Linton Kwesi Johnson OD (born 24 August 1952), also known as LKJ, is a Jamaica-born, British-based dub poet and activist. In 2002, he became the second living poet, and the only black one, to be published in the Penguin Modern Classics series.[1][2] His performance poetry involves the recitation of his own verse in Jamaican patois over dub-reggae, usually written in collaboration with reggae producer/artist Dennis Bovell.

Linton Kwesi Johnson
Johnson in 2007
Background information
Also known asLKJ
Born (1952-08-24) 24 August 1952 (age 71)
Chapelton, Clarendon Parish, British Jamaica (present-day Jamaica)
GenresDub poetry
Occupation(s)Poet, activist
Years active1978–present

Early life edit

Johnson was born in Chapelton, a small town in the rural parish of Clarendon, Jamaica. His middle name, "Kwesi", is a Ghanaian name that is given to boys who, like Johnson, are born on a Sunday.[1] In 1963 he and his father came to live in Brixton, London, joining his mother, who had immigrated to Britain as part of the Windrush generation shortly before Jamaican independence in 1962.[1] Johnson attended Tulse Hill School in Lambeth. While still at school he joined the British Black Panther Movement,[3] helped to organise a poetry workshop within the movement, and developed his work with Rasta Love, a group of poets and drummers.

Johnson studied sociology at Goldsmiths College in New Cross, London, graduating in 1973.[4] Speaking in a 2018 interview about his start as a poet, he said: "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. Poetry was a cultural weapon in the black liberation struggle, so that's how it began."[5] During the early to mid-1970s he was employed as the first paid library resources and education officer at the Keskidee Centre,[6][7] where his poem Voices of the living and the dead was staged, produced by Jamaican novelist Lindsay Barrett, with music by the reggae group Rasta Love. Johnson has recalled: "it was fantastic, you know, having written something and having it staged with actors and musicians. That was back in 1973 before I had a poem published anywhere. That was before anyone had ever heard of Linton Kwesi Johnson."[8]

Johnson wrote for New Musical Express, Melody Maker, and Black Music in the 1970s.[4] As a freelancer for Virgin Records he wrote biographies for their reggae artists, sleeve notes and copy for adverts.[9]

Career edit

Poetry edit

Linton Kwesi Johnson at Coachella, 2008

Most of Johnson's poetry is political, dealing mainly with the experiences of being an African-Caribbean in Britain: "Writing was a political act and poetry was a cultural weapon...",[10] he told an interviewer in 2008. However, he has also written about other issues, such as British foreign policy and the death of anti-racist marcher Blair Peach. Johnson wrote "Reggae fi Dada" on the death of his father in 1982, blaming social conditions.[1] His most celebrated poems were written during the government of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The poems contain graphic accounts of the racist police brutality occurring at the time (cf. "Sonny's Lettah"). Johnson's poetry makes clever use of the unstandardised transcription of Jamaican patois.

Johnson's poems first appeared in the journal Race Today, which published his first collection of poetry, Voices of the Living and the Dead, in 1974.[4] Dread Beat An' Blood, his second collection, was published in 1975 by Bogle-L'Ouverture.[3]

A collection of his poems has been published as Mi Revalueshanary Fren by Penguin Modern Classics. Johnson is one of only three living poets to be published by Penguin Modern Classics.

Essays edit

Johnson's essays, spanning 50 years (1976-2021),[11] are collected in the volume Time Come (Picador, 2023). As described by Colin Grant, "The writing is often flinty and flecked with passion; taut and reasoned, but on the edge of fury. ...the grace and power of LKJ's writing are as necessary as ever."[12] Reviewing it in the Sunday Times, Tomiwa Owolade concludes: "this volume emphasises the fact that Johnson is a dedicated cultural critic rather than simply an activist who happens to write dub poetry."[13]

Music edit

LKJ on stage in Cardiff 1980

Johnson's best-known albums include his debut Dread Beat an' Blood (1978), Forces of Victory (1979), Bass Culture (1980), LKJ in Dub (1980), and Making History (1983). Across them are spread classics of the dub poetry school of performance – and of reggae itself – such as "Dread Beat An' Blood", "Sonny's Lettah", "Inglan Is A Bitch", "Independent Intavenshan" and "All Wi Doin Is Defendin". His poem Di Great Insohreckshan is his response to the 1981 Brixton riots.[10] The work was the subject of a BBC Radio 4 programme in 2007.

