New Books | Dread Poetry & Freedom

Dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson wrote anthems for the working-class black immigrant population in 1980s Britain, a generation enraged by oppressive politics and brutal policing.

This is an edited excerpt from David Austin’s Dread Poetry and Freedom: Linton Kwesi Johnson and the Unfinished Revolution (Pluto Press, 2018).

In 1981, riots erupted in cities across England: Brixton in London, Chapeltown in Leeds, Toxteth in Liverpool, Moss Side in Manchester and Handsworth in Birmingham. Police officers were attacked and properties in neighbourhoods were burned to the ground during the days of rage, and while the triggers of these urban rebellions varied, they were all tied to ongoing racial tension and animosity with the police, a primary point of contact between working-class black British youth and the state.

The rebellion captured the attention of people across the world, and caught the British public by surprise, but at least one poet had anticipated these explosive rebellions and warned whomever chose to listen that the state of racial oppression in England could not be endured by young blacks and that their pent-up anger and frustration, often expressed in internecine violence, would at some point erupt against the state.

Destitute times, times of dread and times of revolt, revolution and the euphoria associated with upheaval are particularly important for the production of poetry. Poetry, and particularly poetry that is explicitly political, flourished during the anticolonial liberation struggle in Namibia, in Grenada during its short-lived revolution between 1979 and 1983, in Cuba in the early days of its revolution, in South Africa during the anti-apartheid struggle and among African Americans during the Civil Rights-Black Power continuum, to name just a few examples.

In Jamaica, poets such as Dennis Scott, Bongo Jerry and Lorna Goodison emerged as Jamaica grappled with the legacy of slavery and colonialism in the post-independence period, but most of Jamaica’s poetic expression in the 1970s took the form of lyricism associated with reggae music.

It was reggae, along with African American poetry, Aimé Césaire and the poetics of Frantz Fanon, that were important for Linton Kwesi Johnson as the young poet emerged in those dread days in London in the 1970s. Not only would his poetry reflect the feelings of young blacks, and particularly young male members of the UK black population, but it was his poetry that presaged the days of rage that rattled urban Britain in the early 1980s, even though, as the poet himself has acknowledged, “you didn’t have to be a prophet to know what happens if you keep pouring oil on a fire: the beatings, brutalisations, frame-ups”.

Painting with words

Johnson’s poetry exemplifies the role that poetic insight and foresight can play in articulating politics that capture a given historical moment while foreshadowing human possibilities that are largely unapparent, or at least less apparent, to most. This is a peculiar privilege of some artists, including visual artists, but it is perhaps particularly true of artists who paint images with words, and especially poets.

In Johnson’s case, his poetry has been rooted in his active participation in the very politics that he has given expression to in his writing, and in this sense he defies the stereotypical notion of aloof poets who are largely disconnected from the movements that inspire them.

In this spirit, he might be described as the “political poet par excellence”, a title he once bestowed on the Guyanese poet Martin Carter, and the antithesis of what the British Guyanese poet Fred D’Aguiar describes as artists who “retreat to an aestheticised corner of the planet” and “merely create the illusion in the body politic of having escaped the earth’s gravitational pull”.

Johnson’s poetry has been grounded in the desires, defeats and victories of the black British population in England, the aspirations of the working class and in a socialist ethos that poses the question: what is the good life and how do we arrive at it?

‘Cultural weapon’

From the outset of his poetic life, Johnson dismissed the notion of “art for art’s sake”, as writing for him was “a political act and poetry a cultural weapon in the black liberation struggle”. He has argued that his insights regarding the relationship between culture and politics were rooted in the ideas of the Guinea-Bissauan revolutionary leader and theorist Amilcar Cabral, who also wrote poetry. Although Johnson does not elaborate on exactly how Cabral informed him, he is perhaps alluding to the importance that Cabral attached to culture as a tool of emancipation.

For Cabral, “Culture is simultaneously the fruit of a people’s history and a determinant of history, by the positive or negative influence it exerts on the evolution relations between man and his environment and among men or human groups within a society, as well as between different societies.”

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While Cabral was speaking about culture as a product of material circumstances, determined by a given mode of production, it is not difficult to see how, for Johnson, this might be applied to poetry as a product of a given society (England or Jamaica, the latter in terms of its “rebel music”), but which can also influence that society. As D’Aguiar argues, politics is Johnson’s “muse, an organising principal, an ethical foundation and vibe for his sound”.

But in more recent years, Johnson has come to appreciate poetry’s range, and even in the 1970s he was unwilling to absolutely subsume poetry to politics, cautioning against propagandistic or didactic poetry in which craft is sacrificed for politics: “If politics creeps into art unconsciously, without the writer trying, that’s often the most powerful” expression of politics. “But when the artists try to be political in their art it usually ends up badly, whether in poetry or in a novel or other art forms. People don’t like to be preached at.”

