Cultural icon and former Goldsmiths sociology student Linton Kwesi Johnson is described as “the father of dub poetry”, using the genre to articulate without compromise the experience of black youth in modern Britain. He was the first black poet, and the second living poet, to be published in the Penguin Modern Classics series – a canon that includes the likes of Yeats and Betjeman.
Born in Jamaica in 1952, at the age of 11 Linton travelled to London to live in Brixton, joining his mother who had emigrated the previous year. He joined the Black Panther movement while at school, finding that it offered a rhetoric of working-class solidarity that he could fully get behind. “I became passionate about freedom, equality, justice,” he remembers.
In 1973 Linton started a BA Sociology degree at Goldsmiths. I took sociology as I thought it might provide me with the answers to society and my place in it. It didn’t, but it did provide me with a lot of questions and the tools to make sense of the world around me.” He has fond memories of his tutor, Paul Filmer. “He was cool and encouraging and made you think for yourself. Goldsmiths had an enviable reputation for sociology, with several of the lecturers there, including Paul, being the leading exponents of ‘ethnomethodology’.”
It was around this time that Linton began writing and performing dub poetry. Characterised by the recitation of verse in Jamaican patois over reggae rhythms, Linton’s work documented and scrutinised the political situation in London at the time – from Brixton street life and police brutality to the post-Windrush black experience in Britain more widely. He has famously said that “writing was a political act and poetry was a cultural weapon”.
One of his most famous works, Di Great Insohreckshan, was a response to the 1981 Brixton riots, a turning point in social history; in Linton’s words, “an it spread all ovah di naeshan / it woz a truly an histarical okayjan”. Against a backdrop of class warfare and a growing sense of injustice, the trigger for the riots had been the New Cross Fire in January of the same year, which claimed the lives of 13 young people. Widely suspected to be a racially motivated arson, the subsequent investigation – and perceived police and media indifference to the attack – provoked mass protest. As well as articulating the spirit of defiance at the time, Linton was involved in the fight for racial equality and social justice in the aftermath of the fire. “I remember the police cover-up of the atrocity, and how they tried to frame the youths, claiming it was black on black violence. The march of between 15,000 and 20,000 people from New Cross to Hyde Park was a watershed moment in terms of black experience in Britain.”
Despite describing himself as “not exactly in the mainstream of the British literary scene”, in 2012 Linton's longstanding literary achievement and artistic innovation was recognised in the form of a Golden PEN Award; previous winners include JG Ballard, Doris Lessing and Harold Pinter. Other accolades include a Silver Musgrave Medal from the Institute of Jamaica in 2005 for his outstanding contribution to poetry, and a 1977 Cecil Day Lewis Fellowship which saw him become the London Borough of Lambeth’s writer-in-residence. Linton started his own record label, LKJ Records, in 1981. His LKJ Live in Concert With The Dub Band album was nominated for a Grammy in 1985.
Linton was made an honorary fellow of Goldsmiths in 2004. He remembers the late Ben Pimlott, who was Warden at the time, delivering a speech that summed up the university’s ethos. “'Goldsmiths is an idea working around a tradition that I would call bloody-minded anti-orthodoxy,' Professor Pimlott said. 'A tradition of attacking stuffy traditions that need to be attacked, a tradition of providing an environment where new ideas flourish.' Sitting among the dignitaries on the stage, waiting nervously to receive an honorary fellowship, I remembered when I had studied there.”
“My biggest achievement so far is that I have given a generation of black people the confidence to articulate themselves. That is what young people have told me.”
Image of Linton's Bass Culture album (1980) courtesy of Thomas Fehlmann photos