Linton Kwesi Johnson is one of the unsung greats of reggae. Maybe he’s not as well known these days because he veers further afield from the dominant reggae ideas than many performers of his era. While others responded to the positive vibes, ganja, and Jah that run through reggae, Johnson was moved by its political messages and saw untapped potential there for more great music.
Johnson was born in Jamaica and moved with his family to England in 1963 when he was 11. After earning a degree in sociology, he began performing his poetry publicly, backed by musicians playing the reggae that he grew up with and loved. He is generally considered the founder of dub poetry, a style of reggae in which prepared poetry – as opposed to the more improvised toasting style of reggae vocals - is recited over dub music. Once he connected with performer/bandleader/producer Dennis “Blackbeard” Bovell all the pieces were set in place and Johnson debuted with his 1978 album Dread Beat an’ Blood (credited to Poet and the Roots). With lyrics written in Jamaican patois, one of Johnson’s most brilliant features is his ability to condense intellectual and social analysis to the slang of the music he loves and of his people.
But lyrics are not his only strength – in fact, for someone who puts so much care into the words he has a remarkable gift for music and melody, anchoring songs with hooks that are married to the lyrics to drive home his messages. He kicks the album off with “Want Fi Goh Rave,” a song about young people barely scraping by to survive – by begging, stealing, violence – but not giving up hope. And once the song’s hard message has made its point the music takes over halfway through, as is common with Johnson because he takes it as seriously as his words, and the band is co-equal to his work, not merely there to support or back his words, brilliant though they are. The music here is more dialed in than the great debut, and he’d get even better as well, with 1984’s Making History.
Though every track makes itself felt, the album is marked with three of the best tunes Johnson ever wrote. First up is “Sonny’s Lettah (Anti-Sus Poem)” in which Sonny is writing to his mother from jail after getting into a fight with police who harassed he and his brother on suspicion (“sus” – shades of New York’s current “stop and frisk” situation) of vagrancy. The lyrics in the chorus of the great “Reality Poem” explain pretty clearly why Jah isn’t mentioned in Johnson’s catalog: “This is the age of science and technology / This is the age of decision / So let's let go of religion / So let's let go of mythology.” And in my favorite track, “Fite Dem Back,” Johnson calls out racist terrorizers for what they are – fascists – and includes my favorite lines he ever wrote as his program for a counter attack to drive them back: “Smash dere brains in / cos dey ain’t got nuffin in em.”
And like all great political artists, Johnson’s work is both time-specific, speaking to the particulars of his situation and those of people around him, and universal, placing these issues in a broader analysis and social framework – the Anti-Sus Poem speaks to the exact situation in NYC 34 years later. Forces of Victory is propulsive, smart, catchy, and politically charged – it’s everything I like in music in one package, like so much of LKJ’s best. Seek out whatever you can find – it’ll be worth it.
- Patrick Brown