In Boonville, The Intellectual Conscience Of Reggae Music
by Steve Heilig, June 13, 2012
Photo courtesy Luca D'Agostino, Rototom Sunsplash 2011
Reggae music — it's a sound played by and for dreadlocked, pot-smoking Rastafarians, right? Most anybody would be justified in having that impression, but it hardly tells the whole story. Now meet Linton Kwesi Johnson — who often performs in a suit and tie and natty fedora, has closely-cropped non-locked hair, and has rarely if ever even mentioned cannabis, Haile Selassie, or Rastafarianism. And who will appear, in his first US show in many years, at the Sierra Nevada World Music Festival in Boonville this month, where he and his renowned band will appear on Saturday evening.
LKJ, as he is known, is the intellectual conscience of reggae music. A Jamaican by birth, since the early 1970s he has forged a melding of true poetry with roots reggae rhythms. Lyrically, he has held to a political perspective honed by long involvement with movements for better living conditions and rights for Black people in England, where he has lived since he was eleven years old. As a university student, writer, editor and musician, his voice and words have been unmistakable for decades — unique within reggae or any other music. Arguably, LKJ invented dub — or reggae — poetry, and still does it best; he is thus both the premiere and premier exemplar of this singular musical genre.
Starting in 1978, he has released a series of albums which still sound timeless even as they address then-current events in the UK and beyond. Key to LKJ’s music is the contribution of the unsurpassed bands he has worked with, most notably and lastingly the Dennis Bovell Dub Band. The arrangements LKJ and bass-playing bandleader Bovell provide to surround his poetry are complex yet driving, with rich horn charts and, more recently, violin and flute flavorings that draw upon and evoke jazz and other elements usually foreign to the reggae beat.
So although it might seem ironic for a poet, it’s really no wonder that the slogan on LKJ website is “Putting the Music Back into Reggae.” Albums like “Bass Culture,’ “Making History,” and “More Time” are treasures of stimulating thought, delivered in LKJ’s resonant baritone over some of the deepest yet most melodic tracks in reggae. Never particularly prolific, and perhaps a perfectionist, he has not released any new recordings since 1997's “LKJ Live In Paris with the Dennis Bovell Dub Band,” which captures his career-spanning shows as of the late 1980s. For broader slice from his discography, the two-CD set “Independant Intavenshan” selects from all his work on Island Records from the years 1979-84. But any LKJ recording is well worth hearing, and some live clips are available online on Youtube. Plus, the Dennis Bovell Dub band has a new CD just out on esteemed roots reggae label Pressure Sounds as well.
On top of all his recorded work, LKJ was recognized with a printed collection of his writings published in 2002 in a most prestigious series by Penguin in the UK — he was the first black “Penguin Poet” and only the second still-living one at the time. “Mi Revalueshanary Fren: Selected Poems” — later printed in the USA by Ausable Press, with a companion CD of him reading some of his work — was an unprecedented accomplishment for a reggae artist, as LKJ is listed in the series by some of the most revered literary names of modern times. His written and spoken/sung words retain some of the Jamaican patois accents and spelling while addressing themes of class struggle, police brutality, racial identity, and even, from time to time, love.
A serious man, LKJ does not suffer fools gladly, if at all. On stage, his band is disciplined and follows a tightly-paced songlist in a manner reminiscent of tough taskmasters like James Brown. Nor does he seem particularly fond of doing interviews. But once he tests one’s mettle and seriousness, as musician or interviewer it seems, he is quite willing to tell about his life and work. Here is an updated version of an earlier review, which LKJ this month said is still valid in presenting his work and thought. As he frankly notes here, he is doing this show as a favor to the festival's organizers or would not be coming to this country at all.
SH: I’ve read somewhere that you first acquired your love of words from your grandmother in Jamaica, who read the Bible to you when you were very young.
LKJ: Actually it was the other way around — my grandmother was illiterate and as soon as I could read she had me reading the Bible to her. Whenever her spirit was troubled, she liked to hear the sounds of those words, and I too got to like the language.
But you did not really stay involved in that religious tradition…
No, but the Biblical stories were actually part of most children’s education in Jamaica. And some particular parts of the Bible, the psalms and proverbs and such, are very poetic.
