In the early 1970s, poet Linton Kwesi Johnson revolutionised English literature.
Pioneer of dub poetry – an oral fusion of verse, Jamaican Creole, radical politics and dub rhythms and a body of work spanning well over three decades, it was both 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 as Johnson pointed out, gangs and sadly youth crime is not a new phenomenon as the media would have us believe.
The second poem of the evening, ‘All Wi Doing is Defendin‘, is a bold statement about standing up against the oppression of the Black Community by the UK 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 Black youths were arrested and charged on ‘suspicion of intending to harm to persons unknown‘. In this poem, Johnson made the distinction between the Windrush, or the ‘heroic‘ generation, as he called them and the ‘rebel generation‘ the generation after Windrush, who stood up to the establishment and refused to accept the daily oppression and the discrimination. 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 referenced 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. 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 no wonder how and why Linton Kwesi Johnson earned his reputation as a defiant political firebrand through his poetry.
After a few more poems interspersed with more recollections of the past, it was clear to see that Linton Kwesi Johnson is an avid and important 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 and a most fitting close to this year’s Black History Month.
Selected Poems by Linton Kwesi Johnson is available to buy from New Beacon Books, £9.99