Linton Kwesi Johnson is a man with a message. The Jamaica-born dub poet, musician and social activist is preparing to speak at the Albany in Lewisham next month, for a public Q&A about his five-decade-long career. He’s appearing as part of Rebel Music, an upcoming festival featuring the likes of Black Obsidian Sound System, Charles Hayward and Saxon Studio International, celebrating the story of Lewisham’s history of activism through music. Johnson’s music and poetry has been at the heart of Black activism in the UK for the last 50 years – and he’s still fighting now. “Racism is still very much at the heart of the DNA of the United Kingdom,” he tells me from his home in South London, as he reflects, aged 69, on the work that still needs to be done. “Our struggle is an ongoing one because racism permeates every aspect of British society.”
Johnson arrived in Brixton, aged 11, after travelling from his home in rural Jamaica to be with his mother. She was a part of the Windrush generation and Johnson recalls how colonialism still propagated the idea of Britain as Jamaica’s idyllic motherland. “I thought England was this splendid place, this wonderful place, the mother country with castles and palaces and all this sort of thing.” What did he find when he got here? “Disappointment,” he says with a sigh. “Racial hostility was pervasive everywhere you went. It was in the corner shop, in the chippy, in schools, on the buses. It was everywhere.”
Johnson would eventually explore the Black British experience via five collections of poetry and multiple studio and live albums. His verses are written phonetically in Jamaican-English, while his performances see him reciting lines in Jamaican patois over dub reggae. He became a powerful voice for Black Britain during the Eighties, his work charting key moments in the struggle for equality against the backdrop of events such as the devastating New Cross massacre — the suspected arson attack that killed 13 teenagers at a birthday party — as well as the Brixton riots, the rise of the National Front and the institutional racism of the Metropolitan Police, not least via their infamous “sus laws”. In 2002, he became the second living poet, and the only Black one, to have his work published in the Penguin Modern Classics series.
Now 69, his activism shows no signs of slowing. He says the manner in which those like his mother from the Windrush generation were treated – from the description itself (“I often avoid the term ‘Windrush generation’ because there’s been a Black presence in this country going back to Roman times,” Johnson explains) to the recent scandal that saw many facing wrongful deportations at the hands of the UK government – is a continuing source of anger. “The government’s response was disgraceful” he says, adding that “the vast majority” of those affected by the scandal “still haven’t been compensated”.
“The response has also been cynical,” he continues. “That Windrush Day thing that Theresa May did – I mean what the hell was that?” he says with contempt, referring to the former prime minister’s heavily criticised idea of an annual, national day of celebration for the Windrush generation while her own government was still busy executing policies that discriminated against that very generation daily.
Johnson says his mentor, the late social activist John La Rose who founded the influential New Beacon Books – the UK’s first Black publisher – referred to the Windrush arrivals instead as “the heroic generation” because “of what they had to put up with and how successful they were in establishing the basis for the generation that came after to move forward”.
He says the UK’s continuing, controversial immigration policies show how little has changed. “This country has always been a bit xenophobic,” he says. “Both political parties – I’m not saying this is just a Tory thing because Labour have done it [too] – have used anti-immigrant sentiments as a way of winning elections. That is very much a part of our political culture, and I don’t see that going away any time soon.”As a teenager, Johnson was so disillusioned by the discrimination around him that he joined the Black Panther movement. “It was a crucial stage in my development,” he says. “I was young, I didn’t know anything, and I was able to place myself in the world through the activities of the Black Panthers. I got to learn a bit about my history, my culture, my roots and it did wonders for my sense of identity…in the Panthers, I discovered Black literature because, of course, I didn’t read any books written by Black authors when I was at school.” He says the curriculum was devoid of writers from other cultures. (Standard)