After 40 years and 27 albums, the Jamaican poet and activist says there is still more to be done, writes
Linton Kwesi Johnson wishes for a quiet and relaxed life after dedicating over four decades of it to fighting racism through his poetic verse that has elevated him to one of the greats of the craft. “I’m getting old now. I don’t tour any more. I’m trying to have a quiet life, but people don’t want to leave me alone,” says the 64-year-old Jamaican Briton.
One of the institutions that didn’t leave him alone was Rhodes University. The university recently bestowed upon LKJ, as he is known to his legion of fans, an honorary degree in literature. He travelled for more than 24 hours to the Eastern Cape town of Grahamstown to accept the honour.
“It means that you are still in demand and you should be flattered. I’m grateful that I have managed to make a career out of music. It’s not arrogance. It’s just fatigue,” he responds when I ask if it’s annoying when a performing artist and writer is not left alone as he wishes.
We are sitting in a boardroom at Rhodes University in Grahamstown. He has just returned from a sightseeing drive to nearby Port Alfred. The previous night he had accepted an honorary doctorate in literature.
He has toured the world in a career spanning over 40 years, delivering his hard-hitting verse, a message against racism, fascism and injustice to appreciative audiences. LKJ has published several volumes of poetry since 1974. He has recorded 27 albums, where he delivers his verse to the accompaniment of reggae music rhythms, a sound made famous in his country of birth, Jamaica.
“It is the power and ubiquity of reggae music that has brought me here today. For although I am a published poet, reggae music is the vehicle that has afforded me a global audience for my verse,” he said in his acceptance speech.
LKJ is no stickler to the rigid confines of English grammar like William Butler Yeats.
Instead, he delivers his radical message in a mixture of Jamaican creole and English. While this has elevated him to cult status, especially among young black people around the world, it has put him at odds with the conservative English media who even accused him of “wreaking havoc in schools and helped create a generation of rioters”. It’s an accusation he wears with pride. “I was very proud of that,” he says with a hearty laughter, saying it makes him happy to be viewed in that manner by “the enemy”. The enemy? Who or what is the enemy? “The right,” he answers. “The racist right wing press in England.”
In 2002, his poetry was published in the Penguin Modern Classics series, making him the first black poet, and only the second living poet, to have been honoured in this way. This also drew sharp criticism from “the enemy”. But LKJ takes it all in his stride. In fact, he doesn’t give a damn.
“They thought, well, the fortress of British literature had been breached by this Jamaican rebel. I just told them not to be too frightened,” he says, cracking into that hearty laugh again.
Jamaican rebel? Is that how LKJ really defines himself or is that the label he’s been given by “the enemy”?
“They [the enemy] would probably define me as an ungrateful immigrant,” he says.
LKJ moved to the UK when he was in his teens in the sixties. This was a time when black people in the country, in the US and in colonial Africa were waging a relentless war against racial discrimination and recognition for equal rights as citizens.
It was during this time that LKJ joined the radical Black Panther Movement.
It was through his association with the movement that his connection with South Africa began.
After he was arrested while trying to rescue a black youngster who was being manhandled by police, Johnson appeared in court. His legal counsel was a South African exile, Barney Desai, a member of the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania and father of documentary film maker Rehad Desai.
LKJ believes that, while black Britons have made significant strides in fighting for their rights and recognition as equal citizens, England is still very much a bitch, as he wrote in one of his celebrated poems, Inglan Is A Bitch.
“In some ways, yes, and in other ways, no. Right now, we are living in a period of reaction. Right-wing forces are reasserting themselves. Global capital is so powerful, even the notion of national sovereignty is becoming increasingly meaningless as these global financial institutions and corporations rule the world and dictate to governments what governments should do and should not do,” he says in response to whether the struggle against racism has made any difference.
He cites the example of the #BlackLivesMatter campaign in the US as another sign that, although things have changed, they remain virtually the same in many ways.
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“In our struggles as black people in England, we’ve made advances. Even though we saw England as a mother country, we were colonial subjects who went to the mother country, we were treated like thirdclass citizens, we were marginalised, we were living on the periphery of UK society. We had to resort to all kinds of things, uprisings and what not in order to integrate ourselves into British society,” he says.
“We have made significant changes. We are not at the centre. But we are closer to the centre, we are closer to the centre of British society in every aspect than we were when I was a youngster growing up. But it wasn’t handed to us on a plate. We had to fight for it. We have representation in Parliament, local government, we have a black middle class,” says LKJ.
He says while the election of Barack Obama as the first black president of the US “was of huge historical and psychological significance to all black people globally, it didn’t mean it was the end of racism and inequality in the US”.
“The fact that the #BlackLivesMatter campaign is going on is also evidence of the power of social media to bring to the public’s attention all the atrocities and injustices that have been visited upon young black people in the US,” he says.
In one of his poems, Fight Them Back, LKJ advocates for fighting back physically against racism. But, I ask, is this still the way to go, given the fact that society has advanced since the early 1970s?
“We confront racism in whatever way we can,” he responds, explaining that, at the time he wrote the poem, fascists were advocating violence against black people and he was merely giving back what was being thrown at his people.
Although he is an outspoken critic against racism and exploitation, LKJ refuses to be labelled anything but an artist and poet.
He has been described by critics as a “spokesperson for social justice”, but he rubbishes that.
“I’m no spokesperson for nothing, brother,” he says with a laugh. “Who elected me?”
– Mukurukuru Media
DOCTOR LKJ Linton Kwezi Johnson receives his honorary doctorate from Rhodes University