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2000-02-24

Linton Kwesi Johnson

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Linton Kwesi Johnson is a Jamaican-born dub poet who grew up in London, where he currently resides. In his works, the political activist-lyricist tackles issues such as racism, economic injustice and police brutality. His recently released album is entitled More Time. [includes rush transcript]

Guest:

  • Linton Kwesi Johnson, dub poet.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN:

“More Time,” Linton Kwesi Johnson. Don’t we all need it? That is the name of his new CD. Linton Kwesi Johnson who is the world’s leading dub poet, recording artist, journalist, a poet, broadcaster, political and cultural activist from Britain, actually has been touring in the United States, just came from Los Angeles, where you were involved with the annual Bob Marley Memorial Concert this weekend.

LINTON KWESI JOHNSON:

Yeah, we were playing in Los Angeles and San Diego. And we had two concerts in Los Angeles and one in San Diego, and each venue catered to about 20,000 people, and each show was sold out. I didn’t realize how big reggae was here in the United States of America.

AMY GOODMAN:

Well, being in Los Angeles, you might have gotten a chance to hear about the unfolding Los Angeles Police Department scandal that —

LINTON KWESI JOHNSON:

I’ve been following that from London, of course. From the Rodney King incident, Los Angeles has been in focus for a lot of people all over the world, and particularly for us in Britain, because there are so many parallels about police behavior vis-à-vis black people with, you know, what’s going on in England, with our own experience on that side of the world.

AMY GOODMAN:

What is happening now? And what is the level of consciousness?

LINTON KWESI JOHNSON:

There is a, what — we’ve reached a watershed, so to speak. A young guy called Stephen Lawrence was murdered by some racists about five years ago. And the police really botched the whole investigation, which resulted in the people being apprehended and not being successfully prosecuted for the murder of Stephen Lawrence. And his parents campaigned vigorously and won a commission of inquiry from the government.

And Macpherson, the name of the man who led the investigation, made a number — well, the first thing he said, he said that there is institutionalized racism within the British police force, and indeed in other institutions of government and so on, which this is a remarkable thing, because, you know, it was only — it has only has been in recent time that the police, for example, would even admit that there was such a thing as racially motivated crimes. They would always invariably say, "We have absolutely no evidence that race was an issue," in a number of, you know, blatantly racist attacks and so on.

The Lawrence — the consequence of the Stephen Lawrence thing, the inquiry made a number of recommendations to eradicate institutionalized racism. And the government has accepted this report. But, of course, whether they will do something about it and how quick they will do something about it, I believe, depends on the amount of pressure which is exercised on the grassroots level.

AMY GOODMAN:

We’re talking to Linton Kwesi Johnson, dub poet, musician, journalist, cultural activist. And we’ll talk about what role culture plays in advancing these kinds of issues, when we come back here on Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now!

[break]


AMY GOODMAN:

You are listening to Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. We’re joined by Linton Kwesi Johnson, a dub poet, a cultural artist, a journalist. Tell us what dub poet means.

LINTON KWESI JOHNSON:

Well, I coined the term many years ago when I was at university, when I was writing a paper on reggae music. And I use the term to refer to the art of the Jamaican reggae DJs, you know people like, in the old days, Big Youth and U-Roy and Prince Jazzbo and so on. But the term was appropriated by my friend Oku Onuora and used to describe the kind of poetry that a group of young poets at the Jamaica School of Drama, where — a style of poetry that we were doing in the late ’70s, early ’80s, describing the work of himself and Michael Smith — the late great Michael Smith — and Jean “Binta” Breeze and myself, of course. So I’ve had to live with that term, but I think it was taken out of context. I’ve always seen myself as a poet, full stop. And if you wanted to categorize some of what I did, I always call it "reggae poetry." So although I coined the term "dub poetry" and have, in a sense, developed that style of poetry, and my name is associated with it, I have never ever called myself a dub poet.

