Linton Kwesi Johnson and Black British Struggle

The originator of dub poetry talks about the role of culture in politics, antiracist and class struggle in the UK.

Linton Kwesi Johnson (Wiki Commons).

The Jamaican-born British poet and reggae artist, Linton Kwesi Johnson, memorialized black power and immigrant rights movements in the UK of the 1970s and 1980s on records such as Forces of Victory, Dread, Beat and Blood and Bass Culture. LKJ was deeply involved in those struggles not only as an artist but as an activist and intellectual. Entering politics through the youth section of the British Black Panther Party in Brixton, he went on to join the Race Today newspaper collective. There, along with Darcus Howe, who passed away last month, and other black British radicals he helped reflect, amplify, and organize black and Asian community resistance to police abuse, National Front skinhead attacks, and systemic racial exclusion in British society. In this interview, the originator of dub poetry talks the role of culture in politics; antiracist and class struggle in the UK as well as the importance of a wide range of figures from Althea Jones-Lacointe and C.L.R. James to Ken Booth and the Last Poets.

Music clearly played a big role in the antiracist struggle here in the 1970s and early 1980s. Could you talk about how black British youth identified with Jamaican music and its relationship to their own struggles?

All right, let me put it this way; reggae music was the umbilical cord that connected my generation of Jamaican youth to Jamaica. It provided us with an independent identity. It was rebel music and we identified with it because my generation was basically the rebel generation, as opposed to our parents who were more conformist. We were the rebel generation and Reggae music was our music. It afforded us an identity, it provided us with the nexus of a culture of resistance to racism in Britain. A lot of the lyricism that came out of those Reggae tunes were couched in Rastafarian language of anti-colonialism and the image of the rude boy. We identified with that image, the rebel image.

So, reggae music was crucial for us, in terms of self identity and in terms of consciousness, really, because a lot of the songs that we were listening to as youth, like Ken Booth’s “Freedom Street,” for example, we could identify with the lyrics of that. And when Bob Marley sang about “Concrete Jungle,” we could identify with that concrete jungle. We have our own concrete jungles here in Britain and London, in Manchester and Birmingham and so on and so forth.

Your own poetry is often concerned very with local conditions in England, in London. It must have circulated among British youth as well during this time. Did you see a relationship between culture and politics? I know that you were also the arts editor at Race Today. Do you understand culture to be part of politics?

Absolutely, that was our position that there was a cultural dimension to political struggles and that cultural activism went hand in hand with political activism and they complimented each other. We got those ideas from Amilcar Cabral for example, from Guinea. Yeah so yes, in fact a lot of people became politicized through culture.

C.L.R James was also very influential, is that right?

Yes I was one of C.L.R James’, one of the people who helped to look after C.L.R James during his last days. He lived with us, he lived upstairs on the top floor of the building that housed the Race Today collective of which I was member. And I spent quite a bit of time with him, sitting by his bedside and chatting and all of that. Yeah so James is, but of course you know James was a renaissance man and he was into Michelangelo and Keats and Shelley and Shakespeare and all of that but he understood and appreciated the artistic and the cultural expressions of the working class and the peasantry. I remember he wrote an article for us on Ntozake Shange for example. And he could talk for hours about the calypsos of the Mighty Sparrow and so on.

When Bob Marley came to live here after the assassination attempt in Jamaica and was here recording “Exodus”, he was packaged by Chris Blackwell and Island Records as a kind of a commercialized rock star. But did his presence here have any effect on black British youth?

Bob Marley had a huge effect on black British youth because he was a reggae star artist from Jamaica who was being treated like a rock star. And there was great joy that this was happening amongst young black people. There was a great joy that this thing was happening. At the same time, some of us felt a little bit resentful that our reggae artist from Jamaica was being appropriated by the rock world. You know? He belonged to us. He didn’t belong to white people. He was a black reggae artist, he was no rock artist.

But, by and large, Bob Marley’s success gave a fillip, stimulated British Reggae music. So there was generated greater interest in reggae music. And a lot of black youth who weren’t so much into reggae, because they wanted to distance themselves as a second generation from the roots of their parents. And they felt they were more sophisticated or whatever, or they had petty bourgeois aspirations or whatever. They were more into American music. Bob Marley converted those people to reggae (laughs). And it was on the back of the success of Bob Marley emerged bands like Aswad. Existing British reggae bands like Matumbi and Steel Pulse kind of took off and got record deals with some of the major record labels. I myself got signed to Island Records on the wave of all of that success. Yeah, so reggae was very important in terms of its influence on my generation of youth.

