Grocott's Mail

Linton Kwesi Johnson: Innovator, educator, creative warrior


Degree: Doctor of Literature (D.Litt), Friday 21 April 2017

“One of the world’s foremost black poets... an innovator and educator. The name Linton Kwesi Johnson conjures up images of leadership, strong views whose words welded politics and social conscience with a potent challenge to those in power.” A poet who commands worldwide respect is a fitting artist to be conferred with a Rhodes University Honorary Doctorate.

Born in 1952 in Chapelton, a small town in a rural parish of Jamaica, Linton Kwesi Johnson’s mother relocated to Britain shortly before Jamaican independen­ce in 1962. Most of Johnson’s poetry is political, dealing mainly with the experience­s of being an African-Caribbean in Britain.

He says, “Writing is a political act and poetry is a cultural weapon...”. Following the death of his father in 1982, which he blamed on social conditions, his poems contained graphic accounts of the racist police brutality occurring at the time.

In the early 1960s, he studied sociology and joined the Black Panthers. The Panthers practiced militant self-defence of minority communitie­s against the US government, and fought to establish revolution­ary socialism through mass organising and community based programs.

He helped to organise a poetry workshop within the movement and met writers and mentors, and learnt that “black people write books

too”. He was described by writer Caryl Phillips as the “first crossover voice, who made it possible for a generation to think of themselves as black and creative in literature, music, and the media”.

In 1977, he was awarded a C Day Lewis Fellowship, becoming the writer-in-residence for the London Borough of Lambeth for that year. He went on to work as the Education Officer at the Keskidee Centre, the first home of Black theatre and art.

Johnson’s poems first appeared in Race Today in 1974 when they published his first poetry collection, Voices of the Living and the Dead. That year also saw the release of the film Dread Beat An’ Blood, a documentar­y on Johnson’s work. In 1980, Race Today published his third book, Inglan Is a Bitch and there were four more albums on with Island: Forces of Victory (1979), Bass Culture (1980), LKJ in Dub (1981) and Making History (1983).

In 1981, he launched LKJ, his own record label. In the 80s, he became immersed in journalism as a journalist for Channel 4’s The Bandung File from 1985 until 1988. He received his first Grammy nomination for the album LKJ Live in Concert with the Dub Band recorded at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London.

In 1998, Johnson celebrated his 20th anniversar­y in the recording business with the release of More Time. In 2002, Linton Johnson became only the second living poet and the first black poet to have his work published in Penguin’s Modern Classics series.

“I have never, ever sought validation from the arbiters of British poetic taste,” said LKJ.

The BBC made a TV pro- gramme about LKJ’s poetry to mark his 25th anniversar­y as a reggae-recording artist and for the first time ever, he recorded a DVD LKJ Live in Paris with the Dennis Bovell Dub Band.

He has toured the world from Japan to South Africa, from Europe to Brazil.

His recordings are amongst the top-selling reggae albums in the world and his work has been translated into Italian and German.

Unsurprisi­ngly, he is known and revered as the world’s first reggae poet.

The Jamaican government awarded LKJ the Order of Distinctio­n – Commander Class in 2014 for his achievemen­ts in poetry and popular music.

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