Linton Kwesi Johnson: As good as his words

The poet-musician caught the pulse of Britain's disaffected black youth in the Eighties. As Yasmin Alibhai-Brown hears, he still has plenty to say
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The Independent Culture

Linton Kwesi Johnson, supreme dub and reggae artist, one of only two living poets ever to appear in the Penguin Modern Classics series, is one of the star turns at Lee "Scratch" Perry's Meltdown, currently taking place at London's South Bank, showcasing reggae, hip-hop and rap artists. Johnson will appear with the Dennis Bovell Dub Band, his burnt caramel voice beating out intoxicating words to a rhythm that mesmerises fans the world over. They now include Icelanders and Finns.

LKJ, the original, the icon, incomparable warrior wordsmith, lives on London's Railton Road, between Brixton and Herne Hill. Railton Road, still looks as if it is only just managing to survive on small wages, yet it is neat and proud, with flowers struggling in tiny front gardens and no grubby net curtains to cause anyone shame.

This was once a site of some of the most wanton violence our country has ever seen. Bloody battles took place in April 1981 between black men and the police and radical black politics was born here. LKJ was in there, fighting, he says, against the indefensible racial animosity faced by Caribbeans and others too who came here with so much faith. When disillusionment broke this trust, these post-war immigrants survived as best they could without causing too many waves. Johnspn believes they were "the heroic generation" and maybe this is why he dresses just like the young men in trilbies who walked down the planks of ships such as HMS Windrush in the 1950s.

For the generation that followed, disenchantment turned to rage, which had nowhere to go. The education system failed black youngsters, racism was naked and brutal, and the police behaved as if proudly wearing black or brown skin was a crime against the nation. Black and Asian people were wanted for only one reason, said the writer and broadcaster Darcus Howe, "to be hewers of wood and drawers of water". LKJ feels similarly that, "We were never invited here to become lawyers, doctors and politicians", but to join the oppressed white working classes, do the dirty work and accept control. The SUS laws were the most iniquitous manifestation of this control - black men were picked up daily because the police suspected they were up to no good.

Howe edited Race Today, a militant campaigning publication, which published LKJ's early poetry. He wrote euphoric verses about the riots; Sue Lawley asked him on Radio 4's Desert Island Discs if this was decent and his reply was, "If you had been as brutalised, you would understand. I have no regrets." LKJ's poem "Yout Scene" describes such confrontations: "But when nite come/ policeman run dem dung;/ beat dem dung a grung,/ kick dem ass,/ sen dem pass justice/ to prison walls of gloom." His poetic language gives pride of place to Jamaican Creole, but is also, he says, about subverting the language of Britain itself.

And from those prison walls, in one of his best poems, "Sonny's Lettah", another young, incarcerated black man writes a sad and sorry letter to his mama, explaining that he tried his best to keep straight. LKJ was himself arrested and assaulted by the police because he intervened as they were violently arresting a black man. Inglan is a Bitch, an uncompromising collection came out in 1980, and it was both apocalyptic and cocky, looking Thatcherism straight in the eye.

Railton Road has meaning and memory and of course Johnson would want to live there. But I thought it would be a in large, pricey abode, befitting his global status, a bit like the pink mansion built by Fats Domino in the heart of a black housing project in New Orleans, something saying I may be big but I am still one of you. Not at all. Johnson lives in a small terraced home, with no visible trappings at all of wealth and fame. Comfortable chairs, printed carpets, a solid long pine table where we sit and talk and drink tea. Johnson is amused and a little baffled that I think it is all a bit humble - "Really? I think it is a very nice home."

I ask him how he explains his success: "How do I account for the popularity? I couldn't account for it at all. I was just trying to articulate how the youth of my generation felt - I never expected it to go this far." He is contained, as if warning you not to become too familiar. In one poem, "Story", he describes the "mawsk" he puts on, "like a sheil... and evrybady tink me cool an deadly". I tell him this cool of his makes me nervous: "Oh my dear" he says, tenderly, "I am so sorry - it's just faces we all wear."

Johnson was born in 1952, in Chapeltown, a rural parish town in Jamaica. His parents separated and his mother came to Britain leaving him to be brought up by his adored grandmother for whom he was the man of the house. Education in rural Jamaica was vastly superior to education in "Inglan": "I passed my O-levels and then went on to college in spite of my school, although I had a couple of good teachers." He joined the Black Panthers, and became the composite poet-musician-radical he remains to this day.

His influences include the Francophone decolonisation writers Aimé Césaire and Léopold Sédar Senghor, also WEB Du Bois, Marcus Garvey, James Baldwin and the entire canon of African-American freedom poets, singers, thinkers and novelists. What about European influences? "I locate myself near Robbie Burns - the Scottish vernacular and the folk qualities of his verse in particular. I like Shelley, too, although that came later."

Bob Marley and reggae stars, too, made LKJ what he is, though his music also embraces and reconstructs calypso, ska and dub. LKJ in Dub Volume Two with Bovell is a masterpiece. He refused an Island Records contract offered to him after Bob Marley died: "I didn't want to contrive material to fit schedules, to sell my soul." Instead he set up his own company, which has flourished.

He says he is now middle-aged and mellow, and accepts that things are much better for black Britons. But the fury can still rise. Why has nobody paid for so many black deaths in police custody? How can we treat asylum seekers so inhumanely? He worries that young black people are the lost generation. Education is still failing them. But why only blame schools? What about peer group pressures and family? "Yes, some parents are doing a poor job but peer group pressures are always there. The young have grown up to be selfish and acquisitive, and schools are failing them."

It is political engagement that makes LKJ great. Politics is his muse, the heart of him and his sound. As I left LKJ, he was posing reluctantly for our photographer in front of a wall with a black and red mural, telling the story of the black claim to this old land, the reason why this poet first wrote and why he will, I hope, write for a long time to come.

Linton Kwesi Johnson and the Dennis Bovell Dub Band play at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London SE1, tomorrow