Linton Kwesi Johnson: ‘It was a myth…’

Linton Kwesi Johnson

At the Guardian Open Weekend, poet and activist Linton Kwesi Johnson talks to Oliver Laughland about the problems faced by ethnic minority MPs and the need for black people to have a strong voice outside the political system. He identifies multiculturalism as a diversion from the real issues of racial equality and social justice.

When Linton Kwesi Johnson was a boy, he wanted to grow up to be an accountant. “If I was an accountant,” he chuckles softly, sitting surrounded by piles of books and CDs in his modest south-London terrace house: “I would probably be a multimillionaire by now.” The world, on the other hand, would be considerably poorer.

 

40 Years

It is 40 years since the Jamaican-born poet made his debut as a recording artist. The release of Dread Beat an’ Blood – an album of radical political poetry spoken in Jamaican patois, set to a reggae beat – created a new literary genre known as dub poetry, and introduced Johnson, now 65, as the voice of the Windrush generation. LKJ and his work was not universally welcomed.

The Spectator memorably accused him of helping “to create a generation of rioters and illiterates” (the magazine was appalled by his phonetic spelling – as in “massakaha” for massacre, say) and he remembers how the police arrested and beat him up. Yet he became only the second living poet to have his work published by Penguin Modern Classics. He was the 2012 winner of the Golden PEN award for his “distinguished service to literature”.

Next month, his contribution to the country’s cultural life will be honoured at the Southbank Centre in London – an occasion whose significance has been intensified by events of recent weeks.

LKJ in Concert
Johnson created the dub poetry literary genre … pictured on stage in Amsterdam in 1980. Photograph: Rob Verhorst/Redferns

LKJ Interviews

Johnson describes himself as a reluctant interviewee. “I’ve got interview fatigue,” he smiles before we have even sat down, and it is true that he can be quite diffident and reserved.  I was struck by how comprehensive his interviews were. They chart each turn in the evolving history of British race relations. From the Black Panther movement to the New Cross fire and Brixton riots of 1981, through the Metropolitan police’s notorious Special Patrol Group, the Stephen Lawrence murder and the Macpherson report, right up to the Grenfell Tower tragedy, Johnson has provided the social commentary absent from so much of the public narrative. Sometimes, he has sounded full of rage – and at other times, more hopeful. I’m curious, therefore, to hear how he would characterise the present moment.

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