Johnson's work, allied to the Jamaican "toasting" tradition, is regarded as an essential precursor of rap.[citation needed]

Johnson's record label LKJ Records, launched in 1981,[14] is home to other reggae artists, some of whom made up the Dub Band, with whom Johnson mostly recorded, and other dub poets, such as Jean "Binta" Breeze. Past releases on the label include recordings by Mikey Smith.[4]

Awards and honours edit

Linton Kwesi Johnson in concert in Brussels, 2017

Johnson received a C. Day-Lewis Fellowship in 1977, and that year became writer-in-residence for the London Borough of Lambeth.[9] He was made an Associate Fellow of Warwick University in 1985 and an Honorary Fellow of Wolverhampton Polytechnic in 1987, and in 1990 received an award at the XIII Premio Internazionale Ultimo Novecento from the city of Pisa for his contribution to poetry and popular music.[15] In 1998 he was awarded the Premio Piero Ciampi Citta di Livorno Concorso Musicale Nazionale in Italy.[15]

In 2003, Johnson was bestowed with an honorary fellowship from his alma mater, Goldsmiths College, University of London. In 2004 he became an Honorary Visiting Professor of Middlesex University in London. In 2005 he was awarded a silver Musgrave Medal from the Institute of Jamaica for distinguished eminence in the field of poetry.[3] In 2012, he was awarded the Golden PEN Award by English PEN for "a Lifetime's Distinguished Service to Literature".[16][17][18]

He is a Trustee of the George Padmore Institute (GPI),[19] and is a contributor to the GPI's collection of dialogues Changing Britannia: Life Experience With Britain, edited by Roxy Harris and Sarah White (New Beacon Books, 1999).[20]

In August 2014, it was announced that he would receive the Jamaican national honour of the Order of Distinction in October that year.[21]

On 20 April 2017 he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Literature (D.Litt.) by Rhodes University in South Africa.[22]

In July 2020, Johnson was awarded the PEN Pinter Prize – established in Harold Pinter's name to defend freedom of expression and celebrate literature – for his commitment to political expression in his work.[23][24] Announcing the award, the judges described Johnson as "a living legend", "a poet, reggae icon, academic and campaigner, whose impact on the cultural landscape over the last half century has been colossal and multi-generational.... His political ferocity and his tireless scrutiny of history are truly Pinteresque, as is the humour with which he pursues them."[25][26] Receiving the award at a live online event hosted by the British Library in October 2020, Johnson named Eritrean poet, poet, songwriter and journalist Amanuel Asrat as the "International Writer of Courage" with whom he would share the prize.[27][28][29]

Johnson is chair of 198 Contemporary Arts and Learning, an art gallery and learning institution in Brixton.[30]

Bibliography edit

  • Voices of the Living and the Dead – Creation for Liberation, 1974. ISBN 978-0950349879
  • Dread Beat An' BloodBogle-L'Ouverture Publications, 1975. ISBN 978-0904521061
  • Inglan is a BitchRace Today, 1980. ISBN 978-0950349824
  • Tings An' TimesBloodaxe Books, 1991. ISBN 978-1852241681
  • Mi Revalueshanary Fren: Selected PoemsPenguin Modern Classics, 2002; 2006. ISBN 978-0141186986
  • Time ComePicador, 2023. ISBN 9781035006328

Discography edit

  • Dread Beat an' Blood – Virgin, 1978 (as Poet and the Roots).
  • Forces of Victory – Island, 1979.
  • Bass Culture – Island, 1980.
  • The Best of Linton Kwesi Johnson – Epic, 1980 (compilation).
  • LKJ in Dub – Island, 1980.
  • Making History – Island, 1983.
  • Reggae Greats – Mango, 1984 (compilation).
  • In Concert with the Dub Band – LKJ Records, 1985.
  • Dub Poetry – Mango, 1985 (compilation).
  • Tings an' Times – LKJ Records, 1991.
  • LKJ in Dub: Volume 2 – LKJ Records, 1992.
  • LKJ Presents – LKJ Records, 1996.
  • A Cappella Live – LKJ Records, 1996.
  • More Time – LKJ Records, 1998.
  • Independent Intavenshan – Island, 1998 (compilation).
  • LKJ in Dub: Volume 3 – LKJ Records, 2002.
  • Straight to Inglan's Head – Universal, 2003 (compilation).
  • Live in Paris – Wrasse, 2004.

