Words & Music: Linton Kwesi Johnson’s Enduring Legacy

26th June 2019
Linton Kwesi Johnson’s poetry and music is a celebration of the British Afro-Cribbean community. Ahead of his performance at this year’s Love Supreme Jazz Festival, we took a look at his enduring legacy in British popular culture.

Words: Harry Stott

Linton Kwesi Johnson is only the second ever living poet to be published by Penguin classics. Given that a lot of his most popular work was created to be heard rather than read, it’s quite the accolade. Being canonised among the likes of Joyce, Dickens and Shelley sheds a little light on the academic status of the Jamaican-born, Brixton bred poet, whose legacy is far and wide. As one of the first people to claim British Afro-Caribbean culture as something to celebrate, he gave a popular voice to the children of the Windrush generation – for which he should be most revered: it’s here that we should pinpoint one of his greatest offerings.

How many musicians, no matter how famous or widely adored, can lay claim to having created or defined a genre? The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Prince: their ability to marry styles which before seemed antithetical, and from it develop something bold and new, has earned them each a place in the popular music pantheon. In terms of radical innovation, and enormous, far reaching influence (in the UK at least), there is a real argument for Linton Kwesi Johnson to be talked about in the same breath.

Johnson is widely credited with the creation of ‘Dub-Poetry’, a label given to his style of talking in distinctive rhythm and rhyme (could you call it rapping?) over the stomp and thud of dub-reggae. At first listen, it might sound like spoken word poetry simply stuck on top of a beat, but Johnson’s brand is so much more performative, that the relationship between the music and his words are one of his most distinctive gifts. 

Johnson would first and foremost call himself a poet – one who has influenced everyone from Benjamin Zephaniah to Lemn Sissay and Simon Armitage – but it would be aesthetically ignorant to divorce his words from their musical backing. When he proclaims on ‘Man Free (For Darcus Howe)’: “Him stan-up in di court / Like a mighty lion / Him stan-up in di court / Like a man af I’on”, the entire feeling of rapturous defiance is created by the marriage of thundering lyrics with the crashing of beat chinks of the band. The music gives the words a power far greater than they would have performed alone, or indeed written down.

“The UK owes Johnson a real musical debt, one which is all too rarely acknowledged”

Fred d’Aguiar, the British poet, novelist and playwright, has written at length about Johnson’s pioneering place in the creation of ‘Dub-poetry’. He notes how the performative, musical aspect of the poems not only open them up to a ‘wide and varied and not exclusively literary [audience] … who responds to what the speaker says’, but also ‘locate the poetry in an oral tradition rather than a scribal one but without the crude stage/page divide often associated with performance poetry’. Johnson’s words are tied to their performance and the music behind them, and thus his influence is not confined to poetic circles.

When I first came into contact with Johnson’s music, it was the coolness his voice – that intangible combination of tone and flow – that got me hooked. The musicality of English spoken in Jamaican Patois means his vocal lines sound like they might as well be on a note, even though they aren’t. On ‘Sonny’s Lettah’, an epistolary track from the 1979 record ‘Forces of Victory’, the seemingly crude rhymes of ‘jelly’ and ‘belly’, ‘head’ and ‘lead’, ‘seed’ and ‘bleed’, each take on a visceral quality of their own, their sound functioning with a timbre you might normally expect from the vibrato of a sax or the plucking of a string. You wouldn’t hear this if it were written down on a page, and if you were to remove the abrupt musical change that happens underneath, then some of that indefinable tonal quality would be lost as well.

The UK owes Johnson a real musical debt, one which is all too rarely acknowledged. You can hear echoes of his rumbling growl in the voices of Roots Manuva all the way through to Dizzy Rascal, Wiley and pioneers of grime in the naughties. It is unlikely these artists would ever have made the music they did if Johnson had not allied words with music and British Afro-Caribbean culture in the way he did; Johnson’s furious invectives against the gross injustices faced by his community gave voice to a marginalised group in the same way that grime does today. That we are able to compare the experience of black Brits in the 1970s with now, and that Johnson’s stories still resonate, is a damning indictment of our times.

The UK of Johnson’s youth (he came to the UK as an 11 year old in the Windrush wave of immigration in the 60s) was one where prejudice was proudly worn on its sleeve; the National Front was visible on the streets; racism rampant on the football terraces; and “No blacks, no dogs, no Irish” an acceptable stipulation for landlords. In what was a grim environment for a young black immigrant, Johnson turned to poetry: “I began to write verse, not only because I liked it, but because it was a way of expressing the anger, the passion of the youth of my generation in terms of our struggle against racial oppression,” he said in an interview with the Guardian last year. “Poetry was a cultural weapon in the black liberation struggle”. As one of the first black British poets, Johnson literally began the discussion about the appalling treatment of his community through his art. This came in the form of ferocious tirades against racists on tracks like ‘Fight Dem Back’ – “We gonna smash their brains in / Cause they ain’t got no fink in ’em” – but also chilling descriptions of anarchic urban chaos on songs like ‘Doun De Road’ – “And the national front is on the rampage / Making fire-bombs for Burnley / Terror-fire, terror-fire reach me”.

Through the righteous anger of his lyrics, Johnson helped to foster a tradition of black creative excellence in the UK, openly challenging racism and celebrating what is one of the most creatively fertile communities this melting pot of a country has ever born. His voice was vital then and, depressingly, is still vital now. Vile scandals about the treatment of the Windrush generation and the hostile environment policies deliberately put in place to target them bears a grotesque resemblance to the world Johnson described all those years ago. However, in our polarised, hyper reactionary times, his famous, tongue-in-cheek proclamation that ‘Inglan is a Bitch’, actually feels a little too kind.

Linton Kwesi Johnson performs on the Words & Music stage at this year’s Love Supreme

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