Rhetoric of Reggae
Fall 2009 – Final Paper
Mutabaruka and LKJ –Dub Poetry at its Best
Poetry has the ability to convey a message in such an intense, multi-leveled, descriptive manner that it lingers in the mind and body, parallel to the way in which great music does. Like music, poetry is the logical expression of emotion and feeling. It colors your thoughts and actions long after you forget the actual words. The intermingling of dub music and poetry has lead to one of the most profound art forms called dub poetry. This type of poetic performance evolved out of dub music consisting of spoken words over reggae rhythms in Jamaica in the 1970s. It is brimming with powerful political and social statements with eloquence unique to the individual poet. Mutabaruka and Linton Kwesi Johnson are perhaps the two “fathers” of dub poetry. Both poets released impressive arrays of albums and books. Through looking into their lives and examining their work, there is so much to be gained from these two Jamaican poets.
I write a poem
That my poem can create
When we think of reggae we often conjure images of Jamaica, Bob Marley, red/gold/green/black, ganja, Peter Tosh, and dreadlocks. It is not the 400 years of slavery, violence, injustices, poverty and racism that immediately pop into mind, but these symbols, images and prominent figures that dominate our view of reggae music and Jamaican culture. And it is certainly not poetry or dub music that we immediately correlate with reggae culture either. However, poetry and dub music are so imperative to the full comprehension of Jamaican culture. Dub poetry is also inspiring, enjoyable and a true awakening for mind and spirit.
Mutabaruka has often been described as unorthodox, revolutionary, controversial, a prophet, and a noisemaker. But these labels certainly do not faze this barefoot Jamaican dub poet and folk philosopher.
Mutabaruka was born in Rae Town, Kingston on December 26th, 1952. He was born given the name Allan Hope. Muta attended Kingston Technical High School after his primary education and he was a student there for four years. There was an upsurge of Black Awareness in Jamaica in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s parallel to a similar phenomenon in the United States. Muta was drawn into this movement and read many books that lead him to view himself as a young revolutionary. Muta was inspired by books such as Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice and The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which were illegal in Jamaica at this time.
Mutabaruka was trained in electronics and took employment at the Jamaica Telephone Company Limited. Muta began to delve into Rastafarianism during his time at the telephone company. He found it much more meaningful than either the Roman Catholicism of his upbringing or the political radicalism into which he drifted. When he deepened his investigation of Rastafarianism he became intrigued and captivated. Soon he stopped combing his hair, started growing dreadlocks, altered his diet and, although a number of his friends thought he was losing his mind, declared himself a Rastafarian. In 1973 he took the name Mutabaruka. “Mutabaruka” is not a word, but a phrase which comes from the Rwandan language and translates as “one who is always victorious.”
Kingston became increasingly unsatisfactory to Muta as he gained greater insight into Rastafarianism, or rather Rastafarianism gave him greater insight to life. He left the telephone company he was previously employed at and he and his family left their home in Kingston in 1974. Muta found himself seeking a more meaningful and spiritual existence. He did not want to get wrapped up in the “white man’s world” of materialistic values. This lead him to seek a more “congenial environment” for him and his family which they found in the Potosi District in St. James where they built their new home and Muta began to focus entirely on writing and performing his poetry.
The earliest work of Mutabaruka was regularly published in “Swing,” which was a monthly magazine. After getting excellent reviews and gaining popularity he moved his work to audio and came out with his first single in 1981 called “Every Time A Ear De Soun’” and just a couple years later released his first LP, “Check it!” which was a searing commentary on the havoc reaped by 400 years of white colonialism. He then began releasing albums quite frequently. After “Check it!” his discography is as follows: “Dub Poets Dub” (1983), “Outcry” (1984), “The Mystery Unfolds” (1986), “Any Which Way…Freedom” (1989), “Mutabaruka” (1989), “Malanin Man” (1994), “Gathering of the Spirits” (1998), “Muta In Dub” (1998), and “Life Squared” (2002). Although Muta came out with an impressive and extensive collection of albums, he also came out with extremely powerful collections of poetry in the format of books. “Mutabaruka: The First Poems/The Next Poems” is a recently published double-volume of poetry which comprises his first major collection of poem he wrote in the 1970’s in “the First Poems” and a new anthology of his best work written between 1980 and 2002 in “the Next Poems.”
