Political Protest Poetry - Linton Kwesi Johnson
When you think of poetry do you think of music, anger, empowerment? I'd argue most of us don't, and no wonder: in school, we're taught ballads and sonnets by dead white men. But poetry which incorporates more than just the traditional stanzas and rhyme schemes are out there, and they have been empowering people for decades. As many are beginning to see, the whitewashing of the cannon needs to be addressed and changed because even at the highest levels of education, they don't teach as much diverse poetry as they should.
Linton Kwesi Johnson is a Jamaican dub poet who has lived in the UK since 1963. Dub poetry is performance poetry originating from the West Indies which layers poetry over reggae music. There is a deep history which you can read about properly here. Dub poetry explores the racism and injustice faced in the UK and across the world.
Johnson's 1980 poem 'Sonny's Lettah' explores the police brutality young black men experience, with the use of Jamaican Patois rooting this unfair treatment in being West Indian in the racist UK. Please read the whole poem here and find the video below.
I really did try mi bes,
mi sarry fi tell you seh
poor likkle Jim get arres.
It woz di miggle a di rush howah
wen evrybady jus a hosel an a bosel
fi goh home fi dem evenin showah;
mi an Jim stand up
waitin pan a bus,
nat cauzin no fus,
wen all af a sudden
a police van pull-up.
Out jump tree policeman,
di hole a dem carryin batan.
Dem waak straight up to mi an Jim.
The straightforward reciting of this traumatic event - 'an crash/ an dead' - illustrates how normalized and expected this racist treatment and violence is. At this time dub poetry and its poets were joining the protests against 'sus laws'. These were laws allowing the police to stop and search people under the 1824 Vagrancy Act, this disproportionately affected all people of colour but overwhelmingly young Black men. This is not an issue of the past, many 'Black and Asian youths [are] still victims of rough justice' as perpetual police violence illustrates.
Johnson's poem 'New Crass Massakah' explored the arson and murder of 14 young Black people at a party on New Cross Road. This tragedy was met with complete apathy by the political establishment and media. There was barely any mainstream coverage and no justice for the children or their families. As you can see in the below stanza (please read the full poem here) Johnson says 'Imagine, soh much young people/ Cut aaf before dem prime'. 'Imagine' exactly that: the senseless murder of children with their whole lives ahead of them, of the 'worries an struggle an strife' faced by this community. Not only was Johnson's poetry vital whilst this was happening, it also remains integral to the day to day experiences of Black British people as racism and racist violence continues to take thousands of lives.
Is a hellavva somting fi true yu know
Wat a terrible price wi haffi pay dough, mah
Jus fi live a lickle life
Jus fi struggle fi suvvive
Ev'ryday is jus worries an struggle an strife
Imagine, soh much young people
Cut aaf before dem prime
Before di twilite a dem time
Widoutn reasn nar rhyme
Kyaastin dis shadow af gloom ovah wi life
Johnson's form of poetry, which combines the lived experience with the celebrated culture of music, means dub poetry is a powerful tool for empowerment and social justice. The fact that Linton Kwesi Johnson's poetry is not taught alongside Shakespeare and Byron is wrong. Dub poetry not only foregrounds Black culture but also discusses the injustices that racist Britain is built upon and still faces. Black British culture is British culture. During this time of revolution it's paramount to learn the history of the Black experience in Britain which has been perpetually overlooked and dub poetry is as good a place as any to start.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=isMjvRpAckU - ‘Inglan Is a Bitch’
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7uvY5qU7ayg - ‘Sonny’s Lettah’
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FUMYAqAlAXA&t=41s - ‘New Crass Massakah’