As the Jamaican-born dub poet reflects on decades of race relations in the UK, from the Brixton riots to Windrush, he says young black men carry knives out of fear, and questions how much progress we have made since his time as a teenage Black Panther
When Linton Kwesi Johnson was a boy, he wanted to grow up to be an accountant. “If I was an accountant,” he chuckles softly, sitting surrounded by piles of books and CDs in his modest south-London terrace house: “I would probably be a multimillionaire by now.” The world, on the other hand, would be considerably poorer.
It is 40 years since the Jamaican-born poet made his debut as a recording artist. The release of Dread Beat an’ Blood – an album of radical political poetry spoken in Jamaican patois, set to a reggae beat – created a new literary genre known as dub poetry, and introduced Johnson, now 65, as the voice of the Windrush generation. Neither he nor his work was universally welcomed. The Spectator memorably accused him of helping “to create a generation of rioters and illiterates” (the magazine was appalled by his phonetic spelling – as in “massakaha” for massacre, say) and he remembers how the police arrested and beat him up. Yet he became only the second living poet to have his work published by Penguin Modern Classics, and was the 2012 winner of the Golden PEN award for his “distinguished service to literature”. Next month, his contribution to the country’s cultural life will be honoured at the Southbank Centre in London – an occasion whose significance has been intensified by events of recent weeks.
Johnson describes himself as a reluctant interviewee. “I’ve got interview fatigue,” he smiles before we have even sat down, and it is true that he can be quite diffident and reserved. But rereading all the interviews he has given over the years, I was struck by how comprehensively they chart each turn in the evolving history of British race relations. From the Black Panther movement to the New Cross fire and Brixton riots of 1981, through the Metropolitan police’s notorious Special Patrol Group, the Stephen Lawrence murder and the Macpherson report, right up to the Grenfell Tower tragedy, Johnson has provided the social commentary absent from so much of the public narrative. Sometimes, he has sounded full of rage – and at other times, more hopeful. I’m curious, therefore, to hear how he would characterise the present moment.
“In terms of our country, it would be foolish to say that we haven’t made some progress. Because we have.” He cites the contrast between the “almost complete and utter indifference to the New Cross fire from mainstream media” with the “huge outpouring of sympathy for people affected by the Grenfell tragedy” and reflects: “I think it’s a measure of how much progress we’ve made; how integrated we are.” Then he pauses.
“But, right now, we are living through a time of reaction; the rise of Conservative populism. And some things simply won’t go away. I’m sure I’ll be crucified for saying this, but I believe that racism is very much part of the cultural DNA of this country, and most probably has been so from imperial times. And, in spite of the progress that we have made, it’s there. It is something we have to contend with in our everyday lives.”
Linton was born in rural Jamaica in 1952, and arrived in London 11 years later to join his mother. “I remember when I was a youngster, there was always this myth that we were finding it difficult to integrate ourselves into British society. Or that there was a reluctance on our part to fit in with British society.” Most of the time. he speaks slowly, as if carefully measuring each word before committing it to speech, but occasionally they come firing out, and do now as he goes on: “And that was really a nonsense, because we are British! We were created by the British, for God’s sake.” The more deliberate rhythm resuming, he adds quietly: “The fact of the matter is we wanted desperately to integrate. But they wouldn’t allow us.”
Johnson has held a British passport since Margaret Thatcher was in power, but has known many Jamaican people who lived in the UK for years, only to visit the Caribbean and discover they were not allowed back. “So this Windrush scandal has been going on for a long time. But it is also symptomatic of the ascendancy of the Ukip wing of the Conservative party. Ukip doesn’t really exist in any concrete sense any more, but it is alive and well within the Conservative party. It has not only been the nasty party; it has been the anti-immigrant party.”
He takes heart from the public outcry that has forced the government to radically revise its hostile environment policy. “I think the vast majority of British people are outraged and think it’s grossly unjust. I mean, if you have got someone like Joseph [sic] Rees-Mogg, or whatever his name is, coming out and saying this is unacceptable, that’s a measure of the general public outrage.” I ask what the government’s abject apologies mean to him. “Well, there’s no harm in saying sorry,” he smiles, with a mischievous glint. “But people want their situation resolved.” Does he assume from everything the government has promised that it will be?
“Well, I hope so. Because if it isn’t, they’ve got a fight on their hands, I can tell you that.”
Johnson’s worry, he adds, is: “It’s not just the so-called Windrush generation, but other people, maybe from the Indian subcontinent and other parts of the Commonwealth, who will be affected by this.” The Brexiters in government, I say, blame EU membership for causing Britain to neglect its Commonwealth cousins, and promise that Brexit will put this right.
“It’s laughable,” he sighs. “Really, it is laughable.” He doesn’t know anyone in London’s West Indian community who fell for it. “I’m sure that some of our governments in the Caribbean may be hoping for some benefit. But that is very naive … very naive. I think when people in government are talking about the Commonwealth, they’re really talking about Australia and New Zealand and Canada. Not these little specks in the Caribbean sea.”
