Stevie G: LKJ revelling in life

In his weekly column in Downtown, Stevie G recalls his recent chat with legendary Jamaican dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson, ahead of his upcoming visit to Cork
Stevie G: LKJ revelling in life

Linton Kwesi Johnson will perform at Live at St Lukes.

Linton Kwesi Johnson, aka LKJ, is coming to Cork for a poetry reading and performance on June 21 at Live at St Lukes, as part of the Crosstown Drift for the Cork Midsummer festival.

I chatted with the legendary Jamaican dub poet recently, and he told me he visited Cork before, with long-term collaborator Dennis Bovell, sometime in the late 80s or early 90s. His own style has always been very popular here, marrying Bovells dub reggae with his own powerful voice and even more powerful words.

With the UK and wider world being in a particularly bad moment of turmoil right now, it echoes some of the days in the late 70s and early 80s, when LKJ’s words first made people sit up and take notice. This was an era where reggae and punk overlapped amid riots and social upheaval that can be still seen precisely 40 years on.

Linton says: “It was a great time for music because it was a time for Thatcherism and Mrs Thatcher was determined to claw back all of the gains that the working class had won for itself in the settlement after the Second World War; young people were up in arms, and there was a strong rebel tradition among the unemployed, black and whites alike, and so there was a kind of solidarity between the punk and reggae movements, because they both provided a creative response to what young people were experiencing at the time”.

LKJ admits he’s an “old geezer” who now listens mainly to “the old reggae classics and jazz and blues”, and though not hip to everything, he sees that young people at the moment “are more informed with what’s going on in the world” in this internet era and he notes that the likes of Stormzy and co are echoing some of that previous era with their social commentary.

“There is a direct continuity between what’s happening now, in terms of grime and stuff, and what was happening with dub and reggae, because there is a cultural continuity of the spoken word with music, which can be traced right back to reggae.”

We discussed the power of reggae as a universal music and Linton had some typically sharp observations on why this was the case: “Jamaican music contains a wide variety of influences, from Irish folk to American Blues and R&B, so I guess a lot of people when they heard reggae could hear something they could identify with”.
In reggae today he cites Chronixx as one of those impressing him with a return to the “roots, rock reggae style”, and he feels that “dancehall sometimes lost its direction with too much emphasis on materialism and bling”. Despite this, this year, Linton doesn’t feel the urge to pick up the pen. “I haven’t written for quite a few years. I’m not particularly concerned with it. Some writers peak at a certain age and then they produce a load of rubbish afterwards, and I don’t want to produce a load of rubbish”.
He agrees that young writers usually have more “fire in the belly” and is realistic about any potential future work.

“Once you’ve learned your craft and produced a body of work, that’s it really. I admire poets who live for poetry, and get up everyday, but I’ve never been that kind of poet, I just occasionally wrote some verse when I was inspired; luckily, I was able to set it to music and win a wider audience for it.

“I consider myself very lucky. I was able to make a living as a musician based on the verse that I’d written. It was never my ambition to become one, that’s just how things turned out. Music was there as a vehicle to bring my poetry to a wider audience, and then one thing led to another and next thing you know I was working as a reggae artist”.

It’s been some journey from his birth in rural Jamaica and childhood in Brixton to becoming a highly-influential poet and artist worldwide.

Linton loves Ireland and the “west coast such as Connemara” and one of his most memorable experiences took place in the Cuirt Literature festival in 1997 in Galway, when he recited his poetry alongside the Nobel prize-winning poet and author Seamus Heaney. Linton will be joined on stage on June 21 by some of our own finest artists including Cormac Lally, Denise Chailia, Michelle Delea and Stan Notte and the Lost Gecko.

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