Issue 263 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published May 2002 Copyright © Socialist Review



Linton Kwesi Johnson spoke to Yuri Prasad about poetry, music and the fight against racism

People's poet

  • Linton Kwesi Johnson was born in Chapleton, Jamaica, in 1952. He emigrated to Britain in 1963 and went to school in Brixton. As a youth he joined the Black Panthers movement in Britain and started a poetry group.
  • In the mid-1970s he helped bring Jamaican reggae into a British context, dealing directly with police racism and the threat of the National Front.
  • The 1981 Brixton riots against racism inspired Linton to write his poem 'Mekin Histri' (below).

    Linton Kwesi Johnson

    What was it like to be a poet and a black political activist in the 1970s? How did the two come together and what kind of issues did you take up?

    I came to poetry via politics. I discovered black literature as a consequence of my involvement in the Black Panther movement. We never came across any black literature or literature about blacks at school. When we did history--we did British history, we never did anything about slavery.

    Part of my awakening was a book called The Souls of Black Folk by WEB Dubois. It moved me very deeply, stirred something within me, and that made me want to write. That book was about the experiences of African-Americans in the post-emancipation period. So for me writing poetry was a political act. It was a way of articulating the anger and the hurt of my generation--growing up as black youth in a racially hostile environment.

    I didn't believe that at that time a black poet could have the luxury of art for art's sake. It had to be in the service of the struggle. I tried to use poetry to highlight particular movements and to record certain events. I was involved in the campaign for George Lindo, a guy from Bradford who was framed by the police on a robbery charge--I was inspired to write some verse about it. I was involved in the carnival movement, and when they tried to ban the Notting Hill Carnival in the 1970s I wrote a poem called 'Forces of Victri'. There was the campaign to get rid of the infamous sus laws, the old Vagrancy Act that was suddenly rediscovered and used against my generation, mercilessly by racist cops. I wrote a poem dealing with that called 'Sonny's Letter', which took the form of a letter from prison. That's the way that my poetry and my political activity came together.

    Do you think that the battles against racism that you fought in the 1970s have to be fought again today, and do you think that racism is getting worse?

    Certainly in places like Oldham and Burnley it sounds as if it is getting worse. I think that is largely due to the fact that a section of the working class has been neglected, particularly in the areas where the Labour Party is known to be corrupt.

    I don't know if racism in general is getting worse. I remember a time when trade unions came out in support of Enoch Powell and his demand for repatriation. They marched in London shouting, 'Send them back,' and all that. Today you have a black man, Bill Morris, head of the Transport and General Workers Union, one of the biggest unions in the country. That's a measure of how far things have changed, and I think we have made progress.

    The Macpherson report finally admitted that most of Britain's institutions, including the police, are racist. I remember when the New Cross fire happened, within 24 hours, without any investigation and without any forensic evidence the spokesperson for Scotland Yard ruled out the possibility that it could have been a racist attack. We've come some way, but we still have to fight for equality and social justice.

    The question of police racism is still here. The fact that throughout the 1990s we have the frightening rise in the incidence of black deaths in police custody is indicative of that. The five police officers who have been indicted in Hull in connection with the death of Christopher Alder are an example of that. So is the case of Roger Sylvester. In some ways we have made some progress, and in others we haven't made any progress at all.

    Increasingly music is adopting a hybrid form--it is borrowing from many cultures. Do you see any connection between that and the development of a global movement against capitalism?

    Celebrating the defeat of the Nazis at Lewisham in 1977
    Celebrating the defeat of the Nazis at Lewisham in 1977

    It is a reflection of the world in which we are living--reggae itself was a hybrid music. People talk about the global village--everywhere you go people are fighting back against all kinds of oppression. Whether it has taken on a global dimension I don't know. What I do know is that I am 100 percent in support of the anti-capitalist and anti-globalisation movement. Somebody has to stand up to these multinational corporations.

    The power of international finance capital is making national sovereignty increasingly meaningless--even if we make certain demands on our government, they are limited as to what they can and cannot do. I recently saw a film about Jamaica called Life and Debt, which showed how the IMF policies had impacted on Jamaica. When I saw that film what came into my mind was the anti-capitalist movement.

    The film explained in an eloquent way why these movements came into being. It's good that film-makers, singers, songwriters and dramatists are dealing with these issues. How people respond is up to the individual artist. You can't legislate for art. It comes from the soul--you can't tell people what to focus upon.

    I am very disappointed by this New Labour government. I don't think that they have moved radically to match their rhetoric. It still feels like the Tory period--business as usual. The sense of hopelessness and the sense of despair are still here, particularly in industrial England. What is New Labour doing about it?

    How do you feel about your engagement with the movement for social justice now?

    I'm a little bit more dislocated than I used to be, because my main involvement was in the radical black movement, and that has gone into decline in the years since Thatcher. I try to support local struggles. There was a time when I was out supporting the miners, but all those types of struggle are not happening.

    But I am still deeply committed to the idea of social justice, and to bringing about racial equality and radical change. My audiences are getting younger and younger. There is a radical current out there among the young people. They are looking for something to get involved in, to channel their rebellion into, but 'tings and times' have changed, and 2002 is not like the 1980s.

    Linton Kwesi Johnson will be performing throughout Britain in May and June. The poem below is taken from Mi Revalueshanary Fren: Selected Poems
    (Penguin 6.99).

    Mekin Histri

    now tell mi someting
    mistah govahment man
    tell mi someting

    how lang yu really feel
    yu couda keep wi andah heel
    wen di trute done reveal
    bout how yu grab an steal
    bout how yu mek crooked deal
    mek yu crooked deal?

    well doun in Soutall
    Where Peach did get fall
    di Asians dem faam-up a human wall
    an dem show dat di Asians gat plenty zeal
    gat plenty zeal
    gat plenty zeal

    it is noh mistri
    wi mekin histri
    it is noh mistri
    wi winnin victri

    now tell mi someting
    mistah police spokesman
    tell mi someting
    how lang yu really tink
    wi woodah tek yu batn lick
    yu jackboot kick
    yu dutty bag a tricks
    an yu racist pallytics
    yu racist pallytics?

    well doun in Bristal
    dey ad noh pistal
    but dem chace di babylan away
    man yu shooda si yu babylan
    how dem really run away
    yu shooda si yu babylan dem dig-up dat day
    dig-up dat day
    dig-up dat day

    it is noh mistri
    wi mekin histri
    it is noh mistri
    wi winnin victri

    now tell mi someting
    mistah ritewing man
    tell mi someting

    how lang yu really feel
    wi woodah grovel an squeal
    wen soh much murdah canceal
    wen wi woun cyaan heal
    wen wi feel di way wi feel
    feel di way wi feel?

    well dere woz Toxteth
    an dere woz Moss Side
    an a lat a adah places
    whe di police ad to hide
    well dere woz Brixtan
    an dere woz Chapeltoun
    an a lat a adah place dat woz burnt to di groun
    burnt to di groun
    burnt to di groun

    it is noh mistri
    wi mekin histri
    it is noh mistri
    wi winnin victri

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