Twenty five years ago a young Jamaican man in London—with the fire of the Black Panthers in his soul and the love of his people in his heart—began performing poetry with phrases such as “Shock-black bubble-doun-beat bouncing / rock-wise tumble-doun sound music / foot-drop find drum, blood story / bass history is a moving / is a hurting black story.” Bob Marley once asked that same man why he was so militant and why he wasn't a Rasta. That man is Linton Kwesi Johnson, and though he still takes the stage—as featured on the new Linton Kwesi Johnson Live in Paris CD and DVD, released February 8, 2005 by Wrasse Records—in recent years he has found long-overdue respect in poetry circles and beyond.
As recently as 1982, The Spectator (the oldest continuously published magazine in English) wrote that the Jamaican patois and phonetic spelling used by Johnson “wreaked havoc in schools and helped to create a generation of rioters and illiterates.” But this year Johnson was voted #22 in a poll of the top 100 Black Britons of all times. He became the first Black poet and the second living poet to be included in Penguin Books’ iconic Modern Classics series, with the publication of Mi Revalueshanary Fren. He was made an Honorary Visiting Professor of Middlesex University and received an Honorary Fellowship from his alma mater Goldsmiths College, part of the University of London. The UK’s original dub poet has come of age.
The new DVD is the first ever video footage of Johnson available. The performance’s packed diverse audience in Paris shows his global reach. The live releases celebrate Johnson’s twenty-fifth anniversary as a recording artist—something he never expected would last—and he has long wanted to release a video to make his poetry accessible to a wider audience.
LKJ—as his fans call him—was born in a rural Jamaican town called Chapelton in 1952. His grandparents on both sides were peasant farmers. As a child, he could hear the drums coming from the hills and the rumble of the sound systems that would set up dances a couple of miles away from his home. “I didn’t discover music,” Johnson declares on an interview featured on the DVD. “I was born with music, from the time I heard my heart beating.”
Johnson’s mother immigrated to Britain in 1962 just before Jamaican independence and at age 11 he joined his mother in Brixton. Though he adjusted to his new home, it did not fit “the picture-book idea one has of the mother country.” “We were the children of immigrants, brought to England to do the work that the White working class didn’t want to do,” Johnson explains on the DVD. “We were not supposed to have higher aspirations.”
But driven by a mission to overcome the poverty handed to him and with a keen critique of race relations in Britain, Johnson emerged as an outspoken poet; first performing with drummers in the vein of the Last Poets, and then with a full reggae band.
“Language is about identity, and when I began to write in verse, I knew I wanted to use the kind of language that could best convey the experiences I wanted to articulate and I knew that was not going to be the rarefied language of classical English,” Johnson explained to a Scottish newspaper recently. “For me, one of the defining characteristics of poetry is authenticity of voice and my natural voice is the ordinary spoken Jamaican language.”In addition to making fans of reggae poetry for two and a half decades, Johnson created the seminal 10-part radio series on Jamaican popular music, From Mento to Lovers Rock, on BBC Radio 1 in 1982. He has also worked as a TV journalist and runs his own record label, LKJ Records. His previous, debut live recording was nominated for a Grammy. But his first recording Dread Beat An’ Blood continues to be his best-selling record, converting new generations around the world—from France to Japan—to the meter and rhyme of “the world's first reggae poet.”