Linton Kwesi Johnson

Renowned Reggae Poet


Wow. Wow. Wow. Seeing Linton Kwesi Johnson … was one of those experiences that reaffirms the ability of the unaccompanied spoken word to define, with GPS-like precision, the location of every vertebra in your spine and every hair on the back of your neck.” —, Australia


Brilliant . . . the alternative poet-laureate.” —Time Out


Hailed as a legend in Europe for his poetry and music, and revered as the world's first reggae poet, Linton Kwesi Johnson (LKJ) was born in 1952 in Chapelton, a small town in the rural parish of Clarendon, Jamaica, and moved to London in 1963. He studied Sociology at Goldsmiths College, University of London, during which time he joined the Black Panthers. While helping to organize a poetry workshop within the movement, he developed his work with Rasta Love, a group of poets and drummers. His first volume of poems, Voices of the Living and the Dead, was published in 1974. His landmark second collection, Dread Beat An' Blood, was published in 1975, was recorded, and a film of the same name was made by the BBC as a documentary of a young poet in the making. His third volume was Inglan Is A Bitch (1980). In 2002, Johnson became only the second living poet and the first black poet to have his work published in Penguin's Modern Classics series, under the title Mi Revalueshanary Fren: Selected Poems. Tings An' Times (1991) is the title of both an album and a collection of poems co-published by Bloodaxe Books and LKJ Music Publishers. In 1996, Johnson released his CD, LKJ A Cappella Live, a collection of poems without music, of which the Boston Phoenix wrote, “A killer poetry-only set.” Johnson has been awarded a Silver Musgrave Medal for eminence in the field of poetry by the Institute of Jamaica, the second highest award in Jamaica. His first US publication, Mi Revalueshanary Fren, was published by Ausable Press in 2006.

BBC Review of Forces of Victory

Poet and novelist, Fred D'Aguiar, calls Linton Kwesi Johnson's work “the newest and most original poetic form to have emerged in the English language in the last quarter century.” CC Smith, from LA Weekly, writes, “LKJ's uncompromising vision is a product of the Caribbean migration to England. His words communicate the frustrations, aspirations and poverty of an oppressed black urban society by fusing reggae street rhythms with political thought, striking blows for freedom like sparks from a flint, while revelling in the natural rhythms and musical cadence of Jamaican English.” Johnson's first book, Voices of the Living and the Dead (1974) announced his intention of being in the forefront of the struggle of black people. He documented the riots that broke out in Brixton in the early 1980s in poems such as "Di Great Insohreckshan," describing violence bubbling up from the beat of reggae music. His work is often stark and violent, but sometimes it is leavened by humour, as in one of his most famous poems, the title poem of his 1980 collection Inglan is a Bitch (1980):

W'en mi jus' come to Landan town
Mi use to work pa di andahgroun
Y'u don't get fi know your way aroun'

Most of his work is written in street language, the version of Creole that grew up in Caribbean communities in England; but sometimes he writes lyrically in Standard English, as in "Jamaica Lullaby":

The memories hearts are keeping
Will soon slide down in dreams
When no one sleeps
But close their eyes and weeps.

LKJ was awarded the C Day Lewis Fellowship in 1977. He became the writer-in-residence for the London Borough of Lambeth for that year. He went on to work as the Library Resources and Education Officer at the Keskidee Centre, the first home of Black theatre and art. He has been made an Associate Fellow of Warwick University (1985), an Honorary Fellow of Wolverhampton Polytechnic (1987), and received an award at the XIII Premo Internazionale Ultimo Novecento from the city of Pisa for his contribution to poetry and popular music (1990). In 1998 he was awarded the Premio Piero Ciampi Citta di Livorno Concorso Musicale Nazionale in Italy. In 2003 Johnson was bestowed with an honorary fellowship from his alma mater, Goldsmiths College, University of London. In 2004 LKJ became an Honorary Visiting Professor of Middlesex University in London. He has toured the world from Japan to the new South Africa, from Europe to Brazil. Nigel Williamson of The Times has said, “No one has chronicled the struggles of black people in Britain more effectively than Linton Kwesi Johnson. His combination of poetry and reggae has inspired a generation of dub musicians in Britain and around the world.”

Guardian interview with LKJ

Johnson's other books and albums include: Forces of Victory (1979); Bass Culture (1980); LKJ in Dub (1981); followed by Volume Two (1982) and Volume Three; Making History (1984); and More Time (1998). Recorded at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London, LKJ Live in Concert with the Dub Band was nominated for a Grammy Award in 1985. In 2004, LKJ released a CD and a DVD entitled LKJ Live in Paris with the Dennis Bovell Dub Band. His recordings are amongst the top-selling reggae albums in the world and his work has been translated into Italian and German. His ten-part radio series on Jamaican popular music, From Mento to Lovers Rock, went out on BBC Radio 1 in 1982 and was repeated in 1983. From 1985-1988 he was a reporter on The Bandung File. Johnson launched his own record label, LKJ Records, in 1981.

With fiery verse and spellbinding, often reggae-backed performances, the Jamaican-born, London-based Johnson helped create the hybrid genre of dub poetry in the late 1970s. Mixing militancy with pathos, ballad forms with subtler narrative modes, LKJ (as he's known) remains a leading voice of Afro-Caribbean Britain. He took a giant step toward canonicity in 2002 when he became the first contemporary black poet given his own volume in the British series of Penguin Classics, which the first American book reprints, including an introduction from novelist Russell Banks. Using Jamaican Creole, rather than standard English, LKJ tries at once to speak for a nation within a nation and to craft a populist idiom with potentially universal appeal, drawing terms and attitudes from Jamaican culture, biblical teachings and Black Power: "All oppression / can do is bring / passion to di heights of eruption," he promises; "we're di forces af victri / an wi comin rite through." Here are manifestos for the African Diaspora, reggae protests against police brutality and toward the end of the volume, introspective, even erotic, verse. His lingo poses no barrier to comprehension; more problematic for Americans might be poems based on news events (such as the 1981 New Cross Massacre in London) poorly publicized here. Includes CD of Johnson reading his poems. —Publishers Weekly

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