Sound, Rhythm, and Power: Legends of Dub Poetry
Rhetoric of Reggae
de people dem a dub in de street
even passon a use disyah beat
an de bitterness inna wi mout
de musik bring it out
de frustration wi feel
only de dub can heal
an wi smile
fi a wile
- “Dub Poem”, Mutabaruka
In the 1970’s when reggae was really gaining musical ground, artists were adding instrumental sides to their records (also known as the dub side) and deejays started talking over the beats. This was also referred to as toasting or chatting. The style was made famous by deejays like U-Roy, I-Roy, King Stittt, and Big Youth along with many others. This started a new trend in what was being written in both the musical realm as well as the literary one. Poets were also producing and performing new styles of work based on the sounds of dub music. Their poetry, “like dub music, was subversive, revolutionary and anti-establishment (Cooper, 2).” Poet Oku Onuora was the first to coin this poetry as “dub poetry”. He said the term referred to “a poem that has a built-it reggae rhythm, hence, when the poem is read without and reggae rhythm ‘backing’ so to speak, one can distinctly hear the reggae rhythm coming out of the poem (Doumerc, Dub Poetry).” It began as mainly protest, or rebel, poetry, carrying over many of the same messages as traditional reggae music. The sounds in the poems, as much as the actual words themselves, were meant to portray the life of the poor, the forgotten, the struggle endured by so many. Linton Kwesi Johnson’s poem “Reggae Sounds” is just one powerful example of this:
“Shock, black double down-beat bouncin’
Rock-wise tumble down sound music
Foot drop, find drum blood story
Bass history is a-movin’ is a-hurtin’ black story
Reminiscent of Africa, Jamaica has always been a place of oral traditions. Words have extreme power and influence, and spoken word even more so. “Both literate and illiterate Jamaicans are inclined to regard spoken word as something of real substance and real power (Hughes, 48.)” Proof of this can be found all over the history of Jamaica from religion to social conflict to music and literature. The Bible even, speaks to the power of words: “and God said, let there be light. And there was light.” From the chanting down of Babylon to the arts of folk healing, words have been known to hold divine power for man (and woman). Jamaicans have a certain gift of “using rhythmic and linguistic subversion to fight the forces of oppression (Hughes, 75)” and of doing so in very unique and successful ways. This is seen even in everyday communication. Creole and the regional languages which evolved from it, sometimes called dread talk, have rhythmic and linguistic characteristics which almost sound like music in themselves. In his famous work, History of a Voice, Kamau Brathwaite, an important Caribbean poet, called Creole the Nation Language. He argues that it “ displays musical rhythms, such as calypso and reggae, unlike the dominant iambic rhythms in much English poetry (Unknown, Dub Poetry A History of the Voice).” Some poets are in it to the extent that they refuse to use English, referring to it as the “language of the downpressor, forced upon them in captivity (Cooper, 6).” Louise Bennett, a forerunner of dub poetry, was one of the first to use Creole as a literary language. She caught a lot of slack for it, but she stood her ground and won the battle, paving the way for artists to speak and perform in the Nation Language all over the world (Cooper, 3).
The performance of a piece, as much as the words and the sounds, has a lot to do with how it is understood. A lot of poets speak to music or at least a beat but many others prefer to rely on the beat that is found in the sounds and words themselves. These artists will perform a capella or what they call “ital” (Cooper, 4). Kamau Brathwaite said “the noise and the sounds that the maker makes are responded to by the audience and are returned to him. Hence we have the creation of a continuum where the meaning truly resides (Hughes, 153).” Author of Soon Come, Hugh Hughes says “the aesthetic appeal of an argument guarantees its validity…a truth presented dully is hardly a truth at all (153).”
It is hard to say exactly who the first official dub poet was. The genre was definitely started by the DJs who spoke freely over the beats from the dub side but once it caught on, Linton Kwesi Johnson was the first to release an album in the genre, Dread, Beat an’ Blood released in 1977 (Mikl-em). Born in rural Jamaica in 1952, he moved to Brixton, London with his mother when he was 11. During this time, there was an increasing amount of West Indian immigrants coming into the area and the white populations of Brixton were not happy about it (Kilpatrick). Here, Johnson learned first hand about the pain and rage of racism and this contributed a lot to his work and his popularity. In the 1960’s, he became very active in the Black Panther movement and the fight against racism. It was then that he discovered black literature and more importantly, poetry. He organized a poetry workshop within The Panthers (Forbes, 2). He connected with a lot of people who felt the pain in his words and found refuge in his rhythms. During the beginning of his career he was looked down upon for his use of patios, or Nation Language, and now he’s #22 of the top 100 Black Britons of all time and one of the most respected men in dub poetry (Kilpatrick).
