Linton Kwesi Johnson’s Dread Dialectics

The dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson fused Jamaican music, linguistic innovation, and socialist politics. A new study finally treats his work with the seriousness it deserves.

Dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson in 2007. (Bryan Ledgard / Wikimedia Commons)

The protracted war waged by police forces against black communities in Britain is chronicled in Linton Kwesi Johnson’s poetry. “Everywhere you go you hear people say / That the Special Patrol them are murderers,” writes Johnson in his “Reggae fi Peach.”

Focusing on the relationship between Johnson’s political activism and his verse, David Austin’s Dread Poetry and Freedom: Linton Kwesi Johnson and the Unfinished Revolution provides an illuminating intellectual portrait of the man and his times. Austin situates the poet in a literary and intellectual tradition of postwar black European and Anglophone cultural production. The central figures within this milieu are Amiri Baraka and his modernist conception of blues poetry; Bob Marley’s parallel reshaping of reggae for new audiences; and the philosophical interpretations of black experience in the writings of C. L. R. James, Frantz Fanon, and Aimé Césaire.

This wide-ranging approach to Johnson’s work opens up ways of reading his poetry into the wider currents of which it was a part. Instead of standing out as a lone figure within an English tradition of verse, Austin is able to place Johnson in the tradition that Paul Gilroy has termed the “black Atlantic.”

Born in Chapeltown, Jamaica, Johnson came to Brixton, South London, in 1963, joining his mother, who had emigrated to England a year earlier. Finding a city riven by anti-racist struggles, the dub poet joined his local branch of the Black Panther Party soon after arriving. There he learned about radical politics and how to build movements. From the party’s library, Johnson acquainted himself with the work of W. E. B. Du Bois as well as the black poetic tradition that was coming into shape around him.

Poetry became a part of Johnson’s politics; writing verse a means of expressing political ideas in another form. In the 1970s, Johnson coined the term “dub poetry” for this form, a moniker that described the fusion of poetic, political, and cultural experience. Dub poetry was poetry because it was “word-first,” by which Johnson meant it did not subordinate the formal demands of poetry to music. It was dub because the diasporic echo between Kingston and Brixton could be heard in the music that accompanied the poetry.

In a conversation with Paul Gilroy, Johnson described the complex relation between the two components of his genre as follows:

I was trying to think of it in terms of representing, or capturing, or encapsulating, the very pulse, the very energy, the tensions of urban society in Jamaica, and that the bassline would be expressing all those things. . . . You could hear violence in some basslines when there were conflicts going on in Jamaica, rival political party warfare and all that sort of thing, and you could hear changes in the bassline as the society itself was changing.

In fusing dub music and poetry, Johnson’s aim is not aesthetic novelty for its own sake. It is an attempt to remake a song — turning it upside down so the bass, which captures the rhythms of political and social upheavals, dominates the melody and not vice versa.

When Johnson became only the second living poet to have his selected poems published in Penguin’s Modern Classics series, the response from the British literary press was divided. Cultural gatekeepers questioned whether his work was “really” poetry, ignoring how his use of Jamaican patois and music was an attempt to decolonize a tradition that did not reflect on the assumptions that lay behind its standards of “real” poetry.

Austin reads Johnson’s emphasis on violence through the lens of Fanon’s writing. From the West Indian philosopher, Johnson takes the insights that decolonization is only possible through revolt, and that if the revolutionary road is not taken, then the subjugated will turn their ire against one another. “The riddim just bubblin’ an’ backfirin’ / Ragin’ an’ risin’,” as Johnson puts it in “Five Nights of Bleeding.”

Austin uses the phrase “dread dialectics” to capture the fusing of optimism and pain, worked through and expressed in Johnson’s poetry. The tensions this dialectic holds together are the variant meanings of the word “dread”: dread as fear in bad times, dread as the locks of a Rasta, and dread as a good beat. The result is a music of experience whose axes are Jamaica and London, capitalism and the shadow of slavery. From these points, Johnson maps out a path toward an aesthetic and political future. The violence in Johnson’s poetry points to solidarity and an overcoming of opponents; a breaking point or insurrection brought closer by its articulation.

Johnson combines his critique of capitalism and state violence with a passionate belief in human agency as a motor force of historical and social transformation. In his poem about the history of riots and uprisings, “Mekkin Histri,” Johnson writes: “It is noh mistri / Wi mekkin histri / It is noh mistri / Wi winnin victri.” Riot, revolt, and rebellion are such powerful social forces that they cannot be written out of history. But for this history to be a source of power and hope, it must be collectively remembered. This is the role of poetry.

In 1991, after the near-wholesale defeat of the Left on every continent, Johnson released Tings an’ Times. In this album’s single, “Di Good Life,” the poet provided a beautiful reflection on what socialism should be. Socialism, in Johnson’s vision, is not a utopia but an ongoing process of collective struggle. It “is a wise ole shephad / Im suvvie tru flood / Tru drout / Tru blizad.”