References edit

  1. ^ a b c d Jaggi, Maya (4 May 2002). "Poet on the front line". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 20 February 2019.
  2. ^ "(Media & Editorial Projects Ltd)". MEP Publishers. Retrieved 13 December 2012.
  3. ^ a b c Forbes; Peter (2002). "". Linton Kwesi Johnson. Archived from the original on 27 September 2007. Retrieved 13 May 2009.
  4. ^ a b c d Larkin, Colin (1998), The Virgin Encyclopedia of Reggae, Virgin Books, ISBN 0-7535-0242-9, pp. 147–148.
  5. ^ Aitkenhead, Decca (27 April 2018). "InterviewLinton Kwesi Johnson: 'It was a myth that immigrants didn't want to fit into British society. We weren't allowed'". The Guardian.
  6. ^ Paul Harper, "Islington’s Black History Month celebrates Keskidee Centre", Islington Gazette, 1 October 2011.
  7. ^ "Archive Showcase: June", George Padmore Institute, 13 June 2013.
  8. ^ "The Keskidee Centre (produced for" Islington as a Place of Refuge" online tour), Friends of Islington Museum.
  9. ^ a b Sharmilla Beezmohun, "Linton Kwesi Johnson", Enciclopedia de Estudios Afroeuropeos.
  10. ^ a b Wroe, Nicholas (8 March 2008). "I did my own thing". The Guardian. Retrieved 26 May 2014.
  11. ^ [The time has finally come for LKJ in prose], Richard Pithouse, Mail & Guardian, 1 August 2023
  12. ^ Grant, Colin (9 April 2023). "Review | Time Come by Linton Kwesi Johnson review – 50 years of rhyme and rage". The Observer.
  13. ^ Owolade, Tomiwa (2 April 2023). "Time Come by Linton Kwesi Johnson review — Is Inglan still a bitch?". The Sunday Times.
  14. ^ "Linton Kwesi Johnson", The Poetry Archive.
  15. ^ a b ""Linton Kwesi Johnson", Blue Flower Arts". Archived from the original on 28 May 2014. Retrieved 18 July 2013.
  16. ^ Alison Flood (3 December 2012). "Linton Kwesi Johnson wins Golden PEN award". The Guardian. Retrieved 3 December 2012.
  17. ^ "Golden Pen Award, official website". English PEN. Retrieved 3 December 2012.
  18. ^ Sarah Morrison, "Linton Kwesi Johnson: 'Class-ridden? Yes, but this is still home'", The Independent, 2 December 2012.
  19. ^ "Linton Kwesi Johnson", George Padmore Institute.
  20. ^ Jaggi, Maya (26 April 1999). "Why Linton is blowing his top". The Guardian.
  21. ^ Campbell, Howard (2014) "Marcia Griffiths to receive Order of Distinction", Jamaica Observer, 7 August 2014. Retrieved 10 August 2014.
  22. ^ [The time has finally come for LKJ in prose], Mail & Guardian, 1 August 2023
  23. ^ Cowdrey, Katherine (7 July 2020). "'Living legend' Linton Kwesi Johnson wins PEN Pinter Prize 2020". The Bookseller. Retrieved 7 July 2020.
  24. ^ "Linton Kwesi Johnson awarded PEN Pinter Prize 2020". English PEN. 7 July 2020. Retrieved 7 July 2020.
  25. ^ Flood, Alison (7 July 2020). "'Living legend' Linton Kwesi Johnson wins PEN Pinter prize". The Guardian. Retrieved 7 July 2020.
  26. ^ "Top literature prize for Linton Kwesi Johnson". Brixton Blog. 10 July 2020.
  27. ^ Cowdrey, Katherine (5 October 2020). "Eritrean poet Asrat named 2020's International Writer of Courage"". The Bookseller. Retrieved 15 August 2023.
  28. ^ Flood, Alison (13 October 2020). "Eritrean poet Amanuel Asrat named International Writer of Courage". The Guardian.
  29. ^ Peterson, Angeline (27 October 2020). "Imprisoned Eritrean Poet Amanuel Asrat Honored as Co-Winner of the 2020 PEN Pinter Prize". Brittle Paper. Retrieved 15 August 2023.
  30. ^ Onapa, Emmanuel (25 July 2022). "Linton Kwesi Johnson: 'My Generation Changed Britain'". AnOther. Retrieved 23 August 2022.

External links edit