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Linton Kwesi Johnson: A Profile

TUESDAY 30th April 2002
"Inglan is a bitch". That was dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson's assessment of his adopted homeland in 1980. 22 years later and that most English of institutions Penguin Books has made this uncompromising writer only its second living poet ever to appear in their Modern Classics section.

A risk taker and passionate performer

His fellow wordsmith Adrian Mitchell calls the publisher's decision "risky, but then we should take risks."

Linton Kwesi has been taking them since he arrived in Britain at the age of 11, and began to vocalise the struggle of the black community. A political activist and Island-signed reggae artist, Johnson has spoken for 30 years in rhythmical outpourings that, even in the semantic confines of Penguin books, leap off the page.

His observations are the rich fruits of both a lyrical childhood on a Jamaican farm, and his bottled anger on the streets of London. During his teenage years in Brixton, Johnson witnessed serial episodes of racial abuse and joined the Black Panthers movement in protest. There, he learned his history and culture, but found his own outlet.

He came across the African-American protest leader WEB DuBois's classic book The Souls of Black Folk, and was inspired to become a poet.

In the three decades since, Johnson has remained true to his Jamaican patois tongue, but his audience has extended far beyond Caribbean immigrants eager to hear a friendly voice. Johnson never set out to charm anyone, but to attend one of his performances has been described as a "passionate and inspiring experience".

Political poems

The 1970s saw Johnson creating overtly political poems about issues that directly affected young black people, and as street rioting grew more aggressive through the decade, so did his poetry. His verse documented the highlights of the struggle faced by any victims of injustice. These included Blair Peach, a teacher killed during an anti-fascist march in 1979. Johnson didn't hold back.

He has been called a visionary, an icon, a prophet for Britain, but this enigmatic figure rejects such epithets as mere "media tags". Of his singular treatment by Penguin, Johnson remains "as surprised as anyone else. It's a very brave thing they've done."

Especially as, in his own opinion, his work has been merely "a small contribution to bring poetry back to the people".

These days his tongue remains as proudly patois as ever, but his issues are both broader in their sweep of the political horizon, and more personal in their introspection.

When his nephew died in mysterious circumstances while standing on a London station six years ago, Johnson railed against the inadequacies of the justice system. A poem about the premature death of his father is simultaneously one about his native Jamaica. In his poetry, the personal meets the political. Or rather, highlights their inseparability.

As long as Stephen Lawrence's murder goes unpunished, as long as a black person is eight times more likely to be stopped and searched as a white person is and racism remains rife and institutional, the establishment's embrace of this distinctive dub poet is academic.

"Inglan is a bitch" still, it seems. Unlike many poets after their first flush of creativity, Linton Kwesi Johnson still has a lot to talk about.