Leggo Relijan: Laurie Taylor interviews Linton Kwesi Johnson
Linton Kwesi Johnson is one of only two living poets to be published in the Penguin Modern Classics series. Laurie Taylor talks to him about reggae and resistance.
Q You told me on the phone before I came over to Brixton to see you that you were pretty fed up with interviews...
A I get sick of the same questions. I get sick of being asked impossible questions about what is the meaning of life and what is happiness. I get sick of being asked questions by people who haven't bothered to do their research. They ask when I was born and where I was born and what school I went to, when all they have to do is to look it up. I'm suffering from interviewitis.
Q But you must have been impressed by how many people listened to one of your last interviews – the one with Sue Lawley on Desert Island Discs. I remember talking to you at a Christmas party and all the time people were coming up and saying how much they'd enjoyed the programme
A Yes, that's true. I didn't realise how many people listened to it. I'm walking along Railton Road and this middle-aged West Indian guy stops me in the street and says "Congratulations". I said "Congratulations? What for?" And he said "Your programme on the radio, man. It was really good."
Q Unless I've missed something, you've never talked about the part that religion played in your life when you were growing up in Jamaica.
A Religion? I grew up taking it for granted there was a God. It was something you never questioned, you know. I did question it one time when I was about seven or eight. My grandmother who was looking after me and my little sister had to go off somewhere and left us in the care of one of the church sisters. And I don't know how the conversation came up but I said to her, "Well, if God made everybody, who made God?" And she said "You wicked little boy! Wait till your grandmother get back. I'm going to tell her what you said."
We were native Baptist. We were poor black people. I come from the heart of Jamaica. We had a peasant existence. Farming. And the church is the hub of all the social life in such a place. You'd look forward to the harvest festivals. And the only bit of theatre you had was in the church where they'd put on little performances and recite poetry and do skits. You'd go to church twice on a Sunday. Sunday school in the morning and a proper church service in the afternoon. That was always dead boring. Us boys would get up to mischief. If an older person fell asleep, we'd roll up paper and put it in their mouth. One or two of the older boys would go so far as to light it.
Q And your education was closely bound up with religion?
A Oh yes. My schoolteacher was the organist in the church. Miss Miller. Funny it is, you know. She used to play this little warm-up bit before the church service proper began and I remember as a little boy often getting an erection listening to her playing the organ.
There was definitely something that I found erotic about the church organ. Most of our other music was religious. We sang hymns at school. From Sankey. And my grandmother would sing sacred songs at home. She would often sing such songs when her mind was troubled. When she started singing hymns you knew that something was up. But Baptists were pretty sedate. It was regarded as more sophisticated than the clapping churches. I don't remember any beating of tambourines.
Q And did your religion take more of a back seat after you arrived in this country at the age of 11?
A Not at all. When I came to this country, my mother sent me straight to Sunday school and to church. I was involved in the Methodist church up Brixton Hill. I sang in the choir for a little while. I took part in the youth club and even when I got to the age when my mother couldn't insist any more – when I was a teenager – I just went along voluntarily. I suppose it was habit.
I used to go to the Sunday service at eleven in the morning and then be back for Sunday dinner and then I was in Brixton at the Ram Jam Club by three o'clock. My mother used to say, "You're worshipping God and the Devil on the same day!"
I first began to question religion after reading Capitalism and Slavery by Eric Williams – Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago from 1961 until his death in 1981. I discovered the role that religion played in the enslavement of my people.
I was absolutely astonished to discover that during the fifteenth century when there was rivalry between Spain and Portugal – two leading Catholic countries – about the so-called New World, the Pope said to the Spaniards, "Okay, you can have America." And he said to the Portuguese, "Okay, you can have Africa." And I thought. "Fucking hell! How can this man just give me away to the Portuguese? Who is he? How dare him do dat!"
And then the questions began to go deeper. I did CSE Religious Education and got a Grade A and did a project on the Methodist Church. That was when I discovered that Charles Wesley was a high Tory who was pro-slavery. And I thought, "Are these people representing God and the interests of slavery at the same time? There's something deeply wrong here." By the time I got to university I was reading Marx and learning about how religion was the opium of the people.
Q You saw the role that religion had played in making the colonised passive?
A It was never as simple as that. I remember later discovering liberation theology and realising that these Latin American priests were involved in the struggles that were taking place down there. And I knew that some preachers – particularly some Baptist preachers – had been opposed to slavery. People like Paul Bogle, the Baptist deacon who led the Morant Bay rebellion in 1865 and Sam Sharpe who has Sam Sharpe Square in Montego Bay named after him. He was captured and hung after leading the biggest slave rebellion in Jamaica's history.