‘Poetics of participation’

Throughout the 1970s and well into the dusk of the 20th century, Johnson articulated many of the major social and political concerns of the times, and in the process he has helped to raise the level of public political consciousness of British people, at times anticipating what is to come while suggesting the possibility of better days ahead.

This combination of acute artistic sensitivity and his active involvement in politics has fostered what Amor Kohli refers to as his “poetics of participation” – the use of language and rhythm designed to raise the political consciousness of the poet’s audience.

Writing on the poetics of Kamau Brathwaite, critic June D Dobbs has argued that he “submerges the individual self, and his voice is always the voice of the community. Through his voice the contemporary pains and possibilities of his community are distilled and added to the archives of ancestral memory. Brathwaite adopts the mask of the African griot. He is a seer who is the repository of a people’s wisdom, culture and vision.”

However, a mask implies a hidden presence, whereas Johnson’s poetry has served to expose the mask that shields society’s inequalities while emphasising black and working-class self-activity in the struggle for social change, and for socialism, in Europe and the Caribbean.

Johnson’s poetry is part of the cultural and political praxis that Caribbean and Afro diasporic people continue to engage with in Britain as part of what the Jamaican poet Louise Bennett once described as “colonisin’ in reverse”.

In the arena of music, this process was inaugurated in the post-World War II period with the invasion of ska, and in particular Jamaican singer Millie Small’s hit, My Boy Lollipop. Small’s youthful voice, backed by an uptempo ska rhythm, topped the British charts and broke into the international market in 1964, opening the gates for other Jamaican artists and laying the groundwork for the reggae surge that dramatically influenced the British music industry – there is no punk music without ska – and the cultural politics of British society in general.

Colonising in reverse was part of an ongoing process of diasporisation. Having been dragged to the Caribbean from Africa during slavery, Afro Caribbean women and men lived a double displacement in which, out of economic necessity, they found themselves in Britain in search of opportunities that were not available to them at home because of the political-economic legacy of slavery and colonialism.

After World War II, West Indians were encouraged to immigrate to England to rebuild a devastated country and yet, despite their “Britishness” and the long history of blacks in England dating at least as far back as the 16th century, they faced economic hardship and fierce, even brutal racial reprisals.

Racial tension

England of the 1960s and 1970s was teeming with racial tension, and the growing presence of blacks increasingly became a social problem that many white Britons believed needed to be contained. The British MP Enoch Powell called for the deportation of blacks and a halt to black emigration. But emigration was a product of the process in which blacks shifted from producers of surplus labour on the slavery plantation to surplus labourers.

Caribbean women and men sought opportunities in the UK in the post-emancipation and post-World War II era that were not available to them in the Caribbean because of the legacy of slavery, colonialism and underdevelopment under capitalism, only to find themselves exiled, alienated, often unemployed and the target of hostile whites in the UK, presumably for taking jobs that whites assumed were rightly theirs, even if these were jobs that whites either did not want or were in some instances underqualified to assume.

As the incomparable Caron Wheeler, the former lead singer of the British group Soul II Soul, sang in her 1990 black British anthem UK Black, the streets were not paved with gold as many believed when they crossed the Atlantic to the UK, but despite the disappointment and hostility they faced, blacks were forced to forge a life for themselves. The character Hortense Roberts came to terms with this same reality in Andrea Levy’s lovely novel Small Island.

Consistent with Powell’s words were the actions of the National Front and the rise of neo-fascism – a phenomenon captured in Johnson’s antifascist poem Fite dem Back – that went beyond rhetoric and led to physical attacks against people of African and Asian descent. The character of Britain was changing as Caribbean, African and Asian migrants planted roots in the country, and racial antagonisms and tensions would later magnify and eventually explode.

Police brutality was a major issue as the police abused young blacks with impunity, aided and abetted by Britain’s so-called “sus laws”, a throwback to the 19th-century Vagrancy Act that permitted the police to stop, search and detain “suspicious” looking characters.

Tense, volatile atmosphere

In the watershed 1978 study Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State, and Law and Order written by Stuart Hall, Chas Critcher, Tony Jefferson, John Clarke and Brian Roberts, the authors argued that a combination of intense policing and surveillance and incendiary headlines about mugging and crime led to high arrest rates and harsh sentencing in reaction to the presumed pervasiveness of criminality (despite statistics that suggested the contrary), all of which contributed to a tense and volatile atmosphere in the UK.

