“More than nearly any other contemporary English-language poet… Linton Kwesi Johnson writes poems that make us sing with a voice that mingles our intimate own with a stranger’s, the poet’s, intimate own,” writes novelist Russell Banks in the introduction to Mi Revalueshanary Fren, Johnson’s book of poetry available domestically in the U.S. for the first time on September 01, 2006. “What we happen to see on paper… merely cues our ears and mouths,” writes Banks, “and… we hear music and sing a song not of our own making.”
LKJ—as his fans call him—is known for his activist “reggae poetry” set to song, first recorded on the 1978 seminal Dread Beat An’ Blood. But few Americans have had the chance to see these inherently-musical words on paper. In the U.K., Johnson became the first Black poet and the second living poet to be included in Penguin Books’ iconic Modern Classics series. Mi Revalueshanary Fren published by Ausable Press is Johnson’s long-awaited book debut in America. It will be released with a companion CD of LKJ reading the poems without musical accompaniment; except the rhythm of his words, of course. "I always have a bass line at the back of my mind when I write," says Johnson.
You can hear it in the poem Dread Beat An Blood: “brothers and sisters rocking / a dread beat pulsing fire / burning.” You can hear it in Reggae Sounds: “Shock-black bubble-doun-beat bouncing / rock-wise tumble-doun sound music / foot-drop find drum, blood story / bass history is a moving / is a hurting black story.” Johnson’s choice of language and his coming of age among the Black Panthers is united into a new form of poetry.
As recently as 1982, The Spectator (the oldest continuously published magazine in English) wrote that the Jamaican patois and phonetic spelling used by Johnson “wreaked havoc in schools and helped to create a generation of rioters and illiterates.” When Bob Marley met Johnson in London, he asked why he was so militant. Time has shown that LKJ and the Black Power movement of which he was a part helped beckon in a new era for Blacks in Britain. Last year Johnson was voted #22 in a poll of the top 100 Black Britons of all times.
"There's no such thing as bad English: there's English and ways of speaking it,” proclaims Johnson. “A lot of early poets would have been writing in local dialects; was Chaucer standard English, or Robbie Burns?”
LKJ was born in a rural Jamaican town called Chapelton in 1952. His grandparents on both sides were peasant farmers. As a child, he could hear the drums coming from the hills and the rumble of the sound systems that would set up dances a couple of miles away from his home. “I didn’t discover music,” Johnson declares. “I was born with music, from the time I heard my heart beating.”
Johnson’s mother immigrated to Britain in 1962 just before Jamaican independence and at age 11 he joined his mother in Brixton. Though he adjusted to his new home, it did not fit “the picture-book idea one has of the mother country.” “We were the children of immigrants, brought to England to do the work that the White working class didn’t want to do,” Johnson explains. “We were not supposed to have higher aspirations.”
Driven by a mission to overcome the poverty handed to him and with a keen critique of race relations in Britain, Johnson emerged as an outspoken poet; first performing with drummers in the vein of the Last Poets, and then with a full reggae band. But he was a poet before he was a recording artist.
“Language is about identity, and when I began to write in verse, I knew I wanted to use the kind of language that could best convey the experiences I wanted to articulate and I knew that was not going to be the rarefied language of classical English,” Johnson explained to a Scottish newspaper. “For me, one of the defining characteristics of poetry is authenticity of voice and my natural voice is the ordinary spoken Jamaican language.”
LKJ’s authenticity and unique voice has made him well respected in the alternative poetry scene in the U.K. and worldwide. Recently Johnson has been the featured poet at such prestigious poetry events as the Poetry Olympics at Royal Albert Hall in London, the Esplanade Festival in Singapore, the Kilkenny Arts Festival in Ireland, the International Poetry Festival of Medellin in Colombia, and Jamaica’s Calabash Literary Festival which hosted LKJ and the acclaimed Amiri Baraka. In 2005, Johnson took part in a symposium at Georgetown University with Derek Walcott before flying to Los Angeles to give the annual Jean Burden Poetry reading.
In addition to making fans of reggae poetry for two and a half decades, Johnson created the decisive 10-part radio series on Jamaican popular music, From Mento to Lovers Rock, on BBC Radio 1 in 1982. He has also worked as a TV journalist and runs his own record label, LKJ Records. A debut live recording was nominated for a Grammy. Several of his recordings continue to sell steadily worldwide, converting new generations from France to Japan to the meter and rhyme of “the world's first reggae poet.”
Mi Revalueshanary Fren features 39 of LKJ’s poems, divided into three decades beginning in the ’70s. Whether performing with a full band or doing a poetry reading, LKJ sums it up simply, "It's words that I'm about." And for many fans and newcomers, whether of his music or his poetry, Mi Revalueshanary Fren offers the first opportunity to absorb those words on their own.