Reggae Sounds

15/07/2020Seminal Dub-Poet, Activist And Icon Linton Kwesi Johnson To Receive 2020 PEN Pinter Prize

Call it a coincidence, but the day we posted an exclusive 2008 Riddim Culture radio tribute to pioneering Jamaican artist, studio engineer and broadcaster Michael Campbell, aka Mikey Dread, we received word that prominent Jamaican dub poet and activist Linton Kwesi Johnson had been awarded the 2020 PEN Pinter Prize. The literary award, named after renowned British playwright Harold Pinter, was created by the English PEN organisation in 2009, to celebrate literature and, more importantly, defend freedom of expression. The prize is awarded annually to "a British writer or a writer resident in Britain of outstanding literary merit", who, in the words of Harold Pinter, as delivered during his 2005 Nobel Prize in Literature speech, "casts an 'unflinching, unswerving' gaze upon the world and shows a 'fierce intellectual determination ... to define the real truth of our lives and our societies'."

Born in rural Jamaica in 1952, Johnson immigrated to the London district of Brixton in 1963. While still in school there, he joined the Black Panther Movement, helped organise a poetry workshop and worked with a group of poets and drummers called Rasta Love. He graduated with a degree in sociology from Goldsmiths College in 1973 and published his first poetry collection entitled "Voices of the Living and the Dead" in 1974. It was as a journalist in the late 1970s that he met British reggae legend Dennis Bovell, with whom he went on to collaborate on several groundbreaking productions. As Lloyd Bradley writes in his comprehensive history of reggae "Bass Culture: When Reggae was King" (fittingly named after Johnson and Bovell's eponymous, 1980-released album): "[...] Great Britain gave us dub poetry, most prominently an intriguing, engaging hybrid of Dennis Bovell's dub rhythms and the Jamaican dialect verse of Linton Kwesi Johnson, who, as a committed black political activist, used lyrics like a sword." The quote also refers to the onset of "toasting" in the UK, for which Johnson no doubt paved the way.

Bradley goes on to emphasise Johnson's considerable impact and cultural significance : "Linton drew inspiration from past and present memberships of such London organisations as the Black Panther Youth League, the Black Parents Movement, the Black Students Movement and the Race Today Collective. He had a journalist's eye for what made a story interesting and belied his slightly professorial, mild-mannered appearance with a wry and thoroughly devilish sense of humour. He never forgot what he was supposed to be doing and brought the full power of lyricism to bear on subjects such as bourgeois blacks, third-rate schools, street life, general hard time in England and, of course, the police. That these poems were delivered in an easily understood textbook patois added enormous weight, and titles such as 'Inglan is a Bitch', 'Di Great Insohreckshan', 'All Wi Is Doin Is Defendin', 'It Noh Funny' and 'Reggae Fi Dada' left nobody in any doubt about what was going on."

In 2002, Johnson became the second living poet and first black poet to be published in the Penguin Modern Classics series; just one of his many achievements and accolades. That being said, awarding him this year's PEN Pinter Prize, seemed to be an obvious choice, which The Guardian's associate editor for culture and trustree for English PEN Claire Armitstead confirmed: "Once we had laid our nominations on the table, it took all of two seconds to agree that we had a clear and outstanding winner for the PEN Pinter Prize 2020. Linton Kwesi Johnson is a poet, reggae icon, academic and campaigner, whose impact on the cultural landscape over the last half century has been colossal and multi-generational. His political ferocity and his tireless scrutiny of history are truly Pinteresque, as is the humour with which he pursues them."

Johnson himself, now 67 years of age, humbly responded that "awards are the nourishment of every artist’s ego", and that it was "always nice to be acknowledged". "It is especially gratifying to receive an award that honours the memory of esteemed dramatist Harold Pinter – free thinker, anti-imperialist and human rights champion," he added, as recently reported by The Guardian. Below you can listen to his pivotal album "Bass Culture", which remains one of the most popular and best-selling reggae albums of all time, and/or watch him read his 1991 poem "Tings an' Times", as we leave you with his poignant opening verse on the track "Reggae Sounds":

"Shock, black double down-beat bouncin'
Rock-wize tumble down sound music
Foot drop, find drum blood story
Bass history is a-movin' is a-hurtin' black story."

AUTHOR: Lev Nordstrom