[“New Word Hawdah” by Linton Kwesi Johnson]

AMY GOODMAN:

“New World Hawdah” by Linton Kwesi Johnon.

LINTON KWESI JOHNSON:

“New Word” —

AMY GOODMAN:

“New Word.”

LINTON KWESI JOHNSON:

— “Hawdah,” not “New World Hawdah.” There’s a slight pun there.

AMY GOODMAN:

Now, you’ve been in Britain for many years, for more than two decades. You grew up there.

LINTON KWESI JOHNSON:

Yes, I went there, and I’ve been living there for over thirty years.

AMY GOODMAN:

But I detect a slight Jamaican accent.

LINTON KWESI JOHNSON:

Well, you’ve gotten me out of the country, but you couldn’t get the country out of me.

AMY GOODMAN:

Tell me a little about Jamaica.

LINTON KWESI JOHNSON:

Well, I’m kind of ambivalent about Jamaica. I love Jamaica, but I know there’s a lot of things wrong with Jamaica. There doesn’t seem to be any hope for poor people in Jamaica. And the situation has been so for the longest time.

I sent a postcard to a friend of mine from Jamaica recently. I was there on holidays. And I said to him, "Greetings from the killing fields of the Caribbean." Because the amount of people who are killed in Jamaica is far more than where there are military conflicts going on. You know, like last year I think it was over a thousand people who died or were murdered in Jamaica. And a lot of the killings is domestic violence. It’s as though the people have internalized the brutality of everyday life onto themselves. And, you know, it’s really sad.

AMY GOODMAN:

So you come here to the United States. You live in Britain. How do you take on the issue of violence? Here, you’re not just talking about state violence when you’re talking about Jamaica. But you are talking about it when talking about the US and Britain?

LINTON KWESI JOHNSON:

State violence does — is a problem in Jamaica, too, because extrajudicial executions happen with monotonous regularity. A lot of ghetto communities in Jamaica are constantly complaining about police brutality, and there’s a — seems to be a sort of an arrogant disregard for due process. And surely, that sort of thing will undermine the whole fabric of — the whole fabric upon which law and order is based. If those people who are responsible for upholding law and order are carrying out extrajudicial killings, then, you know, what kind of law and order can you have in a society like that?

AMY GOODMAN:

How did you come to write “Liesense fi Kill”?

LINTON KWESI JOHNSON:

I wrote “Liesense fi Kill” because of not only mine, but the black communities in Britain’s concern about the alarming incidents of black deaths in police custody in England. One of the most recent cases, in fact, was the case of Roger Sylvester, a youngster, young fellow, who was being taken into protective custody, apparently, by the police, eight police officers, and ended up dead. And a campaign is being waged right now called the Justice for Roger Sylvester Campaign, trying to get to the bottom of it to find out how someone who has been taken into police custody for their own protection ends up dead.

[“Liesense fi Kill” by Linton Kwesi Johnson]

AMY GOODMAN:

“Liesense fi Kill” on More Time, Linton Kwesi Johnson’s CD, who joins us in the studio now, just having come from Los Angeles, the scene of an unfolding police scandal. I mean, for many people in the community, they’ve known about this for a long time. But it is breaking open, and the state, federal authorities, as well as state authorities, have to deal with it now. And now you come across the country to New York, where we are watching another story unfold once again, over the last year, and this is the case of Amadou Diallo. Four white police officers charged with his murder, and as we sit here, the jurors are deliberating in Albany, New York. What is your take on that, as you looked across the ocean?

LINTON KWESI JOHNSON:

We find it incredible that four police officers should be involved in killing an unarmed member of the public. The number of bullets that was fired, as we understand it, it was something like forty-something bullets, and —

AMY GOODMAN:

Forty-one.

