Jamaica Gleaner

The voice of the peo­ple:

Reg­gae and so­cial move­ments

- Kwame Dawes Con­trib­u­tor Arts · Literature · Poetry · Iceland · Belarus · Austria · Caribbean · Belgium · Jamaica · London · London Records · United Kingdom · Canada · Lily Allen · United States of America · Linton Kwesi Johnson · James Berry · Linton · Lillian Allen · Mark McMorris

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.

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