Like Johnson, Jean “Binta” Breeze was also born and raised for a while in Jamaica and then moved to Britain as well and became the leading lady of a male-dominated poetry scene. She was born in rural Jamaica in and then moved to Kingston to study at the Jamaican School of Drama with such other poets as Michael Smith and Oku Onuora and Mutabaruka. She began working with Muta and getting her voice on the air in Jamaica. Linton Kwesi Johnson, over in England, heard what she had to say and, wanting to introduce her to his scene, invited her to come record with him; hence the move to England in 1985 (JS). Breeze is a big advocate for the performance of a piece rather than just reading it, which comes from her love of theater. In an interview she shares, “I mean, acting is one of my first loves. And I think I write so many dramatic monologues because I am searching for lines that ask me to use all of the acting skills I possess...I actually hear voices. When I start writing, I actually hear them speaking (JS).”
Canada is another hot spot for Jamaican dub poets and the dub poetry movement. Lillian Allen was one of the leaders of the Canadian dub movement. Born in Jamaica in 1951 she moved to New York in 1969 to study at the City University of New York and made her way to Canada (Henry). Settling in Toronto, she made a big splash and with the release of the album Revolutionary Tea Party, more specifically it’s opening piece “I Fight Back” in 1983, she was able to make a significant difference in the battle against the stereotype of black women as immigrant workers in Canada (Hodges, 47). Afua Cooper is another female star of the Canadian dub poetry scene. Allen and Cooper are the artistic and creative directors of the Dub Poets Collective out of Toronto.
Back in Jamaica, artists like Oku Onuora, Michael (Mikey) Smith, Mutabaruka, and Benjamin Zephaniah were creating the waves on which the others would ride, off the island, to new places, bringing with them the rhythms of dub and the spoken word. Oku Onuora, originally Orlando Wong, is sometimes referred to as the father of Jamaican dub poetry. As mentioned before, it was he who gave the genre its official name. He eventually expanded his earlier definition to include “any type of music-influenced poetry (Doumerc, Dub Poetry).” In 1970, he was arrested in his attempt to rob a post office in order to fund a community education project. From jail, his poetry flourished and grabbed the attention of many big names in the writing world. So many people petitioned for his release that, after serving 7 years, he received the Jamaican equivalent of a presidential pardon. Upon regaining his freedom, he married and changed his name. In 1979 he released his first album Reflections in Red.
Michael “Mikey” Smith is another top dog in the dub poetry world. Born in Kingston in 1954, he started writing poems as a teenager in the late 1960’s. He was later selected to attend the Jamaican School of Drama and graduated from there in 1980 with a Diploma in Theater Arts. His first album had been released in 1978, entitled Word, which featured his already famous works “My Cyaan Believe It” and “Roots”. He traveled back and forth from Jamaica to London, performing and recording. His performance was really what made Smith’s poetry stand out. Linton Kwesi Johnson says he was, “the quintessential performance poet, gifted with an unrivalled talent for mesmerizing his audience (Morris).” With a desire to put his works to paper, he turned to renowned poet and critic Mervyn Morris. Smith had a hard time doing this one his own “because of inconsistent spelling and punctuation, and because the line breaks were often at odds with the rhythms as Mikey performed them (Morris).” He and Morris came up with a way to work together and began tape-recording Smith’s poems and Morris listened to “the tape while examining the manuscript, [and] would suggest a representation on the page. Then Mikey would look carefully at what was suggested, and would make decisions (Morris).” Mikey was killed before the collection could be published but Morris was asked to edit the poems and he tried to hold true to what he believed Smith had wanted from the book. Unlike performers like Johnson and Mutabaruka, who often rejected the title of dub poet, thinking it constricting and not wanting to be labeled; Mikey embraced his title and was proud to be a dub poet.
Mutabaruka is also a name that permeates the dub poetry scene. He was born Allen Hope in Kingston, Jamaica in 1952. He got his secondary education in electronics and worked for the Jamaica Telephone Company. It was during this time that he began to explore Rastafarianism. It was also around this time when Black Awareness was really becoming big in Jamaica. Muta jumped right in. “Muta saw himself as a young revolutionary (Unknown, Biography).” The further he looked into Rastafarianism, the more he saw how radical its teachings were and the more invested he became. His poetry was published more and more throughout Jamaica and eventually the world. He also has a weekly late night talk show on the radio, The Cutting Edge, which helped make him a national icon and with the help of the Internet, an international icon as well. It was through Mutabaruka that I first learned of my interest in dub poetry. I saw a video of him performing his famous work “Dis Poem” and I was hooked. “Dis Poem” is such a strong example of the power of words and the rhythm that comes naturally through the sounds. The words are living things. They are weapons of nonviolence. No external beat is needed, for it is firmly grounded and very distinct in the reading of the poem, especially coming from the poet himself. Dis poem is why I love dub poetry:
“…dis poem shall say nothin new
dis poem shall speak of time
dis poem shall call names…
…dis poem is revoltin against
first world, second world, third
dis poem is like all the rest…
…dis poem is knives...bombs...guns...
blazing for freedom
yes dis poem is a drum
ashanti, mau mau, ibo
Yoruba, niahbingi warriors
uhuru, soweto, uhuru
dis poem will not change things
dis poem needs to be changed
dis poem is the rebirth of a people
...dis poem speak
is speakin...has spoken
dis poem shall continue
even when poets have stoped writing…
…only time will tell
dis poem is still not written
dis poem has no poet
dis poem is just a part of the story his-story...her-story...our-story
the story still untold…
…dis poem cannot be tamed, cannot be blamed
the story is still not told about dis poem
dis poem is old, new…
…dis poem is watchin u
tryin' to make sense from dis poem
dis poem is messin up your brains
makin u want to stop listenin to dis poem
but you shall not stop listenin to dis poem
u need to know what will be said next in dis poem
dis poem shall disappoint u because...
dis poem is to be continue
in your mind...
in your mind...
in your mind... (Unknown, Biography)”
Now, my turn:
Dis poem is a journey.
