The dub poetry of Linton Kwesi Johnson

In In These Times, Silja Talvi looks at the music of Linton Kwesi Johnson.

The musical environment that LKJ grew up in was a mix of the Jamaican musical styles of rocksteady, reggae and dub reggae (a version of reggae with heavy echo, unusual sound effects and typically languid pacing), so he gravitated toward that genre. Unlike many of his musical peers, he eschewed—but never disrespected—the spiritual framework of the Rastafarian religion, giving his songs an appeal to audiences uncomfortable with worshipful shout-outs to the deposed Ethiopian Emperor, Haile Selassie.

In the ’80s and ’90s, LKJ focused on his UK audiences, occasionally touring the United States with sold-out shows packed with a dynamic mix of Rastas, punks and left-wing activists. LKJ’s recorded music has been available to U.S. audience on such gems as Dread Beat An’ Blood (Virgin, 1978), Forces of Victory (Mango/Island, 1979), LKJ in Dub (Island, 1981) and Making History (Island, 1983)—as well as a host of records released through his own label, LKJ Records, including Tings an’ Times (1991), LKJ Presents (1996), and More Time (1998)—and most recently in the form of the Island Records CD collection, Independent Intavenshan (1998).

For the first time, LKJ’s poetry has been published in the United States, in a brilliant collection entitled Mi Revalueshanary Fren. The book was released this year by the New York-based poetry publisher Ausable Press, complete with a companion CD of LKJ reading his own poetry—sans musical accompaniment.