Wed | Nov 14, 2018

Poetry can't pay light bill!

Published:Sunday | March 6, 2016 | 12:00 AM

Last Tuesday, Mutabaruku gave a riveting talk on 'The Business of Reggae Poetry' at the University of the West Indies, Mona. It was the first in a series of 'Reggae Talks' this month to celebrate the work of the Department of Literatures in English. No longer teaching only literature, the department has expanded its course offerings to include film and popular music.

In January, the big-time poet and recording artiste Linton Kwesi Johnson was visiting writer. He gave an intriguing talk, describing his stellar career as a case of 'Reggae By Accident'. Mutabaruka also revealed that it was purely by chance that he became a recording artiste.

He was in his teens at Kingston Technical High School when he discovered his talent for poetry. His English teacher, Mrs Pusey, gave the class an assignment to write a poem. Muta called his composition 'Birds'. The opening verse went like this:

"Birds are lovely things to see

Just to see them flying free

Birds with many colours

Is wonderful to see them flying for hours."

With a big laugh, Muta reminded us that the poem was written by Allan Hope, his birth name. 'Birds' was a far cry from the militant poems for which the politically engaged writer would become world-famous. But in that early poem, the theme of freedom was already evident. Now I don't want to sound like those literary critics at the UWI Creative Arts Centre who Muta mocked in his talk, much to the amusement of the receptive audience.

Muta insisted that what the poet writes is exactly what he means. And there's no need for elaborate analysis of the text. He was dumbfounded by the assessment of his more mature poems made by high-brow critics like John Hearne and Mervyn Morris, who would spend long minutes deconstructing a single line of verse. It just didn't make sense to him.




The schoolboy Allan Hope would certainly have said that his poem was just about birds flying free. All the same, I feel completely free to interpret the poem as a symbolic representation of a young man's desire to break free from conventional expectations of his potential. And I don't mind if either Allan or Muta laughs at me.

Instead of being confined to so-called technical subjects, Muta was finding a new medium of soaring self-expression. His mother, Sylvia, was not amused. When Muta stayed up late at night beating out poems on his typewriter, she would command him to "turn off the light! Poetry can't pay light bill!" Muta paid her no mind. He kept on burning light and blazing out poems.

Even though Muta disdained the literary critics at UWI, he did want to get exposure for his poems. So he sent them far and wide. At last, Swing magazine published 'Festival' in July 1971. Here's the first verse:

"Yes, mi fren

A festival again

Run come look

Big pot a cook."

That was Muta's big break. It was Johnny Golding of Golding's printery who put out the magazine, and he paid Muta $4.00 for that first poem. Note the position of the decimal point! Even so, those days, that was nuff money. Golding published Muta's first poetry collection, Outcry, in 1972. It opened doors. Muta was invited to perform on a reggae show that Jimmy Cliff hosted in Somerton. His signature chant, "Every Time I Hear De Sound", mash up di place.

Muta made his Sunsplash debut in 1980. His friend, Malaika Whitney, negotiated the contract. His fee was the princely sum of $2,000. Muta ended up with $200. Malaika's commission was 10 per cent and the fee for each of the four members of the backing band was $400.

Muta's first overseas tour was even more disastrous. It was organised by John Blackwood, a Jamaican booking agent in California. Muta performed in sold-out venues across the US. He came back home with not a single dollar! By the time expenses were deducted from his fee, there was absolutely nothing left. It was looking like Mama Sylvia was right.

Muta realised that he had to quickly learn the business. He figured out that he didn't need an expensive band. His words were powerful enough. And he mastered merchandising. At his concerts, he sold records, posters of his poems and T-shirts with his image. And he took Rasta craft on consignment when he went on tour. Poetry was finally becoming profitable. Muta was able to show his mother that poetry not only paid light bill. It bought house and land and high-end cars.




The 'Reggae Talks' continue this Tuesday, March 8 with Bob Andy speaking on the topic, "Stages On My Journey'. In celebration of International Women's Day, Tanya Shirley will perform a selection of her poems. It's at 6 p.m. in Lecture Theatre 3, Faculty of Medical Sciences, thanks to the dean, Professor Horace Fletcher. And nuff rispek to the Creative Production and Training Centre for recording the talks!

If you're reading this early today, you can catch 'Love Affair With Literature' at 11 a.m. at the Neville Hall Lecture Theatre, Faculty of Humanities and Education, UWI. Olive Senior, Mel Cooke, Adzika Simba Gegele and writer-in-residence Vladimir Lucien will read from their work. Poetry does pay but, this time, admission is free.

- Carolyn Cooper is a cultural consultant. Visit her bilingual blog at Email feedback to and