Within “Mutabaruka: The First Poems/The Next Poems,” Muta’s search for spiritual peace and understanding is reflected in his work. Muta views Rastafarianism as a universal quest that may also be pursued by alternate routes, such as Buddhism, Hinduism, or Christianity. However, he strongly disapproves of institutionalized religion, which is reflected and very evident in his work. Muta’s poems also invigorate anger in response to black suffering, “downpression,” and deprivation. He dramatizes the horrors of slavery in his work and states that the Black man should proudly remember their African roots and break out of self-hatred imprisonment. Muta is also very critical of European cultures. I found it fascinating in the first part of his book when he wrote:
the souls of black folks
tryin to integrate
in my life your life”
This is such a powerful and deep statement by Mutabaruka. He uses the three European “Greats” of literature and puts into perspective how they dominate the world’s view of what “good” literature is. Muta deems it completely unnecessary for this to be the literature that everyone holds of high esteem. There is no parallel to the life and culture of such classic European writers and the lives of “black folks.” So why should this literature be considered great literature to Jamaicans and other people of African roots? They were never given the same opportunities or freedoms as these white men. Shakespeare was never torn from his homeland and family and chained in a box on a ship. Milton was never denied of all rights to receive any form of education. Chaucer was never enslaved. These “greats” have no pertinence to the lives of Jamaicans or black folks, therefore their writings cannot awaken the mind or soul which makes it far from great literature. Clearly, Muta does not want minds to be diluted with the thought that only classic writers such as these are excellent. He is crying out in need for African and Jamaican originality in language, and that is what he successfully does for the world through his poetry.
What is commonly referred to as “dub poetry” or “reggae poetry” is the art that Mutabaruka is considered to be a master of. However, he prefers to not limit his work with labels. Being a “dub poet” or “protest poet” only refers to one aspect of the work, so Muta resists the title. In an interview about dub poetry he says:
“When I was doing poetry they didn't call it Dub poetry. It was just poetry to music. Dub poetry just come later on down because they wanted to identify a kind of poem. I don't really like the term still because it kind of limit you to that. A lot of my poems, especially on my CDs, would draw from different black musical perspective. We're very African-centered. A lot of my poems would draw from the black experience, the musical experience of black people all over the world. You don't want to just limit yourself to reggae.” www.blackvegetarian.org
Mutabaruka clearly has no limits. He did not want to be confined to just reggae beats so he took his fiery, revolutionary and scathing lyrics to a new level. His words are so potent on paper and on his CDs that the literary community actually came up with a new term, “Meta-dub,” to describe his work. This form of dub poetry is concerned with the limitations of the art form and has tried to widen the thematic scope of dub poetry by referring to the art itself. “Meta poetry” is a self-awareness about poetry and writing poetry and “dub poetry” is spoken words over reggae rhythms that are overtly political and of social nature; thus “meta-dub” poetry. A prime example of this “meta-dub” poetry is Mutabaruka’s “Revolutionary Poets.” Muta writes:
'ave become entertainers
babblin out angry words
ghetto yout' bein shot down
guns an bombs
revolutionary words bein
digested with bubble gums
popcorn an ice cream in tall inter conti nental
(The First Poems)
Within this poem Muta offers commentary on the conventional and predictable nature of the dub poetry of the 1970’s. He expresses his fears of “dub poetry” messages not being taken seriously. The lines such as, “revolutionary words bein / digested with bubble gums” allow the reader, or listener, to be taken back by how he reflects on the own art in which he partakes in and can see that it needs to evolve to get across to the people and have them take it seriously. Muta takes this recognition of how the art needs to change and runs with it in his most famous poem “Dis Poem.”
Watching the video in class of Mutabaruka delivering his poem entitled “Dis Poem,” was completely enthralling for both mind and spirit. “Dis Poem” is truly a masterpiece. It is the poem of life, love, family, friends, religion, worldview, and thinking. It represents everything that you ponder, whether it is right or wrong, in the past present or future. “Dis Poem” is your poem. Muta’s poem does not serve to cry out against racism, poverty, class oppression, political deceit or the baleful influence of powerful nations like many of Muta’s poems seek to do. “Dis Poem” simply encapsulates the power of thinking. The ending of the poem is perhaps the most powerful point and brings the work full circle. He writes, “dis poem is to be continued / in your mind / in your mind / in your mind…” It gets you as a reader to ponder, question, think, and that is truly the beauty of poetry and Mutabaruka’s work. “Dis Poem” is a parallel to dub music in the sense that it relies heavily on the listener’s own intuition and intellect. Dub music does not rely on the 26 letters to express emotion, but rather it lets the reader fill in the open spaces. Muta, however, has taken the 26 letters and rendered them into art that transcends all boundaries and similar to dub music he allows the reader to fill in the spaces.