My transition from the taken-for-granted God as the creator of the universe to a more agnostic position came through Rastafari. I must say it was quite an attractive religion in terms of its ideas. It was against the domination of whites over blacks. It was against colonialism. It was for Africa. It was for rejecting a lot of the materialist values associated with capitalist civilisation. And it had a spiritual dimension that saw God and godliness as some kind of spiritual force with which all human beings were imbued.
But although I identified with these values I couldn't identify with the idea – this might sound arrogant – but I couldn't identify with the idea that Haille Selassie was God. He was just a human being like everybody else. And if he was God why did his people have to suffer so much from hunger and drought? And I couldn't identify with the back to Africa thing. I knew that the history of human civilisation is the history of the movements of people from one part of the globe to another. Once couldn't turn the clock of history back.
Q You were never sympathetic to the Black Muslims?
A I was always against them. Because for me it was an inversion of fascism. It was replacing one racist ideology with another. I was politically blooded in the Black Panthers back in 1970 when I was 18. I was even arrested in 1972 for taking policemen's numbers after they mishandled some kids in Brixton Market.
The Panthers – particularly in America – were always at loggerheads with the Muslims. It was ridiculous. The basis of the Black Muslim philosophy and worldview was a load of nonsense about some scientist creating white people out of rats and pigs. An insult to my intelligence. And, of course, they killed 'Malcolm X'. That was a no-no.
Q You seem to have considered a number of religious standpoints. What finally made you stop searching?
A I observed that a lot of people I knew who were atheists were in their social life, in their human relations, far more humane and compassionate and decent than a lot of the religious people I knew. A lot of the Christian people I came across were fucking hypocrites.
Q So where does your own morality come from – your own values?
A I inherited my moral values from my parents and my grandparents. They were influenced by Christianity, of course, but there were a lot of values they held that I regard as humanist values. Enduring human values. Compassion, a caring attitude towards other people, and a capacity to forgive. Once those values disappear it's the end of humanity.
Q I suppose you have been in the conversion business for much of your life. Trying to change people's consciousness with your verse and your music.
A I've never been under the illusion that art changes anything. But I know that what I'm doing is still worthwhile if only insofar as I'm acting as a history teacher. A lot of the struggles that the black community waged in this country in the 70s and 80s have not taken place in certain parts of Europe where the so-called immigrant population are only now reaching where we were back then.
Hence the relevance of my verse and my music. Struggles are taking place in Holland and Germany and France. People don't realise that the black communities in this country are more politically advanced than our European counterparts.
We've built more institutions and we've brought about more change. And therefore the body of experience that informs my work is relevant. Like my poem about deaths in police custody – 'Licensed to Kill'. When I go abroad everybody can identify with it. No, I'm not irrelevant yet.
Q But are there new things to be said? New issues for your poetry?
A There's always new things to be said. It's whether or not I'm inspired to say them. You do tend to get a bit more inward looking the older you get. As you meditate on your own mortality. As your hair recedes and goes grey and you worry about losing your sexual powers.
Q Do you feel a sense of affinity with other poets? Do you feel part of a poetic tradition?
A When I was younger, with the arrogance of youth, I saw myself as a radical revolutionary poet who was breaking with the old tradition. But as I've gotten older I realised others have blazed trails before and I'm grateful for them.
Grateful to people like the Barbadian poet Kamau Brathwaite for having cleared the debris. If they hadn't experimented with the language there'd have been no Linton Kwesi Johnson. My poetry comes from a different aesthetic than the dominant English one. I'm a product of a hybrid culture, so my aesthetic could never be solely based on the canon of English culture.
Q But does that mean your poetry is primarily poetry about the black struggle? That often seems to be the sub-text when you are described as a 'black poet'.
A 'Black' in 'black poet' is a political prefix. When I began to write poetry in the early days it had to be about politics, struggle and change. Nowadays, I'm fifty and middle-aged and I start to look back at the stuff I read then written by black poets which was not about the struggle.
Absolutely beautiful poetry which touched the human soul. I particularly remember a poem which was very derivative of English poetry called 'Fugue' by Neville Dawes, a Jamaican novelist and poet. The language was reminiscent of Dylan Thomas. Fantastic.
But when I began to write verse that wasn't what inspired me. I was more interested in the political poetry of someone like the Guyanan Martin Carter.
Q Do you write every day?
A I'm too busy earning a living to write now. I've recently returned from a long tour : Japan, USA, Germany, and France. The muse visits me from time to time but she doesn't come as often as she used to. I've unfortunately not given her enough attention. She's a very jealous person. She needs a lot of attention. And because I don't give her enough she doesn't come to see me any more.
Q You talk a great deal of being older, of being past your best. But you're only fifty. You're still young.
A Young! I suppose I've always had that. I never thought I'd live to see thirty years old. In the revolutionary politics in which we were involved so many people were dying in prison, so many people assassinated. And we were prepared to sacrifice our lives to bring about change.
I never thought I'd live to see thirty, so now I'm fifty I think I'm very old.