Bob Marley was a deeply, deeply spiritual person, there’s no doubt about that. He was a Rastafarian, but Rasta is part spiritual and part political, you can’t talk about Rastafari without talking about politics and you can’t talk about Rastafari without talking about spirituality because they’re both things. In fact I would say that Rastafari was and is a kind of spiritual response to the anti-colonial struggle or it was a way of expressing the anti-colonial sentiments, our section of the black population. Bob Marley was essentially, as I said a deeply spiritual person, but he was a Pan-Africanist, a Garveyite, and one only has to listen to the lyrics of his songs to realize that he was a political animal.

The CIA would not have opened a file on Bob Marley had he been, you know, non-political. You look at songs like “Burnin’ and lootin’ tonight,” “Get up, stand up,” there’s a song on “Uprising” where he urges the listener to rebel he says “We’ve been trodden on the wine press far too long, rebel, rebel.” In “Africa unite” he talks about African unity and that sort of thing so yes Bob Marley was deeply spiritual and also political. He wanted to distance himself from local politics in Jamaica but I mean in the early 70s he was on the bandwagon, the cultural bandwagon that the People’s National Party rolled out in the 1972 election. The attempted assassination was because he was seen to be an asset for the PNP in the build-up to the 1976 election.

So he was someone who at least amongst the political classes, they felt that he had a … He commanded a tremendous amount of respect amongst the masses and he had clout amongst the masses and whoever had him in their corner had a big advantage. But Bob Marley didn’t really want to be seen as a political partisan in fact in one of his songs I think it’s “Rat Race” he says “Never let a politician do your favor, they will want to control you forever.” But he certainly, as I said if you analyze the lyrics of his songs, you can see that he was a politically conscious person. And I mean in a lot of cases for Bob Marley, the personal is the political. He’s writing a song maybe about a personal grievance but it’s couched in the language of politics.

Did he ever reach out to or have any connection with the local struggles here in England when he was here in the late 70s?

Not that I know of, not that I know of. But I’m almost sure that there was solidarity with our struggles here. But you know of all the Wailers, Peter Tosh was the one who was more overtly political. Peter Tosh got involved in demonstrations, got locked up by the police and beaten up by the police. He was far, far more militant and outspoken than any of the other Wailers.

You had connections with other Jamaican artists and Jamaican poets. Mikey Smith was here for some time in England and you were close.

I brought Mikey Smith over from Jamaica. I’d met him in 1979 when I’d done a couple of shows in 1979 for Peter Tosh. Used to have these youth consciousness concerts once a year and 1979 I did two gigs with him, one at the Ranny Williams Center in Kingston and one in Hellshire Beach. I was part of a line up that included Black Uhuru, The Tamlins, I can’t remember who else was on the bill, I was the opening act, in those days I was playing with backing tapes and dancers. I didn’t bring the dancers to Jamaica with me so I only had the music, what they called playback.

Anyway cut a long story short, it was on that visit to Jamaica that I was sought out by Mikey Smith and Oku Onuora both of whom were students at the Jamaica school of Drama. And Mikey I think was specializing in directing, anyway they sought me out and they found me and we just hit it off and for me it was wonderful to know that there was a school of poetry in Jamaica which was based on a revival of orality in Caribbean poetry. And that saw itself within the tradition of reggae music. In the same way that you had blues poetry or Jazz poetry in America and it gave me a great sense of validity because I was plowing a lone farrow here in England at least so I thought. But when I went to Jamaica and heard these guys Mikey Smith and Oku Onuora, came and said “Yes there are other people doing what I’m doing,” and it was great.

In fact I coined the term dub poetry but I was using that to describe the art of the Reggae djs like U-roy and Big Youth and so on. But Oku Onuora was the one who kind of conceptualized the idea of dub poetry as a term to describe this new movement of orality in Jamaican poetry. So Mikey wanted to know … These guys were looking at me as if I was some kind of big star in England and I could open up the doors to success for them. Anyway cut a long story short, I had founded or co-founded a company called Creation for Liberation and through Creation for Liberation I was able to invite Michael Smith to England to do a poetry tour and he also performed at the first international book fair for Radical Black and Third World books in 1982. And I also released Mikey’s record “Mi Cyaan believe it“, “Mi Cyaan believe it” and “Roots” on my record label LKJ records in fact it was the first record I ever put out on my record label.

