Michael North talks to the dub poet whose Jamaican voice became a weapon in the fight for black rights in Britain
Linton Kwesi Johnson may look a little incongruous in the lush parkland campus of Stirling University. It's a far cry from the inner-city realities of his home in Brixton. But then "LKJ", now 54, has taken his distinctive brand of Jamaican-style dub poetry and reggae music around the globe. "In France, young kids were mouthing my words as I sang them at a concert," he says.
Johnson came to London in 1963 from a small town in Jamaica. At school he joined the Black Panthers, the 1960s black rights movement founded in the US, and organised poetry workshops. In the 1970s, he worked as writer-in-residence for a London borough and had his first poetry collection, Voices of the Living and the Dead . published.
"I had a strong grounding in Jamaican oral culture that came in handy, and eventually I found my own voice using my own language. I was trying to do something original and was not looking for validation from the English poetic tradition."
He was also keen to take a political stance. "My very choice of language was political. I saw poetry as a weapon in our struggle for black liberation," he says.
But Johnson is modest when asked whether his political poetry has had much of an impact: "You don't expect people to get involved (in the struggle for equal rights) because they read a poem." But he says that becoming a poet and reading other protest poets had a big influence on him.
He still sees much fuel for his kind of protest poetry today. "Britain is still as racist as it was when I was a kid. A lot of civil liberties that the English fought for for centuries have gradually been eroded under the Tories and new Labour."
In 2002, Johnson became the first black poet to have his work published in Penguin's Modern Classics series, under the title Mi Revalueshanary Fren: Selected Poems . But he scoffs at the suggestion that he has become part of the British establishment. "If you are around long enough, someone is going to notice you."
Johnson's career has spanned journalism, working closely with the Race Today collective and reporting for Channel 4's The Bandung Files , a radio series on Jamaican music, and touring with the Dennis Bovell Dub Band. LKJ, Johnson's record label, was launched in 1981. "I have made a living as a reggae artist, not as a poet," he says.
The future holds more reggae tours, poetry festivals and readings around the world. But he doubts his poetry will change the world. "I'm a middle-aged geezer just living one day at a time," he says.
Johnson will be in Stirling to read his poems at a conference on Poetry and Politics from July 13 to 16.