Cause

After 40 years and 27 al­bums, the Ja­maican poet and ac­tivist says there is still more to be done, writes

CityPress - - Voices -

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

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