The police used questionable tactics that led to the disproportionate arrests and detention of black youth for muggings or loitering with the intent to steal, all of which led to a deterioration in police-black relations and the swamping of black neighbourhoods by the Special Patrol Group (SPG) while reinforcing the alarmist perception of blacks as a threat to “law and order”.

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Locked in Giorgio Agamben’s permanent state of exception, this was part of the disciplining, punishing and dehumanising of blacks – whose image, Paul Gilroy suggests, was associated with “squalor”, “sordid sexuality” and the fear of “miscegenation” in ways that precipitated the perception of Afro Britons as criminals – by the state and its instruments such as the SPG, the Special Branch, and the Illegal Immigration Intelligence Unit in Britain, and by racists and neo-fascists who physically attacked blacks with impunity.

These attacks were also consistent with what I have referred to elsewhere as biosexuality or the biosexual sense of dread that the physical presence of black bodies – in this sense perceived to be devoid of intellect, the life of the mind, and morality – have historically engendered in Europe and the Americas which, dating back to the history of slavery, persists in slavery’s afterlife in the form of the dread of black-white solidarity and black-white interracial mixing and overall racial animosity.

This, alongside high rates of unemployment among black and immigrant groups, the intense scrutiny of black communities by the media, violent attacks, including the firebombing of black communities, xenophobic rants by politicians like Powell and the threat of physical violence from the neo-fascist National Front led to a untenable situation that would inevitably explode as young blacks became increasingly radicalised and politicised.

Poetic moments

Johnson has characterised this moment in two poems, Fite dem Back and Sonny’s Lettah.

Fite dem Back is an antifascist poem in response to attacks against people of African and Asian descent in Britain in which the speaker parodies or “vintriloquises”, to use Peter Hitchcock’s word, the English (cockney) of a violent racist neofascist chant – we gonna smash their brains in | cause they ain’t got nofink in ’em.

Ashley Dawson describes Fite dem Back as a reaction “to neofascist attacks with a militant assertion of the black community’s ability to meet racist violence with effective resistance in a striking affirmation of collective power” while testifying “to the acuity of Frantz Fanon’s discussion of the humanising effect of counter-violence within a context of racial domination and terror”.

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Sonny’s Lettah is a harrowing poem that captures the sense of dread and frustration that black British youth felt in the late 1970s and into the 1980s. When Johnson joined his mother, Sylvena, a machinist and dressmaker, in Brixton in 1963 it was the centre of London’s Caribbean population. The Jamaican language, Patwa, and other Caribbean creoles were widely spoken among the growing Caribbean population and the cultural life in Brixton helped ease the transition for Johnson as it did for many Caribbean families.

But the poet became intimately familiar with the reality of police violence as he had been beaten by officers in the back of a police van and then charged with two counts of assault when he attempted to communicate with black youth who had been arrested by the police, as he had been trained to do in the Panthers.

Sonny’s Lettah begins with the greeting Dear Mama | Good day | I hope dat wen | deze few lines reach yu | they may find yu in de bes af helt. Like any normal letter, the sender’s address is indicated in the right-hand column of the page. But the letter’s feigned innocence is reminiscent of Prince Buster’s Ghost Dance, which begins in a similar fashion (Dear Keithus, my friend, good day | Hoping you’re keeping the best of health) followed by a series of sombre greetings, commentaries and queries offered by an apparent ghost who, for reasons unknown, has passed on but seemingly has unfinished business among the living.

‘Poem of experience’

But the revolutionary theorist George Jackson’s prison letters to his mother are perhaps closest to the tenor and tone of Johnson’s poem. The English edition of Soledad Brother was published in 1971 and was part of the British Black Panther Movement’s (BBPM) required reading list.

In this “poem of experience”, as the British author and educator Chris Searle has described the book, Jackson frequently begins with the same greeting as Sonny’s Lettah – Dear Mama – after which he, too, inquires about his mother’s health. But in both cases the routine greeting is interrupted by the reality of incarceration.

Sonny is writing from a Brixton prison cell, having been charged with murder. As he informs his mother, despite his best efforts to take care of his brother, he and Jim have been arrested and he proceeds to describe the circumstances surrounding his detention, contrasting the hustle and bustle of the rush hour period with the seemingly innocuous activity of two brothers waiting at a bus stop.

A black maria (police van) pulls up to the stop and the officers proceed to arrest Jim without cause, and Jim attempts to wriggle himself free. Sonny then details the officers’ brutal beating of his brother and how he jumped to his defence, resulting in the death of one of the officers. The poet’s sombre voice combines with a melancholy melody that is punctuated by abrupt breaks in the music, producing a dramatic, almost theatrical effect.

