Some words get overused or expanded to include those not worthy but Linton Kwesi Johnson is a luminary, in not just one field but two. His poetry has seen him become the first black person to have their work included in Penguin’s Modern Classics, and only the second living poet to be so honoured. His activism as part of the British Black Panther Movement, contributed to changes being made to the law which had allowed the police to discriminate against racial minorities.
The format of the evening was an interview, well more of a chat really, with Gary Younge, the acclaimed author and broadcaster. He introduced LKJ as he is also known, by saying that he first came across him when he performed Inglan is a Bitch on The Old Grey Whistle Test in 1980 and was shocked to hear a black man speaking of his adopted country in such terms as well as in Jamaican patois.
Following his introduction, Mr Johnson took to the stage and both settled down in armchairs for an hour and a quarter of chat. I couldn’t get over how well he looked, and very dapper. His tone was so laid back and relaxed it was hard to believe that this was the same firebrand activist from the 1970s. It must be pointed out, especially to my loyal American readers, that the British Black Panther Movement, although involved in several demonstrations ending with run-ins with the law, were not the extreme organisation you will remember from your side of the pond. The basic aims were similar, however, i.e. combatting police brutality and racism.
For those of you who are fortunate enough to be too young to remember the draconian police powers of the 1960s and 70s, there was something called ‘sus’. The gist was that you could be arrested under ‘suspicion’ of being about to commit a crime such as robbery against ‘person or persons unknown’. In other words if the police took a cursory dislike to you they could lock you in the slammer. As an aid to your understanding of the mood of the period, here is a link to the comedy series Not The 9 o’clock News with Rowan Atkinson and Griff Rhys Jones. For your information, the SPG was the Special Patrol Group who were given even greater powers to deal with people they didn’t take a shine to. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=teSPN8sVbFU
As in the sketch, a disproportionate number of people arrested for sus were black or Asian and, as the Duty Sergeant of the police station was the one who decided whether to prosecute or not, most of the cases progressed. Thankfully we have now got rid of this law, thanks to Mr Johnson and his associates, and the decision in all criminal cases as to whether to prosecute is in the hands of the Crown Prosecution Service, who review the evidence dispassionately to see if it is strong enough to warrant going to court.
The more aesthetic part of Mr Johnson’s career was that of poet. I had to allow myself an inner chuckle that the British Black Panther Movement would have a poet in residence, but that is the Brits for you, we even cause disruption of the system with a certain amount of style – or we used to.
LKJ said that he took up poetry after reading and listening to the American poets who wrote in their own dialect, rather than standard English, meaning that he could express himself in the way he knew best. I imagine that using patois was an additional snub to authority. His real role model, however was Louise Bennett-Coverley who was a Jamaican poet whose work was written in Jamaican Patois thus sanctioning his desire to do the same.
After a while he got a job at the newly formed Virgin Records where he wrote sleeve notes for Caribbean artists until one day he got the idea of reading his poems over a backing of reggae music. The albums which followed sold well and became anthems for the cause of black people.
He touched on the riots of 1981 when the black youth finally lost patience with the status quo and tension boiled over in places like Brixton, Toxteth and our own Chapeltown, which led to the Scarman Report into urban deprivation and social conditions. After this crescendo in protest he observed that the struggle moved from being one of race to one of class, as a section of the black population became more affluent and less inclined to protest.
Gary Younge seemed to be as much in awe of Linton Kwesi Johnson as I was, as he stumbled over a few questions but it didn’t matter, the guest of honour anticipated what he was going to ask and answered with a great deal of style and charm. He did, however, keep looking at his watch, never a great sign for an interviewer, which prompted Mr Younge to tell the audience that he was probably expecting a Deliveroo.
After the chat it was time for Mr Johnson to read us a few of his poems, which still pack quite a punch today. The construction of the works was interesting, one of his most famous, Sonny’s Lettah, is written as correspondence by Sonny to his mother from prison, where he is incarcerated being charged with murder after intervening in his friend’s being arrested for sus, and accidentally knocking over a policeman who hit his head and died. One of his latest works was a touching piece to his own mother, which did rather more than moisten the eyes.
The final phase of the evening was a Q&A session, but I was really pleased to learn that the questions had been posed in writing in advance, so no opportunity for long outbursts of sycophancy or ramblings of the kind I had witnessed in similar events during Leeds International Festival of Ideas. There was the obligatory ‘What is your favourite poem?’ with the tactful reply ‘The last one.’ and ‘Why do you call yourself a reggae poet rather than a dub poet? to which his response was ‘Dub poets are not as good!’ Game, set and match.
This is an event, the memory of which will live with me for a long time. I can’t stress how much I was impressed by the grace and dignity of this man who has had to deal with so much in his life, not only the political stuff, but in his private life as well. He is an example to us all, no matter what colour or background.
This presentation was a part of the Out of Many season celebrating the 60th Anniversary of the Independence of Jamaica. It is organised by the Jamaica Society, Leeds and runs until February, 2023. For more details please go to https://www.jamaicasocietyleeds.co.uk/events/
For details of coming events at Howard Assembly Room please click on https://www.operanorth.co.uk/event-tag/har/
Feature image provided by Howard Assembly Room, all photographs by Stan Graham.