“It no good to stay in a white man country too long” Mutabaruka warns repeatedly in one of his poetry performances. The reggae off-beat playing in the background has almost a soothing tone juxtaposed with the accompanying harsh and truthful words of Mutabaruka. He enforces the importance of blacks keeping their culture and to not be influenced by the materialism of the “white man country.” Muta says, “if you white it alright, if you brown stick aroun’, if you black get back.” This statement emphasizing the racism that still thrives today. Near the end of the performance he says, “blacks in England what is your plan?” Muta suggests that it is important for blacks in countries that are dominated by white people to return to their homelands and roots so they are not contaminated by the immorality of the white man. Linton Kwesi Johnson is another dub poet like Mutabaruka. However, his family moved to England from Jamaica when he was a child. Johnson verifies Mutabaruka’s statement from his first hand experience of being a black man living in a “white man country” and offers a fascinating perspective and channels his experiences into his own dub-poetry.
The popular music of Jamaica, the music of the people, is an essentially experiential music, not merely in the sense that the people experience the music, but also in the sense that the music is true to the historical experience, that the music reflects the historical experience. It is the spiritual expression of the historical experience of the Afro-Jamaican.
--Linton Kwesi Johnson
In August of 1952, Linton Kwesi Johnson, or LKJ, was born. He was raised in a small town called Chapelton in the rural parish of Clarendon, Jamaica and moved to London in 1963. In London he attended secondary school at Tulse Hills and then studied sociology at Goldsmiths’ College, University of London. While attending school he joined the Black Panthers. The Black Panther Party was an African-American revolutionary organization established to promote Black Power and self-defense for blacks. Johnson helped to organize a poetry workshop within the movement and developed his work with Rasta Love, a group of poets and drummers. In 1977 he was awarded a C Day Lewis Fellowship, becoming the writer-in residence for the London Borough of Lambeth for that year. Johnson continued on to work as the Library Resources and Education Officer at the Keskidee Centre in North London. Keskidee Centre was the first home for Black theatre and art.
Johnson’s poems first appeared in the journal “Race Today.” In 1974 the journal published his first collections of poetry, “Voices of the Living and the Dead.” His second collection called “Dread Beat An’ Blood” was published the next year and was also the title of his first LP, released by Virgin in 1978. That same year also saw the release of the film Dread Beat An’ Blood, which was a documentary on LKJ’s work. Johnson then put out his most famous audio “Inglan Is A Bitch” and released four more albums: “Forces of Victory” (1979), “Bass Culture” (1980), “LKJ in Dub” (1981), and “Making History” (1981).
Johnson launched his own record label, LKJ, in 1981 with two singles by the Jamaican poet Michael Smith, “Mi Cyaan Believe It” and “Roots.” Throughout the 1980’s Johnson was completely immersed in journalism. He worked closely with the Brixton-based “Race Today.” His 10-part radio series on Jamaican popular music, “From Mento to Lovers Rock,” aired on the BBC Radio 1 in 1982. In 1985, Johnson recorded the album “LKJ Live in Concert with the Dub Band” at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London. This album was released independently and was nominated for a Grammy Award soon after its release. “Tings An’ Times” followed in 1991 and in 1992 Johnson collaborated with Dennis Bovell and produced “LKJ in Dub: Volume Two.” In 1996 the album “LKJ Presents” was released which had a compilation of various artists. In the same year “LKJ A Cappella Live” was released which was a collection of 14 poems, including some unpublished works. To celebrate his twentieth anniversary in the recording business Johnson released “More Time” in 1998. In 2002, Linton Kwesi Johnson had his work published under the title “Mi Revalueshanary Fren” in Penguin’s Modern Classics series, making him only the second living poet and first black poet to ever do so. After this success, the BBC made a TV program about LKJ’s poetry and in this year Johnson also released the CD “LKJ in Dub Volume Three.” For the first time ever, Johnson released a DVD in 2004 to mark his 25th anniversary. The DVD was “LKJ Live in Paris with the Dennis Bovell Dub Band.”
Linton Kwesi Johnson has been made an Associate Fellow of Warwick University (1985), an Honorary Fellow of Wolverhampton Polytechnic (1987) and received an award at the XIII Premo Internazionale Ultimo Novecento from the city of Pisa for his contribution to poetry and popular music (1990). In 1998 he was awarded the Premio Piero Ciampi Citta di Livorna Concorso Musicale Nazionale in Italy. In 2003 Johnson was bestowed with an honorary fellowship from his alma mater, Goldsmiths College. In 2004 he became an Honorary Visiting Professor of Middlesex University in London. In 2005 he was awarded a silver Musgrave medal from the Institute of Jamaica for distinguished eminence in the field of poetry. LKJ has toured the world. His recordings are amongst the top-selling reggae albums in the world and his work has been translated into Italian and German. He is known and revered as the world’s first reggae poet.
