Linton Kwesi Johnson: ‘It’s nonsense to say we’re post-racial’

The poet tells Gary Younge about the power of reggae, the neglected contribution of Caribbean migrants to Britain and how the Illegal Immigration Bill recalls slavery.

The World Today
5 minute READ

Linton Kwesi Johnson

Poet and activist

Gary Younge

Professor of Sociology, University of Manchester

Time Come: Selected Prose
Linton Kwesi Johnson, Picador, £20

Linton Kwesi Johnson travelled to Britain from Jamaica as a boy in 1963. He came to join his mother in South London, who had emigrated as part of the Windrush Generation, named after the ship that originally carried the waves of state-sponsored migration from the West Indies to fill labour shortages from 1948-1971. LKJ, as he is known, joined the Black Panther Movement while at school, becoming an activist and a poet – he is only the second living poet to be published in the Penguin Modern Classics series.

Johnson started a record label, LKJ Records, in 1981 and frequently performs his verse with a dub-reggae band. A collection of his prose, ‘Time Come’, written over many decades, will be published on April 13. Here he is in conversation with journalist and academic Gary Younge.

Younge
I remember seeing you reciting Inglan is a Bitch on the BBC programme The Old Grey Whistle Test, I couldn’t have been more than 12. I remember thinking ‘I didn’t know you could do that. I hope he’s got a ride home.’ 

LKJ
I told it like it was. I felt I had licence to speak truth to power without thought of any consequence. We were the rebel generation; we had the audacity of youth. In that poem I was simply trying to say a few words about my parents’ generation and the things that they had to put up with. Some of my white friends said to me after: ‘Bloody hell, Linton, you went on TV and said England is a bitch.’ I never thought nothing of it at the time. The only negative feedback I had was one time reciting that poem in Brixton, and some white feminists took offence at the word ‘bitch’. But it’s a metaphor for the harshness of life for people. 

Younge
If yours was the rebel generation, is there still a rebellious spirit in the younger generation?

LKJ
I think the spirit is there, but the context has changed because your generation didn’t have to fight some of the battles mine did. There was a time when I thought, ‘These youngsters, all they care about is superficial things, the bling generation.’ But I think there has been continuity between the generations in institutions like the George Padmore Institute which is an archive that holds material going back decades, relating to the struggles that got us to where we are today.

I try to ensure that continuity by archiving how we changed England, and in changing England, changed ourselves. And that continuity expresses itself not just among black youngsters, but youngsters in general through the Black Lives Matter movement. 

Profile portrait of Linton Kwesi Johnson

Linton Kwesi Johnson. Photo: Lex van Rossen/MAI/Redferns via Getty Images

Younge
Your speech accepting your honorary doctorate from Rhodes University in 2017 is in the book and in it you say: ‘Having heard blues and jazz poetry, I decided that I wanted to write reggae poetry. My verse would be a cultural weapon in the black liberation struggles.’ That’s a theme throughout the book, of culture as political intervention and as a weapon.

There was this idea of trying to forge your own aesthetics rather than looking for approval

Linton Kwesi Johnson

LKJ
I never saw myself as a poet working within the canon of English poetry, my verse is more akin to popular culture. Also, poetry ought to be about authenticity of voice and I’ve gotten the authority to use my own voice from people like Louise Bennett who established the Jamaican language as a legitimate vehicle for poetry discourse, and from guys like The Last Poets who used the everyday urban language of African-Americans to talk about black experience in America.

Then I got inspiration from the reggae deejays, Big Youth and Prince Jazzbo and U-Roy. And Prince Buster was important to me – people remember him for his ska recordings, but I also remember him for his talking tunes, like the famous Judge Dread where he takes on the persona of a judge from Africa to try all these rude boys [in Jamaica] for shooting and killing.

Linton Kwesi Johnson performing live in Amsterdam, 1980

Linton Kwesi Johnson performing live in Amsterdam, 1980. Photo: Rob Verhorst/Redferns via Getty Images

There was this idea of trying to forge your own aesthetics rather than looking for approval from the gatekeepers of literary art, all forms of art for that matter. And since I was talking about our Afro-Caribbean communities, it made perfect sense to do so in a language that we spoke in our everyday lives.

Younge
One of the things that I struggle with people asking is, have things got better for black British people? In Time Come, you do a good job of saying it is not that simple. 

LKJ
My parents’ generation and mine, we so much wanted to be a part of British society but there were these barriers erected. But I think what has happened over the years is that through our anti-racist struggles against the marginalization of our children in schools, for equal treatment on the factory floor and equal pay, to get justice in the courts, all of the battles we have fought, we have been successful at last to integrate ourselves into British society.

