Monday, 5 June 2017

FORTY YEARS OF DUB POETRY, AND THE BEAT GOES ON

By Tobias Schlosser

Celebrations for the unofficial 40th anniversary of dub poetry have already begun, with several poetry events taking place internationally. Last February, northern England hosted the 14th Annual Poetry in Motion event (founded by dub poet Yasus Afari), and in April the Roots Dub Poetry Reggae Revival took place in Kingston, Jamaica.

Linton Kwesi Johnson
Things will probably kick into higher gear in 2018 to mark 40 years since the first record with spoken words on dub music was released: Linton Kwesi Johnson’s Dread Beat an’ Blood.

So, in the run-up, let's look back at the roots of dub and its poetry, and how it all started.

Dub has its origin in reggae, but it has charted its own course. Reggae vibes are often associated with peace, love and harmony, while listeners sometimes forget that this music was born in areas of Jamaica where violence and exclusion were the ingredients of everyday life.

Whereas Bob Marley’s songs created hope, and exhorted listeners to fight for a better future, dub (the pared-down instrumental remix) is often said to have initially created a form of escapism, especially for people who had few prospects of gainful employment. Troubles could be temporarily alleviated when the tunes from the sound systems created a “Dancehall Nirvana”, as the ethnomusicologist Michael E. Veal illustrates in his acclaimed publication Dub. Soundscapes & Shattered Songs in Jamaican Reggae.

The emergence of dub poetry out of Jamaica’s music culture is largely a story of emigration. After World War II, many Jamaicans sought to find a better life overseas. They were encouraged to do so by the British government since the country needed “affordable” labour (it is the same story for Canada, especially Ontario, where Toronto became a centre for dub poetry). But instead of being accepted fully by the society in which they worked, Jamaicans often faced racism and discrimination. Many felt betrayed when they compared their circumstances to what had been promised and what they had left behind, and this situation went on to affect those coming of age in the Seventies. By then, dub was serving new needs; the music was no longer considered a form of "escapism" because with spoken words, it was becoming a medium to reflect the experiences and the disappointments far away from home. At the same time, the tunes were a constant reminder of one’s roots amidst the diaspora.

The sleeve of a 1996 compilation.
Thus Linton Kwesi Johnson’s work would focus on describing the struggles in Britain where some immigrants felt forced to live in the shadows.

Two years after his first release, his now-famous and controversial “Inglan is a Bitch” came out; this potent poem encapsulates the perspective of an immigrant in London who finds it impossible to escape from poverty regardless of the effort he makes.

The poem emerged amid a time of political unrest and protests on the streets, which also found their assessment in dub poetry. For instance, the death of activist Blair Peach after an attack in an anti-racism demonstration is the subject of Johnson’s poem “Reggae Fi Peach” (1980). Johnson is considered the first poet to describe the emotions among immigrants in the British inner cities forty years ago, using words, music and non-violence to help effect change and raise awareness.

Regarding his own evolution as a dub poet, Johnson told Jamaican writer Alecia McKenzie in an interview that he’d first decided to put his poetry to music in 1976.

“I used to recite poetry unaccompanied before that,” he said. “Then I started using Rasta drummers. At the time I was working at Virgin Records, writing sleeve notes and so on, so I asked the people there to help me make an album.”

Virgin founder Richard Branson agreed to finance the record and it was recorded with British dub music pioneer Dennis Bovell and other artists and released in 1978. Johnson has described doing readings in numerous venues after the launch of the album but he told McKenzie he had “never been part of or tried to get into the literary establishment”.

Born in Jamaica in 1952, Johnson moved to London 11 years later and, as a student, was involved in organizing poetry workshops and building solidarity. Throughout the development of the dub poetry genre, he and and other poets have consistently supported one other; for example, Johnson helped Michael “Mikey” Smith to record his only album Mi Cyaan Believe it in the early 1980s. Already an acclaimed poet by age 28, Smith was killed after a political argument in Kingston in 1983 - a murder that outraged and saddened many citizens.