Using a mix of 17th-century colonial English, West African from the slaves, and a smattering of the indigenous Caribbean tribal dialects, Johnson’s writing is often hard to read and understand. He refers to this language as “writing in my mother tongue.” (Britannica) However, the Jamaican Creole he writes in becomes much clearer when read aloud, which is the beauty of poetry and his work. The language he writes in was once considered to be inferior to that of England or American English, but now such worldly varieties of language are being embraced. Besides the linguistic difficulties of his work there are also emotional ones. Johnson writes about what he knows best – the double-edged sword that is colonial invasion. Although Johnson had the education that the black community in Britain was not encouraged to obtain, he has not lost touch with his descendants and fellow immigrants. Through his poetry he communicates with them and gives them a voice that they did not realize they were entitled to and did not have, particularly in the 1970s and 1980s. Many of his writings seek to reveal the brutality of police and the violation of basic human rights that the press sought to minimize coverage of.
“I’ve always wanted to publish a book in America. People know me as a reggae artist; they don’t know me as a poet. But I am a poet, and I began with the world. I began writing poetry before I began making records” Johnson said in an interview with “The Progressive” in 2007, thus the release of Mi Revalueshanary Fren. This book is a compilation of his best poetry and lyrics over the years. In the introduction of the book Russell Banks writes”…the music that underwrites his [LKJ] poetry is reggae. Literally, as well as literarily. Though he is known world wide as a recording and performing reggae musician and dub-poetry and can fill a stadium, the music, he says, ‘was not only a vehicle to take my verse to a wider audience but was organic to it, was born of it.’” The reggae music that accompanies the poetry is equally essential to the work of Johnson. The book itself is accompanied with a CD. In the interview with “The Progressive” Johnson explains the importance of the disc accompanying the book:
“I’m writing in my mother tongue, which is an oral language, and people may not be familiar with my phonetic spelling, so we thought the a cappella CD would help…I write for both the reader and the listener. I’m writing for the eye and the ear.” (DiNovella)
Johnsons’ insistence on his work being for both the eye and ear is evident through his writing. However, it is not even necessary to have the audio when enjoying his poetry because his work often takes on its own rhythmic quality.
“Reggae Sounds” is featured in Mi Revalueshanary Fren. Within the poem Johnson seeks to put words to the sounds of reggae music.
Shock-black bubble-doun-beat bouncing
rock-wise tumble-doun sound music;
foot-drop find drum, blood story,
bass history is a moving
is a hurting black story.
Johnson’s use of onomatopoeia and his metaphor of the sound of reggae being “a hurting black story” make this poem particularly compelling. Although his work on paper shies in comparison to his live performances with reggae dub music, he is still able to have the reader feel and almost hear the reggae sounds, hence the title. It is simply impossible to describe reggae in words, it is something that must be heard and experienced. However, Johnson somehow encapsulates a piece of reggae music in his writing which is truly impressive. When you read the poem aloud it takes on a musical, dub-like quality. And then his diction and incorporation of bloody history and hurting past enhance his objective. “Rhythm of a tropical electrical storm / cooled doun to the pace of the struggle / flame-rhythm of historically yearning / flame-rhythm of the time of turning / measuring the time for bombs and for burning,” Johnson writes in the next stanza. There is a rhythm to the poem itself that mirrors his description of reggae rhythm, which is what makes his poetry so unique and memorable.
Although you do not get the full experience of LKJ’s poetry when just reading his work in a book, it is still unbelievably powerful and captivating. “Inglan is a Bitch” is one of his most popular dub poems and is featured in Mi Revalueshanary Fren. This bold and shocking statement Johnson makes does not serve to criticize or slander the nation of England, but rather to criticize oppressive government control and racism. He has first hand experience of the treatment from the British government to the lower and middle class citizens in England as well as Jamaica. Johnson also has first hand experience with the astoundingly abundant racism. In “Inglan is a Bitch” he discusses the struggles of the poor, working class people. He repeats throughout the poem, “Inglan is a bitch / dere’s no escapin it.” He expresses how people can work hard but they are inevitably stuck in their poverty stricken state because “Inglan” and its government makes it impossible for the poor (and especially immigrants) to even make ends meet, regardless of how hard they work.