While it might seem more natural to draw parallels between the poem and reggae don Peter Tosh’s Watcha Gonna Do? or perhaps Tupac’s Dear Mama or Kendrick Lamar’s Collect Calls, an obvious but not so obvious parallel would be The Clash’s 1979 song The Guns of Brixton, written and sung by the punk rock group’s bass player Paul Simonon, a white Englishman who grew up among blacks in Brixton where he gained an appreciation for reggae music.

In what Paul Gilroy has described as a particular moment of black-white solidarity expressed culturally in the punk “appropriation of black style and their hostility to both racist nationalism and nationalist racism in several records, which recast reggae music in their own idiom” – a solidarity perhaps expressed in Bob Marley’s song Punky Reggae Party – The Clash also covered Lee “Scratch” Perry’s song Police and Thieves, made famous by the legendary Jamaican falsetto Junior Murvin.

The guns of Brixton

Aside from the obvious fact that The Guns of Brixton is set in Brixton, Simonon raises the question of what is the appropriate response to police violence and brutality – whether to die guns blazing when the police knock down the door, ultimately ending up dead or on death row for murder, or to passively submit to the police, running the risk of being killed.

In response to the question, Simonon invokes the spirit of the singer turned gangster Ivan, the lead character (played by the legendary Jamaican singer and reggae pioneer Jimmy Cliff) in the 1972 film The Harder They Come, who was killed in a fury of gunfire exchange with Jamaican police. The ultimate answer: police brutality will have to contend with the guns of Brixton, which can literally mean those with guns in Brixton, but figuratively suggests the “young guns” of Brixton, which is to say assertive and confident youth who are unwilling to passively endure police brutality and simply turn the other cheek.

Parallels with Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody and Ella Fitzgerald’s version of Miss Otis Regrets also come to mind here, not in terms of lead singer Freddie Mercury’s mercurial voice and remarkable range, or Fitzgerald’s melodic phrasing, but in the caesurae, the pauses and the sense of timing, momentarily occupying the spaces between the words and lines as the speaker ponders in the moment, and in so doing compels us to dwell in it too as we meditate on the gravity of the events or anticipate the tragedy that is about to unfold.

A poem to be heard

The point here is that the printed verse and the music-accompanied recording of Sonny’s Lettah represent different versions of the same poem.

Sonny’s Lettah is a poem to be heard more so than read, both in terms of the cadence of the poet’s voice and for how the music both serves the poem and speaks on its own terms as, for example, when the thumping sound of the bass drum simulates the repetitive and monotonous everydayness of Jim’s experience with the police, including the blows that Jim receives from the officers, and the licks in kind that Sonny administers to one of the officers. The overdubbed baseline and the ominous-sounding harmonica provide a haunting sense of foreboding. This, along with the poet’s characteristic caesura, the “breaks”, that compel us to dwell and linger in the moment long enough to ponder with the poet – all of this can only be inadequately represented but not reproduced on the printed page.

The most direct correspondence to Sonny’s Lettah is Dear Mama by the Jamaican and Canadian poet, actor and playwright d’bi young anitafrika. Not only was the poem inspired by Sonny’s Lettah but it was also dedicated to Johnson, and like Sonny’s Lettah, it too begins with a greeting (dear mama | good afternoon | I hope you are happy and well | I have something to tell | you), though not from a prison cell in Brixton, but from an undisclosed Canadian location. But the polite greeting, witty rhyme scheme and the speaker’s curiosity about her family members and the neighbours back home contrasts with the tone of the entire poem in which the speaker struggles to share her tragic news with Mama.

As in Sonny’s Lettah, the poet’s repeated use of the words “Mama” and “you” followed by an ellipsis that emphasises the importance of the personal relationship between mother and child and anticipates the failed desire of the child to live up to Mama’s expectations.

The fact that she was sent to Canada to establish a better life is overshadowed by an HIV test that she took nine months ago that indicated that she is HIV positive. The nine months associated with the birthing cycle that brings life into being is juxtaposed with tragic news that is compounded by the speaker’s observation that, as a black woman, the irony is that AIDS doesn’t discriminate, and that the absence of discrimination works against her in this instance.

The rest of the poem recounts a litany of reactions and misconceptions concerning AIDS, including ridicule by her friends, the assumption that AIDS is a gay white male disease, ostracism as well as rumour-mongering at her expense. But the poem is also about a woman’s relationship with her mother and a yearning for home, coupled by a sense of dread and the mortal fear that family members and friends will discover the news.

Dear Mama is not simply a gendered or feminist rendering of Johnson’s poem: it is about sexuality, homosexuality and the dread of HIV and AIDS, and like young’s poem Blood, it is also about shame, in this case the shame associated with contracting the virus.

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