By Decca Aitkenhead for The Guardian
As the Jamaican-born dub poet reflects on decades of race relations in the UK, from the Brixton riots to Windrush, he says young black men carry knives out of fear, and questions how much progress we have made since his time as a teenage Black Panther
‘If the government doesn’t sort out the Windrush situation, they’ll have a fight on their hands’ … Linton Kwesi Johnson. (Credit/Photo: Graeme Robertson for the Guardian)
When Linton Kwesi Johnson was a boy, he wanted to grow up to be an accountant. “If I was an accountant,” he chuckles softly, sitting surrounded by piles of books and CDs in his modest south-London terrace house: “I would probably be a multimillionaire by now.” The world, on the other hand, would be considerably poorer.
It is 40 years since the Jamaican-born poet made his debut as a recording artist. The release of Dread Beat an’ Blood – an album of radical political poetry spoken in Jamaican patois, set to a reggae beat – created a new literary genre known as dub poetry, and introduced Johnson, now 65, as the voice of the Windrush generation. Neither he nor his work was universally welcomed. The Spectator memorably accused him of helping “to create a generation of rioters and illiterates” (the magazine was appalled by his phonetic spelling – as in “massakaha” for massacre, say) and he remembers how the police arrested and beat him up. Yet he became only the second living poet to have his work published by Penguin Modern Classics, and was the 2012 winner of the Golden PEN award for his “distinguished service to literature”. Next month, his contribution to the country’s cultural life will be honoured at the Southbank Centre in London – an occasion whose significance has been intensified by events of recent weeks.
Johnson describes himself as a reluctant interviewee. “I’ve got interview fatigue,” he smiles before we have even sat down, and it is true that he can be quite diffident and reserved. But rereading all the interviews he has given over the years, I was struck by how comprehensively they chart each turn in the evolving history of British race relations. From the Black Panther movement to the New Cross fire and Brixton riots of 1981, through the Metropolitan police’s notorious Special Patrol Group, the Stephen Lawrence murder and the Macpherson report, right up to the Grenfell Tower tragedy, Johnson has provided the social commentary absent from so much of the public narrative. Sometimes, he has sounded full of rage – and at other times, more hopeful. I’m curious, therefore, to hear how he would characterise the present moment.
“In terms of our country, it would be foolish to say that we haven’t made some progress. Because we have.” He cites the contrast between the “almost complete and utter indifference to the New Cross fire from mainstream media” with the “huge outpouring of sympathy for people affected by the Grenfell tragedy” and reflects: “I think it’s a measure of how much progress we’ve made; how integrated we are.” Then he pauses. […]
Read the full article at www.theguardian.com/books/2018/apr/27/linton-kwesi-johnson-brixton-windrush-myth-immigrants-didnt-want-fit-british-society-we-werent-allowed