In his writing LKJ often reflects on current events that happen and often go overlooked. He brings them to light and exposes the brutalities of racism and the inequality that still remains even after slavery has been abolished centuries later. Johnson especially focuses on police brutalities that face blacks. Johnson says,
“Blacks are still dying in police custody…The government has given the police the official license to kill brown skin and dark skin and black skin people…You are still six of seven times more likely to be stopped and searched. You’re three or four times more likely to be given a custodial sentence for a first offense than if you were white.” (DiNovella)
In his poem “License fi Kill” he discusses how police abuse their power and how the darker the skin the more likely you are to be reprimanded by the police. This theme is in a similar poem of Johnson’s. He writes about the New Cross Fire Massacre that occurred in London. In 1981 a devastating house fire killed thirteen you black people during a birthday party in New Cross, London. The black community of London was shocked by the indifference of the white population, and accused the London Metropolitan Police for covering up the suspected arson attack motivated by racism. Johnson writes about this massacre in his poem “New Crass Massakah.” He does not express his personal view of the events and does not cry out against racial injustices. Rather, he dedicates his poem to the thirteen young blacks who died in the fire and writes very simply:
first di comin
an di goin
in an out af di pawty
an di rubbin
and di rackin to di riddim
and di scankin
an di pawty really swingin
den di crash
an di bang
an di flames staat fit rang
an di smoke
an di people staat fi choke
and di cryin
and di diein in di fyah…
The simplicity of the poem is so undeniable eerie it is much more effective than if Johnson had just expressed his own opinion of the racist motivations behind the act. He first describes the birthday party and the poem is very light-hearted in the beginning. And then the tone dramatically switches in the middle of the poem and the reader understands we are no longer in a happy environment; there is chaos and destruction taking place. He shows just how quickly the happiness can be ripped away and innocent lives can be taken away so abruptly and unnecessarily by racist, criminal acts. The cheerfulness of the beginning of the poem juxtaposed with the sadness and horrifying scene depicted at the end of the poem is extremely effective.
In the November 2003 issue of Vanity Fair David Bowie commented on LKJ’s work and said, “The man writes some of the most moving poetry to be found in popular music. His observations are the rich fruits of both a lyrical childhood on a Jamaican farm and his bottled anger on the streets of London.” Johnson’s work offers a unique perspective because he lived in Jamaica as a child and then moved to London and spent the majority of his life there. Johnson is fully conscious of the hardships that face blacks and the lower class in both Jamaica and a “white mans country,” England. He has experienced and lived these hardships and brings overlooked injustices to the surface through the eloquence of his words in his native language.
Linton Kwesi Johnson and Mutabaruka are considered to be the fathers of dub poetry. Their poetry and performances are shocking, entertaining, captivating, inspiring. Their poems encapsulate reggae and Jamaican cultures. Their writings possess music-like, rhythmic qualities and transcend all boundaries of what we label poetry as being. LKJ and Mutabaruka give voice to the “downpressed.” And most importantly, they provide hope.
Š Beezmohun, Sharmilla. "Linton Kwesi Johnson." Linton Kwesi Johnson. LKJ Records, 1997. Web. Nov. & Dec. 2009. <http://lister.ultrakohl.com/homepage/Lkj/lkj.htm>.
Š DiNovella, Elizabeth. "Linton Kwesi Johnson." The Progressive (2007): 33-36. Print.
Š "An Interview with Mutabaruka." Interview by Blackvegetarians.org. Black Vegetarians. Feb. 2004. Web. Nov. 2009. <http://www.blackvegetarians.org/features/mutabaruka.htm>.
Š Johnson, Linton Kwesi. Mi Revalueshanary Fren. Port Townsend: Ausable, 2006. Print.
Š "Linton Kwesi Johnson." Interview by Jason Gross. Perfect Sound Forever. LKJ Records, Jan. 1997. Web. Oct. 2009. <http://www.furious.com/perfect/lkj.html>.
Š McNish, Danielle C. "Mutabaruka launches The First Poems/The Next Poems." The Jamaica Observer 8 Mar. 2005.
Š Morris, Mervyn. "Biography/Books/Lyrics." Mutabaruka Online. Web. <http://www.mutabaruka.com>.
Š "Mutabaruka Lyrics, "Dis Poem"" IREGGAE. Web. <http://www.ireggae.com/dispoem.htm>.
Š Mutabaruka. Mutabaruka: The First Poems/The Next Poems. Kingston, Jamaica: Paul Issa Publications, 2005. Print.
Š Rawlinson, Nancy. "Linton Kwesi Johnson: Dread Beat An' Blood : Inglan is a Bitch." Spike Magazine. Web. <http://www.spikemagazine.com/1298kwes.php>.