Theresa May didn’t invent the hostile environment – that was there when we arrived

Linton Kwesi Johnson

But it’s just nonsense that we are in a ‘post-racial’ situation. I hate that term. A measure of how much we’ve become integrated is that I heard a couple of black women in my local pub in Brixton talking about all these Eastern Europeans coming over here and taking our jobs and I’m thinking, ‘Really?’ That was a measure of how British we had become. 

Younge
That seems a double-edged sword – we have become very integrated into a racist society. 

LKJ
In British politics today, there are quite a few black and Asian MPs in both political parties, and in the Tories some of these people of colour seem to believe they have to be more anti-immigrant, anti-working class and express extreme right-wing views to feel comfortable within the Tory party – people like Kwasi Kwarteng, Suella Braverman and Priti Patel.

Have they got no racial identity? They represent their constituents but are they blind to what is happening to black people and Asian people in this country? There is a kind of colour blindness, but it’s more to do with their class allegiances and that they don’t have any sense of solidarity with the rest of us. 

Younge
The late Darcus Howe used to say there’s an ease of presence now that there wasn’t before. But then into that ease came the Windrush Scandal, and I’m wondering how we understand that because that felt very retrograde. 

Gary Younge at a Windrush generation protest in Windrush Square, Brixton, in 2018

Gary Younge at a Windrush generation protest in Windrush Square, Brixton, in 2018. Photo: Matthew Chattle/Future Publishing via Getty Images

LKJ
It’s the Nigel Farage factor and the desperation of the Tories not to lose those xenophobic people who are part of their core membership. Theresa May didn’t invent the ‘hostile environment’ – that’s what we were confronted with from the time we arrived. 

I wonder if black people have integrated, but white people haven’t

Gary Younge

Younge
I am thinking of the policy of sending refugees to Rwanda, that is something that they would never have come up with 30 years ago. Also, the Illegal Migration Bill which the government says might be against international law, but they are going to go for it anyway. Those make me wonder if black people have integrated but white people haven’t.

LKJ
There is a precedent for this methodology. This idea of transporting people goes back to the days of slavery. The rebellious slaves, they were shipped off to Nova Scotia and places that became Liberia and Sierra Leone. But these things have to be seen in the context of Brexit, reclaiming our borders. 

Younge
Lots of Caribbean countries have been talking about becoming a republic, but it finally feels like they are coming through. For instance, I recently interviewed Mia Mottley, the prime minister of Barbados, shortly before Barbados became a republic. Now the country has embassies in Ghana and Kenya as well as the United Arab Emirates. 

LKJ
Jamaica talked about it a lot for a long time, but it took ‘Little England’ [as Barbados was known] to do the thing. As the global centre of power shifts it makes sense to form new alliances. And who better than with our ancestors, with African countries? It is long overdue.

Linton Kwesi Johnson’s National Union of Students card from his time at Goldsmiths College, London, 1973-1976.

Linton Kwesi Johnson’s National Union of Students card from his time at Goldsmiths College, London, 1973-1976. Photo: courtesy of Linton Kwesi Johnson

These countries have been more or less been abandoned by our former colonial masters – where are the trade agreements? Where is the assistance with developing our infrastructures? What’s happening with reparations? David Cameron offered to build us a new prison in Jamaica. Is that reparation? What about Barclays Bank, Lloyds Bank, Lloyd’s of London, all these major financial institutions that made money out of the slave trade? And the vast amount of capital that came out of that trade that was used to finance the industrial revolution?

Younge
What is the popular illustration of that Pan-African consciousness?

LKJ
Burna Boy, the Afrobeats artist. He is a big hit in Jamaica. Reggae had a big impact on Africa and popular culture during the 70s, 80s, and now it’s the other way around. What I find interesting is that the so-called people of colour making the biggest impact now on British popular culture in grime music, theatre, film are those from the African diaspora, not the African Caribbean. Their time has come. It’s wonderful to see. I like Stormzy’s style − that guy is so cool. 

Younge
You know, I am the father of a 16-year-old, and I think the value of Time Come and your Selected Poems is for the continuity that you talk about, that is necessary if we are going to have a cross-generational conversation. 

Content ctd

LKJ
So much knowledge was withheld from our peoples in the Caribbean, leaving us without a historical perspective. That is why it’s important to have books like your collection of essays and the George Padmore Institute. In the absence of that, young people won’t have a sense of how we got here and how we were able to change England. Because we have changed England, we’ve made it into a slightly better place. 

Younge
Do you think England recognizes that? 

LKJ
Sections of the society do, but in general, I don’t think so.

Gary Younge’s book, ‘Dispatches from the Diaspora: From Nelson Mandela to Black Lives Matter’ (Faber), is out now