But the year before that in 1981, I happened to be in Barbados fronting a documentary for the BBC called ‘From Brixton to Barbados’ about the Carifesta, the regional arts festival they have every six years or so and that year it was in Barbados. And Mikey Smith was there in Barbados and Anthony Wall thought it would be a good idea to film him performing his famous poem ‘Mi Cyaan believe it’ which was broadcast on the BBC. So that’s how Mikey got introduced to the British public.

What is it about poetry that makes it particularly suited to political expression?

I don’t know, I haven’t got a clue. All that I know is that I came to politics, I came to poetry through politics. It was as an activist in the Black Panther movement that I discovered something called black literature, books written by black people which I didn’t know anything about before that. And WEB DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk which wasn’t really poetry it was prose but it was very poetic prose, stirred something in me and made me want to write, write verse. So I don’t know but personally speaking I’ve always been attracted to political poetry and there’s some people who would argue this kind of arty-farty notion of art for art’s sake bullshit that politics has no part to play in art which is just a lot of nonsense. I don’t know if it’s because poetry is really about language and how one uses language in a kind of a succinct kind of a way. And you know there’s a musical dimension to it. I don’t know I really can’t answer that question but I’ve always been attracted to political poetry and lyrical poetry and if you look at the canon of British poetry, it’s full of political stuff from Alexander Pope, Shakespeare, Shelley.

Were you influenced at all by The Last Poets or Gil Scott Heron?

Well they were a big influence on me, the last poets were a big influence on me because I heard them when I was in the Black Panthers. I think we had about one or two LPs we used to circulate amongst the youth membership, I was in the youth section to begin with before I became a fully-fledged member. We had Message to the Grass Roots by Malcolm X and it was also had an LP by the last poets that was circulating around and I thought “Wow these guys are using the language of the street as a vehicle for poetic discourse I mean this is fantastic, this is great I want to do something like that with Jamaican speech.” So yeah, they were a big influence on me and this idea of the voice working with percussion, with drums and all of that, I first got an insight into that from the last poets. Yeah they were a big influence.

I found out about Gil later on and me and Gil did a tour of America back in the 80s. We played all over America from New York to Alabama.

His father was Jamaican, I think.

Yeah his father was Jamaican footballer. Played for one of these football clubs. Yeah but me and Gil did a tour of America and I loved his stuff, I think Gil is in that tradition of the Last Poets. But I became great friends of Amiri Baraka who is coming out of that blues, jazz tradition. So I’ve always seen this relationship between music and poetry, I’ve always been attracted to it. Yeah, those guys were a big influence.

So in some ways some of the culture of anti-racist struggle or immigrant rights struggles changed after the insurrections of the early 1980s. Do you think there was a change in kind of the politics and the racial climate for the worse under Thatcher? Did things kind of move in a different direction?

Well, I really don’t know how to characterize that period because it was a period of intense class struggle, class struggle and the racial dimension of that was important. It was a period of anti-fascist struggle and anti-racist struggles. It was a period that saw the rise, well not so much the rise but perhaps the consolidation, of white racism in the mainstream. I think organizations like the National Front lost support because people who may have thought of voting for them thought the conservative government was right wing enough so they would rather vote for the Tories.

It’s a very complex period because I think as an electoral force, the Thatcher period dealt a death blow for the extreme right in this country. It was a period that also saw solidarity, a great solidarity between black and white working class youth. Rock against Racism was a big success and it helped to bring us together. It was period of intense struggle, class struggle as well as anti-racist struggles, it was a period when Mrs. Thatcher came to power with one mission and that was to claw back the gains that the white working class had won for itself in the post World War two settlement and she took on the miners and won and so on and so forth.

The great irony is that after the black insurrections of ‘81 and ‘85, 1985, it was under a Thatcherite government that things began to change for black people. Slowly the emergence of a black middle class that was nurtured by the Tory government under something called the intercity partnership lead by a man called Michael Heseltine who was the minister at the Department of the Environment.

And after, one of the significant things that happened was that in 1981 after the racist murder of 13 black children in New Cross, the New Cross massacre action committee, which was a broad-based organization of activists from up and down the country, we organized on the second of March 1981, we mobilized nearly 20,000 people marching from New Cross to Hyde Park to protest the murders and the way the police had been dealing with it. Handed in a letter of protest to Number 10 Downing Street and so on. It was a watershed moment because it made the British establishment take note of the fact that we had black power and we could mobilize that power and it was during that Thatcherite period that they began to speed up the process whereby a black middle class could emerge. Because before the 1980s black people had been one the periphery of British society, we were marginalized. We come into the Mother country and were treated like fucking third class citizens you know what I mean? We were marginalized. And by the end of Thatcherite period a black middle class began to emerge and by the end of the 20th century we were closer to the center than the periphery.