LINTON KWESI JOHNSON:

— nineteen of them went into the body of the person. It conjures up in your mind that, you know, well, these cops must have thought they were under attack from an army, because even if you thought you were under attack from a single individual, there would be no justification for firing so many bullets. We just find the whole thing extraordinary. And, you know, that something like that could happen in a country that is supposed to uphold democracy and to value freedom and justice and all the rest of it, and it’s as though even after Martin Luther King, after Malcolm X, after the Black Panther Party and so on, that nothing has changed!

AMY GOODMAN:

What do you see as your role, Linton Kwesi Johnson, as an artist, as a poet, in dealing with these issues?

LINTON KWESI JOHNSON:

I don’t see myself as having any particular role as an artist, as a poet or anything. I just see myself as having a responsibility as a human being to do whatever I can to oppose injustice wherever I find it.

AMY GOODMAN:

Tell us about your piece, “Poems of Shape and Motion”?

LINTON KWESI JOHNSON:

Actually, it’s a poem by a Guyanese poet called Martin Carter, who I’ve admired tremendously. He’s the — really, the poet laureate of Guyana. And for me, he was the political poet par excellence. And he didn’t not only wrote political verse and protest poetry and so on, he also wrote very deep philosophical poems. He has one of his poems where he has a line where he says, "A mouth is always muzzled by the food it eats to live." I find that a really profound statement. He also has another poem where he says, "Life is the quest — life is the question asking what is the way to die?" A great poet, and he died last — year before last. And I recorded “Poems of Shape and Motion” because I believe that — I cannot think of another poem that speaks to the human condition in a more effective way than that particular poem. And it was my way of paying my respects to Martin Carter.

[“Poems of Shape and Motion” by Martin Carter, performed by Linton Kwesi Johnson]

AMY GOODMAN:

“Poems of Shape and Motion.” Linton Kwesi Johnson. And as we need more time, the name of your CD, More Time, let me just go out with two quick questions, and one is, I see you have your own label, LKJ. One of the biggest complaints of musicians, and certainly musicians of color, is not controlling their art.

LINTON KWESI JOHNSON:

Exactly. That’s why I started LKJ Records, as a way of exercising some control over what I do. It’s very difficult; it’s an uphill struggle. All independents have been eaten up by the big multinational companies and so on. But I cannot think of another way of doing it, really.

AMY GOODMAN:

How did you manage to get your own label? How do you beat them?

LINTON KWESI JOHNSON:

Well, it’s quite simple. You know, it doesn’t cost a lot of money to set up a company. What the problem is, after that, is how do you get your product into the marketplace? And I’m still working on it.

AMY GOODMAN:

And your inspirations, your biggest inspirations for your work?

LINTON KWESI JOHNSON:

I was influenced by an awful lot of people. I always talk about W.E.B. Du Bois, whose book The Souls of Black Folk began everything for me. And I’ve been influenced by all kinds of people: Frantz Fanon, Malcolm X was one of my heroes when I was a youth. Huey P. Newton, people like that, you know, Angela Davis. Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN:

Well, I want to thank you for being with us. We’re in our election year now, 2000, and we’ve got people like George Bush running, George Bush who just spoke at South Carolina Bob Jones University — you might have heard about it — a university that bans interracial dating. Debates in this country like whether to fly the Confederate flag on top of the South Carolina statehouse.

LINTON KWESI JOHNSON:

They fly it in Georgia.

AMY GOODMAN:

As well. So how does it compare to Britain?

LINTON KWESI JOHNSON:

What? Your elections here?

AMY GOODMAN:

And the whole state of this country.

LINTON KWESI JOHNSON:

I don’t know if I could speak to that, but what I’d say is that if I lived in America, I probably, like most people here, wouldn’t vote, because there seems to be such an absence of real choice.

AMY GOODMAN:

Of course, you could run yourself.

LINTON KWESI JOHNSON:

This — in America, elections are driven — it’s about money. And I don’t think I’ll stand any chance, because my finances are rather limited.

AMY GOODMAN:

Well, Linton Kwesi Johnson, I want to thank you for being with us. Latest CD, More Time.

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