Johnson subscribes to Marcus Garvey’s belief that progress comes through autonomy, so has never looked to Westminster for progress. As a schoolboy, he joined the Black Panther movement, so I ask what he would join if he were in his teens today. “Oh, I would be in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, for sure.” Mainstream parties don’t interest him, he offers mildly. “Racist immigration legislation has been shared by both political parties. Winston Churchill talked about the ‘wogs’ and all that. So Mrs May, she’s not exceptional; there’s a historical continuity. And the Labour party is not exactly squeaky-clean. Though I’m very encouraged that in Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party, there’s now a different tone.”
Different enough for him to vote at the next general election? It has been Johnson’s lifelong policy to vote only in local elections, but after a brief pause, he nods. “I would probably give it serious thought.”
Although “a news junkie”, addicted to TV news channels, he admits: “I’m just bloody useless when it comes to computers.” Sending and receiving emails are as far as his engagement with the digital world goes, so online political activism passes him by. But I wonder if he shares the view of Cressida Dick, David Lammy and others that social media is playing a part in the current eruption of youth street violence.
“Yes, I would agree it plays a part. All these youngsters with their smartphones, ratcheting it up.” He cites austerity as another factor, but goes on: “I always try to remind people, gangs are not a new phenomenon. When I was a youngster there was gangs.”
Why didn’t he join one? “I didn’t have the need to join a gang. I wasn’t a rudeboy – although a lot of my friends were. And I never had the herd mentality. I was always a loner. Nobody could get me to do anything I didn’t want to do.” He did, however, carry a knife. “I used to have a knife when I was about 15. It was about self-defence and it was a lot to do with fear. There were bullies around.” Would he have used it?
“I did. Yes. A guy was bullying me. He was bigger than me. I couldn’t fight him, so I took my knife out and went to slash him in his face. He put up his hand and I almost severed his thumb. I remember the youth club leader took him to hospital and had his thumb stitched up. And that was the last time I carried a knife.”
I ask why. “I thought: ‘I’m not going to do this.’ Because when you have a knife you forget you have fists. You forget that you have hands and feet, and the first thing you do is go for your knife. So, I understand a little about why people carry knives. It is to do with fear. And that has been around from time immemorial, you know.”
What has changed, he thinks – and for the worse – are relations between the police and black youths. He says his grandson – “who does not carry a knife” – gets stopped and searched much more often than even he was in his youth. The Macpherson report’s conclusion that the police were institutionally racist was, he says, a watershed moment – and attitudes of many senior officers have changed. “But the rank and file culture hasn’t changed at all.” They are still institutionally racist? “Of course they are. Of course they are.”
I am curious to hear what he makes of the proposal for a Stephen Lawrence Day. “Yes, why not? Why not a Stephen Lawrence Day?” he muses. Then he smiles. “You’re asking me these questions, as though as I have the answer to the problems of them. I don’t, you know.”
He becomes more forthcoming when recalling the early days of his career. After graduating in sociology from Goldsmiths in 1973: “I began to write verse, not only because I liked it, but because it was a way of expressing the anger, the passion of the youth of my generation in terms of our struggle against racial oppression. Poetry was a cultural weapon in the black liberation struggle, so that’s how it began.” He mentioned to a friend who worked for Virgin that when he recited his poems: “People say it sounds like music.” The friend suggested he make a demo tape. “And he arranged for me to meet Richard Branson. We met in this little Chinese restaurant in High Street Kensington, and Branson said he liked the tape.” What did Johnson think of Branson? “I didn’t think a lot. He looked like a hippy to me.” Branson signed him – and so Johnson became a reggae artist, he smiles, “by accident”.
A father of three, and now a grandfather, in 2011 Johnson had surgery for prostate cancer, and says it changed his outlook. “It’s made me perhaps appreciate a bit more how good it is to be alive. In Jamaica language, I would say ‘live up and love up’. You know, cherish humanity and cherish your friends and your children and your family.”
He no longer goes to concerts because he suffers from tinnitus. “My guilty pleasures are tobacco and alcohol. I like a nice glass of Guinness and a roll-up or a glass of wine and a roll-up. And I watch too much TV. Yes, I watch Strictly, X Factor, The Voice, those kinds of programmes.”
Johnson hasn’t written a new poem in more than a decade. “I hope I will write something in the future, but it doesn’t bother me if I don’t.” He doesn’t try to force it? “No.” I had thought he might have stopped writing because the anger that once fuelled him has faded.
“No, it’s because it has occurred to me that maybe I’ve written the best of what I can write already. I’ve known so many poets who have peaked at a certain period in their career, and then they’ve written inferior stuff in the years after. I don’t want to be that guy.”
Linton Kwesi Johnson is In Conversation with Robin Denselow on 14 May, as part of the (B)old festival at Southbank Centre 14-20 May. Phone 020 3879 9555.