What were the conditions like in the 1960s and 70s for black Britons?

During the 1960s and 70s for black people, Britain was a very racially hostile place to be living in. Black people were marginalized and treated like third class citizens. In the sixties, I can’t remember in which constituency, in Birmingham for example, the conservative candidate’s slogan was “If you want a nigger for a neighbor, vote liberal or labor,” so that was a kind of, you know… And in the period following Enoch Powell’s famous “Rivers of Blood” speech, you know Powell was a conservative politician who made a bid for the leadership of the Tory party by playing the race card and he advocated the repatriation of black people and all that and made some big speech about rivers of blood and racial war, racial conflagration and all of this kind of stuff, on the back of that there was a rise in racist and fascist attacks against black and Asian people. Racist murders, and during that period the police would deny that racist attacks and racist murders that there was any racial motive what so ever, it was only after the New Cross fire in 1981 that the police began to introduce into their vocabulary the idea of racially motivated crime. In the consciousness of the police, in the vocabulary, it didn’t exist. It was if a white man called a black man a nigger and stabbed him it was just treated as a criminal act.

Even the police themselves were often …

Well during that period, I would say that the National Front and other like racists were indistinguishable from your ordinary police officer because they more or less dealt with black people in the same way. And I mean in the period that saw criminalization of a whole section of black youth belonging to my generation, you know we had the infamous suss law where you’d be arrested and charged with attempting to steal from persons unknown. This vague law, vagrancy act from the 19th century, 1840 something that was used against the black youth of my generation. But it’s also a period of self organization. We responded by building autonomous political organizations, cultural organizations, began to establish independent institutions, like for example this year 2016, this year marks the 50th anniversary of the founding of New Beacon books, the first Black publishing house and book seller in this country.

It was around that period too that saw the formation of the Caribbean artists’ movement, founded by people like John La Rose who was the founder of New Beacon, the Jamaican novelist and broadcaster Andrew Salkey and the Bajan poet and historian Kamau Brathwaite. Two years later in 1968, Bogle-L’Ouverture, another black bookseller and publisher was also founded. So you know we began to build political organizations, the Panthers, Panthers was founded in 1967 although it was first called United Colored Peoples Association before it became the Black Panthers.

Lots of black power … Late sixties was a black power period. We had an eye on what was going on in the United States of America, our parents were more like Martin Luther King followers, we were more like Malcolm X followers and so we had lots of black power organizations, not just here is London or where the Panthers were based but in Nottingham, in Bristol, in Birmingham, in Manchester, organizations up and down the country. That is why were able to mobilize so many people, nearly 20,000 people when the New Cross fire happened in 1981 because we had already built this network of organizations up and down the country. So it was a period of resistance, it was a period of fight back, it was a period of building.

You had built autonomous black institutions and then were able to also mobilize white solidarity once New Cross happened, is that right?  

Well there was always some solidarity amongst white people from going back from the early days, you know? Progressive people on the left of the labor party for example. And there were always decent people amongst white working class as well. It was not that everybody was a racist you know, there was decent white people as well but racism was endemic and still is in British society. Amongst those independent autonomous institutions that we built, were churches, because we weren’t welcomed in the white churches when we came here, especially the Anglican churches. The churches of the working class like the Methodists would be more accommodating but you go to an Anglican church and if you weren’t told directly by the vicar after the Sunday service that you’re not welcome there, you pick up the vibes anyway and people began to so black people started their own churches. As a matter of fact in 2016 now I think that the most organized section of the black community in this country are the churches.

How did you connect the Panther idiom with the British black struggle in that period – with the British version of black struggle as opposed to the US one?

Well you know the black struggles that were going on in the 60s, 70s really cannot be localized because black power was everywhere. There were anti-colonial struggles being fought in Africa, for example, against the Portuguese for example, there was anti-apartheid struggles going on in South Africa, there was struggles for, anti-colonial struggles going on in Zimbabwe, Rhodesia, these things were in the news. People like Martin Luther King came to this country and visited. We had people like Malcolm X came over here and visited. I don’t know how the Black Panthers actually started because I joined relatively late but it was an African brother called Obi Egbuna who started it. So we understood, we were aware of what was going on in the United States of America, we identified with those struggles being waged in the United States of America, even in the Caribbean, in Jamaica, in Trinidad, in Barbados, we knew all about all those struggles.