And you came to London as a child…
Yes, my mother came to England in 1961, and I went to join her in ’63. It was a bit of an experience, actually.
In terms of what, racial issues in particular? I heard you were surprised to see a white man sweeping the street.
Yes, that was a bit surprising you know, as in Jamaica one associated all whites with wealth and power, and you’d never have imagined to see that in Kingston.
You seem to have been focused on education from an early age.
My generation was ambitious; we were the children of first-generation immigrants and we wanted to do something with our lives and make something of ourselves. And our parents had expectations of ourselves as well. So while I might not have attended classes as regularly as I should have, I was serious about my education. And after I left school and got married and worked for about 3 years, I went to the university and got a degree in sociology.
What kind of work did you do at that point?
I did several jobs — first some accounting for a tailor, and on the switchboard there during lunch breaks as well. I also worked as a clerical officer in the civil service for a time.
When did you first become politically involved?
By 1970 I was involved in the Black Panther Youth League. This was a different organization than the USA group, but we were inspired by people like Huey P. Newton, Bobby Seale, and all those guys, and the fact that they were standing up and protecting their community, in a very militant kind of way. We weren’t half as militant as they were, but this was my first real introduction to Black literature and history. It was a whole birth of consciousness for me. I was reading “Soul on Ice,” “Manchild in the Promised Land,” Richard Wright’s work…It was a very exciting time for me.
Those are all African-American writers — was there any equivalent among British writers then?
No, there was absolutely nothing like that. Well, there were some Caribbean writers doing novels set in London, but nothing with the kind of consciousness of those I mentioned.
And you learned yet more from direct experience, such as in prison?
Yes, for example if you saw a Black man being arrested, you at least tried to get their name and address, for example. I tried that in Brixton and was grabbed by some police officers and was racially abused and kicked and thrown to the ground, and then charged with two counts of assault. There was a demonstration outside the police station and I was released within hours. But once the demonstration started they increased the charges to three!
Were you starting to write poetry at this point?
Yes, I published a couple of short books; my first was in 1974. But I might have been doing my first dub poetry performances as early as 1972. People were just getting involved in Rasta and I started doing with poetry with them in kind of workshop situations, yunno, and I would improvise words to go over the riddims. And I liked that. At that time I had listened to The Last Poets and heard what they were doing with percussion and street language, and that inspired me too.
How did you first hook up with Dennis Bovell?
I first heard of Dennis through Vivian Weathers, my school friend who played some bass on my first couple of albums. He said to me “If you’re ever gonna make records, Dennis Bovell is the man.” I met Dennis through my work as a freelance journalist for the BBC world service, told him I was interested, and he said “Whenever you’re ready.”
And so your first recordings were as “Poet and the Roots”?
Yes, I called myself “Poet.” Dennis was the engineer, and also played guitar and piano. And John Kpiaye played guitar, and Nick Straker keys, and they’ve been with me ever since. The original horn section went to UB40, and then we got Steve Gregory, whose been around long before us and played with Van Morrison and many others. The core of the Dennis Bovell Dub Band is still the same but we now have a Swedish horn section.
How do you work up your wonderful arrangements — there’s really nothing else like them in reggae. Do you start with the words?
I have a bass, and I have words and know what kinda beat I want to have, and I work out the basslines and the chords are based on that. Simple as that. Then I discuss the arrangement with Dennis and we exchange ideas — Dennis usually comes up with the horn lines. And on the last couple albums I decided to bring in violin and flute as well. But it starts with the skeleton of my voice and basslines on a cassette…
So you are a musician as well?
People often don’t believe that, but yes (said with a look of mild exasperation).
Well, they’ll have to believe, as you play bass on on one of your dub CDs. Anyway, you started on Island Records, and then started your own label. Is that kind of control necessary?
It’s hard work, it’s just two of us running it, but yes we have control and that’s the most important thing.
I heard you were unhappy when Island remixed your excellent 1984 LP “Making History” for USA release, toning the bass down and so on…
Yeah, I still don’t know why they did that. It was like they were trying to sabotage the album or something. It was Chris Blackwell’s idea, but everyone prefers the original mix.