Dub poet Oku Onuoru (photo: Veronique Skelsey)
Johnson’s LKJ record label, set up in 1981, has also recorded fellow poets and musicians such as Jean “Binta” Breeze and Bovell, and he has worked with Oku Onuora, Mutabaruka and several others.

In the interview, Johnson credited Oku Onuoru with popularizing the term “dub poetry”. Onuoru in fact had performed his poetry with a reggae band in 1974, while he was in prison, and after his release he performed live with Mikey Smith. Onuoro released his first dub record in 1979, recorded at Bob Marley’s Tuff Gong studios, and he developed a friendship with Johnson during subsequent tours in Europe. His work, too, has always been political.

For Johnson, creating his own record label was a way to “provide a platform for poetry" that came out of the reggae tradition.

“I’d been slagging off the big labels for the way they treated artists,” he told McKenzie. “So I thought I’d put my money where my mouth is.”

The LKJ Records productions include Tracks by Jean “Binta” Breeze, Bushfire by saxophonist and flautist Steve Gregory, Tings and Times by Johnson and Dub of Ages by Dennis Bovell.

On the other side of the Atlantic, where Onuoru and Mutabaruka spoke out in Kingston against local and global injustice, Canada was seeing a growing dub poetry movement as well. In Toronto, a lively and predominantly female dub poetry scene was founded by Lillian Allen, and artists such as Afua Cooper and Ahdri Zihna Mandiela rose out of this. Dub poetry did not only help Jamaicans living far away from home to express themselves on issues of concern, it also became a tool for the second generation of immigrants (such as Benjamin Zephaniah) and it additionally influenced poets in Jamaica (like No-Maddz).

CD sleeve of "LKJ IN DUB" (1992)
With these developments, the messages of dub poetry have become more complex and challenging. In the 1970s, Dub poets attacked the elites and institutions that supported and carried out policies of racial discrimination.

Nowadays, where things have changed with regard to official policies, it is no longer the rules that are criticised, but the structures in which we live.

The tendency today is for dub poets to address structures of discrimination, and by doing so, find similarities with other people facing exclusion. Lillian Allen, for example, illustrates in her poems how extreme masculinity causes violence from which women and men suffer, and Ahdri Zhina Mandiela challenges heteronormative structures in her poetry.

Furthermore, Benjamin Zephaniah sees a sad truth in the fact that it is only a question of the power hierarchy whether you are heard and visible. Referring to Aboriginal people in Australia and Taiwan, Zephaniah made this universal statement in an interview: “It’s a shame that the people who are peaceful, the people who just want to live in peace and don’t seek power, are the people who get walked over.”

Considering these different trends, one might find it challenging to come up with a suitable definition of dub poetry because this art is beyond the mere arrangement of having spoken words on pared-down reggae grooves.

Maybe it can be described this way: Dub poetry is an art movement representing the people whose voices are not heard enough. That is why poet Lillian Allen
Dennis Bovell's "Dub of Ages" - for ages to come?
claims in an interview that dub poetry’s aim is “to disrupt traditional discourse. [Dub poetry’s intention] is to call attention to a whole life that has been ignored, that’s happening and that actually feeds the other life [...], but that has been cut out of the discourse or the images and so forth.”

According to Allen, the core of dub poetry is its “uncompromising and demanding stand”.

We can conclude that dub poetry is alive, and will always be, even if poets were to stop performing the genre. The reason for this is simple. As Mutabaruka's “Dis Poem” demonstrates, a dub poem has the ability “to be continued in your mind”.

And as Linton Kwesi Johnson has said: “I haven’t lost my street cred. It’s been a long apprenticeship, but it’s an on-going process.”

NOTE: Linton Kwesi Johnson received an honorary doctorate from Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa, in April 2017.

Tobias Schlosser is a German writer, researcher and expert drink-maker.