It is clear but confuses the mind.
Dis poem makes me question myself.
Dis poem makes me question everything.
Dis poem assures me.
Dis poem is why I love dub poetry.
Mervyn Morris would probably tear apart my poem, especially if seen placed at the end of Dis Poem. Morris is a professor of creative writing at the University of the West Indies. He was one of few strictly literary poets who embraced the newer generation of dub poets and their unique work. He tutored and worked with many of the famous poets described above and was revered by all of them as a great man, a great poet, and a great instructor. Quoted in a recent article from the Jamaica Observer, dub poet Nabbi Natural, said this of him in a poem: “You continue to be more than a shining beacon…Through time redefining space creating life beyond modern memories as ancient as son (sun) continues to be sun (son). An illuminating force to countless generations Mervyn Morris you remain my guiding light (Jackson).” The article is about the recent praise he received from the Poetry Society of Jamaica “for giving dub poetry certitude (Jackson).” This was in response to his statement that “dub poetry enriched his scholarship” which the article equivocated to “a classical virtuoso lauding dancehall music for its artistry (Jackson).” In October of this year, Morris was awarded the Jamaica’s third highest honor, the Order of Merit, for his work in Jamaican literature.
Although dub poetry was constructed primarily on the rhetorical and rhythmic base of reggae music, it has since been influenced by almost every genre of music and folklore and even nursery rhymes. Many aspects of African Caribbean oral traditions such as proverbs, riddles, hymns, and folk tales can be found throughout works of dub poetry. It has also been influenced a lot by jazz, R&B, calypso, various African drumming styles, as well as rap and many afro-Latino rhythms. This keeps the genre of dub poetry open-ended, flexible, and accessible to all. This is also why many poets rebel against the label of dub poet. They feel it restricts them to a reggae beat when really, there are many rhythms and directions they want to go with their work. This has caused a slight shift in the writings of some poets, who beg to liberate dub poetry from the “straightjacket of reggae rhythms (Doumerc, Dub Poetry).” I’m not sure how much I like the idea of calling reggae rhythms anything that includes the idea of a straightjacket. The rhythms make me feel anything but restrained. After a while though, working with the same rhythms must have been kind of annoying for many writers. So they came up with a new sub-genre called “meta dub”. Jean “Binta” Breeze wrote a short poem entitled “Dubbed Out” describing her feelings:
in their music
(Doumerc, Dub Poetry).”
Muta also wrote a poem criticizing the genre that he himself, along with many others, created. This shows how dub has grown and changed through time and how its own creators and artists are able to look at their own work with a new critical eye.
‘ave become entertainers
Babbling out angry words
Bein shot down
Guns and bombs
Revolutionary words being
Digested with bubble gums
Ice cream in tall inter conti nental
In this piece he touches on the idea of dub poetry “selling out” and the messages not being real anymore. Artists are just entertaining now instead of rebelling. The Millersville Maruader describes “Revolutionary Poets” by Mutabaruka to be “a commentary on the conventional and predictable nature of much of the dub poetry of the 1970’s…another prime example of ‘meta dub poetry’ (Doumerc, Dub Poetry).”
I have always had an interest in poetry and for a little while in high school I fell in love with Slam poetry. It is a lot like dub poetry in that it has a strong rhythm that comes through the poems, with no need for musical accompaniment. It gets its name because it is usually performed in competitions known as slams. Poetry slams are intense, with strong voices and stronger messages. They are inspiring, moving, and electrifying. They provide for me the same feeling that I got when I first heard Muta’s “Dis Poem”. Hence, my interest in researching dub poetry. There is a lot to be learned from dub poetry and a lot to take away. Just like the poems themselves, it can be studied in just about any context, be it history, literature, music, performance, rebellion. I really love how artists were able to show the world the power of the spoken word and really make a difference using words as weapons. The sounds and how they fit together are like a good painting. You’re not really sure how the colors got there or in what order but put them all together and you’ve got a strong image and a clear message. The words themselves need no definition, like colors. The combination of sound and rhythm and how the work is delivered to the audience reveals a truer meaning. I find myself getting lost in the reading of these poems in the same manner that I get lost in reggae music. It is an ultimate escape for me. Often, I don’t even listen to the words, even though they can be important. It’s all about the rhythms for me. I feel them in every part of my body and they take over. I can let go and be carried away from all my thoughts and problems and stresses; carried away on the waves of the Caribbean to the sandy shores of a beautiful island which I have never actually visited. That’s pretty freakin’ amazing if you ask me.
“an wi smile, fi a wile”
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