me reading the Bible to her. Whenever her spirit was troubled, she liked to hear the sounds of those words, and I too got to like the language.
But you did not really stay involved in that religious tradition…
No, but the Biblical stories were actually part of most children’s education in Jamaica. And some particular parts of the Bible, the psalms and proverbs and such, are very poetic.
And you came to London as a child…
Yes, my mother came to England in 1961, and I went to join her in ’63. It was a bit of an experience, actually.
In terms of what, racial issues in particular? I heard you were surprised to see a white man sweeping the street.
Yes, that was a bit surprising you know, as in Jamaica one associated all whites with wealth and power, and you’d never have imagined to see that in Kingston.
You seem to have been focused on education from an early age.
My generation was ambitious; we were the children of first-generation immigrants and we wanted to do something with our lives and make something of ourselves. And our parents had expectations of ourselves as well. So while I might not have attended classes as regularly as I should have, I was serious about my education. And after I left school and got married and worked for about 3 years, I went to the university and got a degree in sociology.
What kind of work did you do at that point?
I did several jobs – first some accounting for a tailor, and on the switchboard there during lunch breaks as well. I also worked as a clerical officer in the civil service for a time.
When did you first become politically involved?
By 1970 I was involved in the Black Panther Youth League. This was a different organization than the USA group, but we were inspired by people like Huey P. Newton, Bobby Seale, and all those guys, and the fact that they were standing up and protecting their community, in a very militant kind of way. We weren’t half as militant as they were, but this was my first real introduction to Black literature and history. It was a whole birth of consciousness for me. I was reading Soul on Ice, Manchild in the Promised Land, Richard Wright’s work…It was a very exciting time for me.
Those are all African-American writers – was there any equivalent among British writers then?
No, there was absolutely nothing like that. Well, there were some Caribbean writers doing novels set in London, but nothing with the kind of consciousness of those I mentioned.
And you learned yet more from direct experience, such as in prison?
Yes, for example if you saw a Black man being arrested, you at least tried to get their name and address, for example. I tried that in Brixton and was grabbed by some police officers and was racially abused and kicked and thrown to the ground, and then charged with two counts of assault. There was a demonstration outside the police station and I was released within hours. But once the demonstration started they increased the charges to three!
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