Poet on purpose - Linton Kwesi Johnson reflects on writing beginnings
Linton Kwesi Johnson (widely known simply as LKJ) worked hard at becoming a poet. Also being a reggae artiste was the result of a confluence of circumstances.
LKJ spoke at length about the foundation of his engagement with the page and the stage at the University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona, last Tuesday night during a Reggae Talk run by Professor Carolyn Cooper.
She told the nearly full lecture theatre that there is a course on special West Indian authors. In the case of LKJ, she said, although he is included in the course on West Indian literature, "he deserves an entire course."
In introducing Johnson, Dr Donna McFarlane, director/curator of Liberty Hall, gave an indication of why there is so much to be said about him.
She noted his bearing, which epitomises "the proud Jamaican man" that all immediately identify.
Citing Marcus Garvey - that people of African heritage must create their own heroes and critique their own literature - McFarlane said: "I believe that Linton Johnson is doing that."
She remembered an occasion in 2010 at which LKJ spoke, where he honoured Bongo Jerry by reciting more than six stanzas of one of his poems.
Johnson said Cooper asked him not to give a formal lecture from a prepared text, as he prefers, but give the Reggae Talk in a more free-flowing manner. And he did, starting with thanks to a number of persons - from Dr Norval Edwards of UWI, Yvonne Brewster, Professor Edward Baugh, Herbie Miller of the Jamaica Music Museum (who Johnson said "introduced me to the Jamaican reggae massive at my only Jamaican reggae performance in Jamaica", Dermot Hussey, Elise Kelly of IRIE FM (who Johnson said he has heard play his music) and Mutabaruka (who has LKJ on his radio programme, "even if it is to ridicule me").
LKJ established his multiple roles from the outset. In addition to poet and reggae artiste, they have included journalist and record company entrepreneur.
"For nearly 40 years, I have had the good fortune to sustain a reggae career on the world stage," Johnson started out in retelling his journey.
He quoted John La Rose, "What we leave, we carry." That translated to the migrant experience for LKJ, who grew up in Clarendon before going to England in 1963, as he said, "We brought Jamaica with us to England".
It was at a point where ska was taking off, and by Johnson's teenage years (he was born in 1952), a sound-system movement had been established in England.
The first record he bought was Roy Shirley's Hold Them. Johnson said reggae "gave us a sense of identity", and in the face of racial hostility in England, "We fell back on our Jamaican identity".
Still in his teens, Johnson joined the Black Panthers and read W.E.B. Du Bois' The Souls of Black Folk. He met La Rose and author Andrew Salkey, "who both took me under their wings".
As he started writing, Johnson said he did not know anything about verse and had no previous particular interest while still in school. However, he was exposed to Caribbean and African authors through books published by New Beacon Books.
At the same time, he was listening to talking songs in Jamaican popular music, especially by Prince Buster, whose titles in the format included 10 Commandments and Judge Dread.
Added to those were deejays U Roy, I Roy (who LKJ said is very articulate), Big Youth and Prince Jazzbo. A big influence was Count Ossie and the Mystic Revelation of Rastafari's Grounation. He flirted with Rastafari, but said he could not reconcile with the idea that Haile Selassie is God.
Also on his list of influences is James Brown and the Last Poets from the USA, as well as Langston Hughes' blues poetry and Ted Joans' jazz poetry.
"After listening to all of this, I said I want to write reggae poetry," Johnson said.
Not to be left out was the journal, Savacou, one issue introducing new writing from the Caribbean, with work from persons like Orville King and Bongo Jerry (including Sooner or Later, which he recited part of in 2010, and had heard Salkey read previously).
LKJ located his first attempt at poetry in November 1972. It came after he was beaten up by the police "for daring to write down their numbers when they were brutalising another person".
The poems he wrote were Five Nights of Bleeding, Dread Beat and Blood, and All We Doin' is Defendin'. He recited part of Five Nights of Bleeding, the only verse he did during the talk. At the time, Johnson was attending meetings of the Caribbean artist movement and also made a connection with the Rasta Love group of drummers. He was given a drum by Lindsay Bennett and he started reading his poetry with them.
"In those days, if you had 20 persons in a poetry reading, it was a huge crowd," LKJ said. Still, Johnson said, "When I recited without drummers, people said that the poems sound like music. I was 25 years old when I made my first recording back in 1977."
And he was encouraged to keep on course by Brewster, Samuel Selvon and Evan Lloyd, a path that was not in the vein of poets like Keats and Yeats.