In the early 1970s, poet Linton Kwesi Johnson revolutionised English literature with his pioneering dub poetry – an oral fusion of verse, Jamaican Creole, radical politics and dub rhythms. With a body of work spanning well over three decades, it was a joy and a privilege to hear him read a selection of his poems and discuss his career at an evening hosted by independent bookshop New Beacon Books.
After a quick introduction to the social and political climate in Britain during the seventies, Johnson read his first poem of the night, Five Nights of Bleeding, an emotive poem about youth violence over a period of five nights. As reports of increased incidents knife crime have been prevalent in recent months, this poem is not only apt and seemingly timely, but also demonstrates, as Johnson pointed out, that gangs and sadly youth crime is not a new phenomenon.
The second poem of the evening, All Wi Doing is Defendin, is a bold statement about standing up against the oppression placed upon the Black Community by the Government. At the time the poem was written, the much despised sus laws, a racist manipulation of the Vagrancy Act were in operation, and many a young Black person would be arrested and charged on ‘suspicion of intending to to harm to persons unknown’. In this poem, Johnson makes distinction between the Windrush, or the ‘heroic’ generation, as he called them and the ‘rebel generation’ who are next generation after Windrush, who stood up to the establishment and refused to accept the oppression and the discrimination on a daily basis. All Wi Doing is Defendin is at once a call to arms – not necessarily in a literal sense but most certainly a call to stand up for your rights.
Another poem, Sonny’s Lettah, again references the sus laws, with the protagonist Sonny writing a letter home to his mother from his prison cell, explaining how he came to be arrested and charged for murder. It’s a bitterly sad poem, about the police randomly attempting to arrest Sonny’s younger brother, Jim, and in the ensuing struggle, Sonny steps in to protect his brother and a police officer is killed resulting in Sonny’s murder charge and Jim’s sus charge. With stories like this, it’s hard not to feel a residual anger about the injustice faced by so many and it’s understandable, how and why Linton Kwesi Johnson earned his reputation as a defiant political firebrand.
After a few more poems interspersed with more recollections of the past, it was clear to see that Linton Kwesi Johnson is an avid chronicler of Black history. From his early days in the UK Black Panther movement to his involvement with the New Cross Fire Massacre Action Committee, set up in the aftermath of the New Cross Fire in 1981, to the Brixton riots and Tottenham riots, right through to present day events, Johnson, has provided commentary either through his poetry, interviews or through evenings such as this.
An Intimate Evening with Linton Kwesi Johnson was a fascinating journey through Black British history led by one who had not only lived through most of it but had seen and recorded events firsthand as and when it happened. For me this was a most fitting close to Black History Month 2018.
Selected Poems by Linton Kwesi Johnson is available to buy from New Beacon Books, £9.99