When we came here, it was a rude awakening for a lot of us and um, you know in my parents’ generation, they identified…you know in a lot of West Indians’ homes you would go and you would see a picture of white Jesus on the wall, you would see a picture of Martin Luther King and you might even see a picture of J.F. Kennedy on people’s walls you know? We were aware, my parents’ generation were aware of and identified with the civil rights struggles that was going on in America and so parallels between what was going on over there and what was happening to them here. My generation, we were more militant, we were the rebel generation and we identified with the Black Panthers in America. We weren’t into this kind of doctrine of non violence preached by Martin Luther King, we adopted Malcolm X’s slogan “Freedom by any means necessary,” fire for fire and blood for blood you know and that was it. So that’s how it was.

Can you just say what your involvement was in the English Black Panthers and where it was operating from?

The Black Panthers, I was a member of the Brixton branch of the Black Panthers movement, we had branches in West London, North London and South London and I was in the Black Panthers in South London. And our leader was a remarkable woman called Althea Jones-Lecointe who is a consultant gynecologist or something now in some big hospital. In those days she was doing a PhD in biochemistry, brilliant woman. She came to my secondary school and gave a talk and I think that’s what made me curious about the Black Panthers and I started going to their meetings and asking questions and so on. And I thought well, I want to be a part of this movement. My activities included going from door to door to try and get people interested in the organization, I would kind of campaign and we had campaigns as well, for example, a man called Joshua Francis was beaten up, badly brutalized by the police and there was a campaign for justice going on. I would be involved in those campaigns, attending demonstrations. Saturday afternoons or Saturday mornings I would be either in Brixton market, Balham market or Croyden market selling our newspaper, the Black Panther paper. We had direct links with the American Black Panthers we used to sell their papers too. In fact Angela Davis came over and visited us at one stage. And I got my political education in the Black Panthers, you know? We studied books like C.L.R James’s ‘The Black Jacobins’ – a history of the Haitian revolution lead by Toussaint L’Ouverture, we studied that. We studied books like Eric Williams’ ‘Capitalism and Slavery’. We studied books like E.P Thompson’s ‘The making of the English working class’, we studied ‘Black Reconstruction’ by W.E.B Dubois you know some serious education that I wouldn’t have gotten otherwise.

Can you describe the scale of the Black Panthers?  

I don’t know, I wouldn’t really hazard a guess but we had two sections in the South London chapter, we had the youth league and the Black Panthers. As a youngster I couldn’t have just become a Black Panther like that, I had to join the youth section first and kind of serve like an apprenticeship and then you became a fully fledged member and it was kind of a hierarchical structure. You had a central core and so on, but all I can tell you is that we had a chapter in Brixton, we had a chapter in West London and we had a chapter in North London and we had connections with other like-minded organizations in London in Nottingham, in Birmingham, Manchester and so on and so forth. There were organizations, I can’t even remember the names of some of them. In London we had other organizations like the Black Unity and Freedom Party, you had SELPO, South-East London people’s organization. I can’t remember all of them but our membership but our presence was greater than our membership. I mean you might not have had more than 100 people as signed-up members in a particular branch of the Panthers but the support and the people you could mobilize would be ten times that or 20 times that. Or people who came to meetings who were not fully fledged members but they came to meetings anyway. So in terms of numbers I wouldn’t really hazard a guess.

I remember seeing footage one time of James Baldwin coming here in 1968 speaking at the West Indian Center. Was Baldwin someone that people read or talked about?

Of course, you know I remember I was running a bookstore outside a record shop in Brixton as part of my activities when I was a part of the Black Panther youth league, and was minding the book stall. Books that we got from New Beacon books, we had a store right outside Desmond’s Hip City record shop in front of the Atlantic pub at the Junction of Atlantic Road in Coldharbour Lane, a little bookstore there selling these books. And James Baldwin came down to Brixton and he came to the book store and I remember showing him, James Baldwin, a copy of his own book The Fire Next Time!

Further Reading

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Writing while black

The film adaptation of Percival Everett’s novel ‘Erasure’ leaves little room to explore Black middle-class complicity in commodifying the traumas of Black working-class lives.

The Mogadishu analogy

In Gaza and Haiti, the specter of another Mogadishu is being raised to alert on-lookers and policymakers of unfolding tragedies. But we have to be careful when making comparisons.

Kwame Nkrumah today

New documents looking at British and American involvement in overthrowing Kwame Nkrumah give us pause to reflect on his legacy, and its resonances today.