The voice of the people:
Reggae and social movements
LED BY the purposefulness, inventiveness, relevance, and creative dynamism of popular Jamaican music in the 1960s and 1970s, it was inevitable that a new kind of poetry would emerge. It is clear that those poets who were writing into being the spirit of independence were gaining much from the emergence of this new cultural force called reggae and its spiritual centre, Rastafarianism, but there were poets who saw in reggae a space for a poetry of performance inextricably connected and immersed in the music.
Dub poetry has become a fully formed genre of poetry that has, in itself, helped to expand the aesthetic possibilities of poetry written by Jamaicans. Dub poetry has produced at least two poems that I regard as some of the best poems written by a Caribbean poet, namely Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze’s ‘The Mad Woman’ and Linton Kwesi Johnson’s ‘Five Nights of Bleeding’. Some of the better-known poets of this period included Oku Onuora, Mikey Smith (whose brutal murder ended what was promising to be one of the more ground-breaking careers of a Jamaican poet), Mutabaruka, and Bongo Jerry.
Dub poetry, of course, continues to thrive in Jamaica and abroad, even when those who are engaged in that poets do not readily identify themselves as dub poets.
Migration has long been an elemental part of the development of Jamaican artists, and while many have lamented the departure of Jamaicans to other parts of the world to pursue lives as writers, it should be noted that Jamaica is not unique in this regard. People migrate for various reasons, and while some may have a great deal to do with the lack of opportunities for publishing and training in Jamaica for writers, some reasons also have to do with general economical and educational opportunities that travel has provided.
Over the years, it is is clear that Jamaican poets have either lived abroad for much of their lives or have actually settled in other countries to write. In many instances, they have done so while still embarked on the great enterprise of writing a Jamaican poetry even as they have expanded their subject range to include the worlds in which they life.
Poets such as James Berry, who began writing while in London, would continue to make his career as a poet in the UK. His work remains important to Jamaican writing. The same may be said for Linton Kwesi Johnson, whose influence has been even more farreaching for Jamaican writers. In Canada, Lillian Allen and Afua Cooper, along with spoken-word poets like Michael St George, among many others, have found ways to locate, in that country, immigrant poetics rooted in Jamaican sensibilities. In the United States, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Louis Simpson seemed less interested in the “Jamaican project”, if you will, but was fully engaged in the poetics of modern America. But this should make him no less interesting to readers of Jamaican poetry.
Of the poets based abroad today, few could be said to have as strong a reputation as Claudia Rankine, who is recog- nised today as one of the leading poets working in the US. Her Jamaican perspective permeates all of her early work and she considers Jamaica a part of her sensibility. The same could also be said for the DC-based poet Mark McMorris, who grew up in Jamaica and who has built up a sophisticated body of poetry that should be seen as a proud part of the Jamaican poetry tradition.
The fact is that Jamaican poetry has to be defined not by some prescriptive notion of what it should be, but by a more ecumenical appreciation of what it actually constitutes based on what the poets have written. Simpson, like Berry, belonged to a time in recent history when communication between “home” and away was challenging, to say the least. When people left, they could fairly claim the status of exiled writers. This is a status that is harder for a Jamaica writer to claim today. Most Jamaican writers living abroad have access to Jamaican daily life and most return to the island routinely. The international impact of reggae music and the sporting prowess of Jamaican athletes have made the idea of Jamaicanness accessible to a wider world, and in many ways, this has granted the writers permission to embrace this identity as meaningful.