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Contributor: Juwon Ogungbe
Linton Kwesi Johnson

A pioneer in voicing the feelings of many disaffected people from UK minority cultures, LKJ started from relatively humble beginnings but now, he is an acknowledged fixture on the international gig and live poetry circuit. With a career which encompasses print journalism, broadcasting, community work and Afro-British arts activism, LKJ is heard on Radio 3 programmes sandwiched between features on pillars of the Caucasian cultural canon such as Mozart, Beethoven and Bach, but still lives in the heart of Brixton, well known and respected by the local people.
In the seventies and eighties, LKJ made albums for Virgin and Island Records. Presumably artistic integrity led him to set up his own record label, on which he has just released a new album - “More Time”. He has just returned from a UK and European tour when I met him, in November, and he was set to tour in Europe again at the end of the year.
We met in a pub in Brixton. Unmistakable in his trademark hat and glasses, LKJ cuts an urbane, yet ascetic figure. He claimed to be suffering from interview fatigue. Luckily I had only a few questions for him.

What had he hoped to achieve when he started writing?

He wasn’t sure exactly what. As a young member of the UK Black Panthers he’d read The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Dubois - the African American writer who lead the Black literary set during the 1920’s Harlem Renaissance. This book stirred something within LKJ, inspiring him to articulate his feelings - and those of his generation - about finding themselves in what was then a hostile environment for Black people.
When I asked him if he had achieved his aims, he said he had achieved them beyond his wildest dreams. Hoping to be published was one thing, but now he has made several recordings and published a number of books. He seems flabbergasted that he is celebrating his twentieth year of recording albums and that his first book Voices of the Living and the Dead was published in 1974.

Does he find it easy aligning his text with music?

Apparently not, but it has not been particularly hard either. His poems are primarily intended to be spoken and created with a rhythm in mind. However, this is not the same as creating a song or a piece of music with words. Sometimes, he feels, there’s a danger that music can overwhelm words. He has a creative partnership with Dennis Bovell and his Dub Band, which has lasted since his first album - Dread Beat an’ Blood.

Has he felt the urge to do more extensive collaborations with composers?

Not really. Courtney Pine has approached him several times, but LKJ feels that he would only explore such an option if it was the right thing to do at the time. He has collaborated with the American singer Garland Jeffries, he has written T.V. plays (which weren’t shown) but has no immediate plans to do this sort of work.

Does he see his work’s influence in the expression of younger Black artists?

He says he’s not in a position to pinpoint. Those who have been influenced by him know who they are. He however hopes his work has made an impact. Certain Scottish poets have acknowledged that his use of Jamaican patois in live poetry readings has led them to investigate the richness of their own Gaelic language. This piece of information reminded me that LKJ’s appeal goes way beyond the UK Black and Jamaican cultures. He agrees with me wholeheartedly - he never saw himself as a ghetto artist. His expression is for everybody.

After this last question, LKJ and I discussed current trends in music His preferences (like mine) are for the “Black” music of the pre- drum machine era. He admires Grandmaster Flash’s clarity, but he also likes Public Enemy’s Fight the Power. His favourite British D.J.s are Macca B, Tipper Irie and Pato Banton. We discussed how an artist such as Banton could be accused of “selling out” by his core audience after getting a mainstream hit with UB40, and defended Banton by arguing that records were made to be sold.
LKJ still has a lot to offer UK Black culture - and indeed to UK Culture as a whole. One hopes the education system will find a way to incorporate his work into the school curriculum so young Britons of any colour, of the present and future, can benefit from the perceptions expressed in his chronicles.

This interview was conducted in November 1998.
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