Linton Kwesi Johnson: 'Class-ridden? Yes, but this is still home'

Age has mellowed the reggae poet who voiced the experience of young black men in the 1980s – but don't imagine that he's joined the mainstream. Sarah Morrison meets Linton Kwesi Johnson

The last time Linton Kwesi Johnson was honoured in Britain, he made front-page news. When one broadsheet announced that the "reggae radical" had become the second living poet – and the only black one – to be published in the Penguin Modern Classic Series, alongside the likes of Yeats and Betjeman, the outrage in some quarters was instant. One academic complained that the publishers were "messing with the canon".

A decade on, the man made infamous by his poem "Inglan is a bitch", is about to be honoured again. Tomorrow, English PEN will award him its prestigious Golden PEN Award for lifetime literary achievement. The Jamaican-born poet and musician, who described police brutality in Britain in the 1980s in poems such as "Sonny's Lettah", will join a list of recipients that includes Iris Murdoch, Harold Pinter, Doris Lessing, John Berger, Salman Rushdie and Margaret Drabble.

The self-styled "father of dub poetry" – a term he coined to describe the way reggae DJs blended music and verse – is the first to admit he was "very surprised" when he heard the news. "I'm not exactly in the mainstream of the British literary scene; I'm nearer to the periphery, and for that reason, it came as a bit of a shock," the 60-year-old tells me, as we sit down at a table in his local south London pub. "If you look at the previous winners, I somehow don't fit into that group … apart from Salman Rushdie, they're all white, very mainstream authors."

I tell him that English PEN described him to me as a "very unusual choice". This is the man who saw poetry as "a cultural weapon" and used it to "articulate the experience of black youth, growing up in a racially hostile environment". He always knew he wasn't in the business of making friends.

"I have never, ever sought validation from the arbiters of British poetic taste," he tells me, sounding out every syllable of every word. Just as well, really. In the early 1980s, The Spectator insisted that his phonetic spelling "wreaked havoc in schools and helped to create a generation of rioters and illiterates". Even last year, when he performed at an event organised by Lambeth council to mark the 30th anniversary of the Brixton riots, the Daily Mail referred to him patronisingly as a "poet" (their quotation marks, not mine).

But just as I think Johnson is willing our meeting to be over, a man walks by whom he recognises. His face lights up, and an "all right, geezer?" follows, leaving the performer instantly at ease. Johnson cracks a smile, as he tells me he is "pretty much a local guy". He adds, proudly: "People used to call me Poet, and now they call me Mr Johnson." It's not the new-found honours, he tells me, but the new grey hair.

It was almost 50 years ago that Johnson, aged 11, moved to London from Jamaica. He studied sociology at Goldsmiths, joined the Black Panther movement, met writers and mentors, and learnt that "black people write books too". Johnson's debut album, Dread Beat an' Blood, released in 1978, showcased poetry written in Jamaican patois, with revolutionary politics set to a reggae beat. He was described by the writer Caryl Phillips as the "first crossover voice, who made it possible for a generation to think of themselves as black and creative in literature, music, the media".

Yet he hasn't written a poem in years. He says it doesn't bother him at all. "If a poem happens to come to me, I write it. But I am not bothered. If I never write another poem, so be it. I don't know whether I've written my best work. Some writers keep going on writing and writing, but you reach a peak at a particular age, and then go on to write inferior work."

Getting into his stride, he says: "I am a survivor of prostate cancer. Once you have a disease like cancer, you look at life a bit differently. Some things that were important no longer seem as important as they were."

"I'm like an aircraft that's taken off, reached a certain height, and now I'm cruising," he says. "At the end of the day, life's about realising one's human potential. I don't know if I've realised mine, but I've certainly gone a long way towards realising some goals and some dreams." One of those is Johnson's music company, LKJ Records, which puts out his own recordings, as well as those of other artists, including Dennis Bovell. Set up in 1981 to "put the music back into reggae", it allows him to retain his independence, which he insists "is very hard in the music world".

And yes, six decades do seem to have tempered him. The biggest change? His attitude to poetry, which has "broadened" over the years. "When I began writing poetry, for me it was a political act, it was a cultural weapon in our struggles. But of course, over the years, as I've read more, my views have changed. Let's put it this way," he says, "a friend of mine likens the poetic world to the sea. He says there's room for all kinds of fishes in the sea."

With a smile, and before he assures the photographer that he is "a pretty cool guy – it's the age I'm at", he delves into politics. Suddenly, he is as resolute as he was during the Brixton riots and lauding "Di Great Insohreckshan". Yes, black Britons are "far more integrated into British society than when I was a youngster," he tells me, but he insists that "the problem of racism is still there".

"One only has to look at the relationship between black people – and young black people, in particular – and the police," he says. "The police are riddled with racism. It's endemic, like a cancer in the police force. Things are so bad that black officers have had to form their own association. The Police Federation is the bastion of racism in the police force."

While unwilling to talk about his family – he lives with his partner, and has three adult children – he says that his grandson has been repeatedly stopped and searched by the police. He was arrested himself in 1972, and he still remembers the names of the police officers who, he says, assaulted and framed him. He was acquitted the following year, but the experience left him with little respect for the authorities.

As for the 2011 London riots, they were "just waiting to happen; they could happen again at any time". He doesn't stop there. Disappointed that there "doesn't seem to be a radical left any more", with all "politics at the centre or the right of centre", he refuses to vote in national elections (he votes only in local ones), and is unequivocal in his condemnation of the coalition. "I think this government is the most extreme I have experienced in the nearly 50 years that I've lived in this country," he says, adding that they are "using the financial crisis as a way of implementing neoliberal policies that even Mrs Thatcher in her heyday would not have contemplated".

But with that, he talks of future trips to Jamaica, the new education charity he has launched there, and of his mother, who has been the "biggest influence, as a human being", on his life. I ask him what he thinks of England now, more than three decades after he dubbed it a "bitch".

"It's still very much a class-ridden society," he says. "But I can tell you that I'd rather live here than a lot of other places I've seen. As a place, it's home for me."

Curriculum vitae

1952 Born in Chapeltown, Jamaica.

1963 Moves to London. Attends Tulse Hill secondary school and later Goldsmiths College. Joins the Black Panthers while still at school.

1970 Gets married to Barbara, whom he later divorces.

1974 Race Today publishes his first collection of poetry, Voices of the Living and the Dead.

1977 He is awarded a C Day Lewis Fellowship, becoming writer-in-residence for the London Borough of Lambeth for that year.

1981 Sets up his own record label, LKJ.

1985 Releases album LKJ Live in Concert with the Dub Band, which is nominated for a Grammy. Several more albums follow in the 1990s.

2002 He becomes only the second living poet, and the first black poet, to have his work published in the Penguin Modern Classics series.

2012 He is awarded English PEN's Golden PEN Award for a lifetime's distinguished service to literature.

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