Well, that happened to Bunny Wailer’s classic “Blackheart Man” too so at least you were in good company. Speaking of remixes, back in 1975, you wrote in Race Today when Bob Marley’s “Catch a Fire” came out that Marley had become a sellout, by adding rock guitar and so on; you wrote “There is no more dread in Marley’s music; the dread has been replaced by howling rock guitar and funky rhythm.” 1975 was early to be saying that, although others, like Lee Perry (one of Marley's first producers), made similar complaints later in Marley’s career. Any reflection on that?
There’s nothing to reflect on. That was written from a very “reggae purist” perspective, and I take everything back. I was wrong in the way I was looking at it. Yes, he commercialized reggae in a sense, and it was part of the marketing strategy. But you know, how do you sell good music? Marley was a genius, and he reached a lot of people, right? In hindsight I would say that I was being very cheeky there.
You’re not a Rastafarian, at least not obviously. How do you relate to the mainstream of reggae?
Well, Haile Selassie and Marcus Garvey are icons to Black people all over, regardless. My position is, I love the music of Burning Spear as much as anyone on earth, yunno? I love Culture, the Gladiators, Toots and the Maytals. They are the backbone of this thing, who keep it going. Others are trying to take advantage and are taking reggae down.
Some of those hustler producers, who put out what I call disposable music. I mean, we are living in the era of the ascendancy of the word in music, whether it’s hip-hop or whatever, and the words have come to the fore. But it does not have to mean a complete negation of the music. If all you get is a pulse and beat and nothing else, something important is missing.
Alton Ellis (a legendary reggae singer) once told me, “There are over 800 instruments in the world and these guys are using just two — drum and bass — and even those are fake.”
There you have it. I think reggae in general has suffered from the proliferation of dancehall music, from some guy lining up about 20 deejays to come and talk over one riddim; it’s like fast food. They don’t stand the test of time.
You haven't released any new poems or songs in quite some time. Are you working on any new reggae poetry?
Years ago I started to work on reggae renditions of some of my favorite poetry from others like T.S. Eliot but could not get copyright clearance on things, so I put it aside.
Well, I must say, you couldn’t be called prolific. New records from you are few and far between. Why is that?
I haven't written any poetry in the last decade but I have written prose — essays. I have had the urge to write verse but I have not head the space and peace of mind to do so. I’m not one of these people who get up everyday and say it’s time to write a poem. I write when I’m inspired and feel like it. I admire people who work at it on a daily basis but I could never do that. Writing a poem for me is a special experience that does not come on a regular basis; it’s almost like magic. And as I get older I find writing even harder, because of the standards I set myself. But I've been active in Europe, still, touring and doing poetry readings.
You wrote some of your most scathing words about the lives of Blacks in England during the Thatcher regime in the 1980s. Is it any better, or is England still “A Bitch,” as you stated in your song “Inglan is a Bitch"?
There’s been some progress, but yeah, England is still a bitch, with people dying in police custody and cover-ups of that. I’ve been involved in trying to get justice for that.
How? As some kind of spokesman?
No, they’ve been trying to make me into some kind of “black spokesperson” but I’m not having it. If they call me I speak. Nobody appointed me leader or anything.
But you might be an appropriate candidate for that, being an educated, intellectual presence, prestigious poet, and so on…
I’m just a thinking person.
OK. And do you think that, as you get older, you get mellower in your views?
Well…I think it would be unnatural not to get a bit mellower with age. But that does not mean that you have abandoned your convictions.
In the BBC's coverage of last year's riots in London and elsewhere in England,, your old colleague Darcus Howe appeared, still angry at the treatment and situation of blacks in England, over thirty years after you wrote a poem/song about him. Any reflections on those events?
The riots last summer made me think of how history repeats itself as tragedy.
Finally, your appearance in Boonville is a one-time show, as you are not on tour and are coming just for this festival. Why is that?
I am doing the Sierra festival out of respect for Warren Smith, the organizer, and what he has done to promote reggae music in the USA. If it was anyone else I would have declined.