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About the Poet Linton Kwesi Johnson was born on 24 August, 1952 in Chapelton, a small town in the rural parish of Clarendon, Jamaica. He came to London in 1963, attended Tulse Hill secondary school, and later studied Sociology at Goldsmiths’ College, University of London (graduating in 1973), which currently holds his personal papers in its archives. While still at school he joined the Black Panthers, helping to organise a poetry workshop within the movement. In 1977 he was awarded a C. Day Lewis Fellowship, and was the writer-in-residence for the London Borough of Lambeth for that year. He went on to work as the Library Resources and Education Officer at the Keskidee Centre, the first home of Black theatre and art.

Much of Johnson's poetry is political, dealing primarily with the experiences of being an African-Caribbean in Britain. "Writing was a political act and poetry was a cultural weapon", he told an interviewer in 2008. He has also written about issues such as British foreign policy, and the death of anti-racist marcher Blair Peach. His most striking and celebrated work was arguably produced in the 1980's, with Johnson’s spirit of anger and protest finding its ideal subject and opposite under Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government. Poems such as 'Sonny's Lettah' and 'Di Great Insohreckshan' (both featured here) contain accounts of police brutality upon young black men, and capture the period’s unwritten attitude of resistance and antagonism in their empathic descriptions of rioting and imprisonment. Told via the uncompromising, yet generous and inventive use of unstandardised Jamaican patois, the poems are alive with Johnson’s relish of the tics and rhythms of spoken language.

Johnson's poems first appeared in the journal Race Today, who published his debut collection, Voices of the Living and the Dead, in 1974. His second collection, Dread Beat An' Blood, was published in 1975 by Bogle-L'Ouverture, and shares its title with his first LP, released by Virgin in 1978. That year also saw the release of a documentary film about Johnson’s work of the same name. Inglan Is A Bitch, his third book, came out in 1980. Johnson’s record label, LKJ Records, was launched in 1981 and has released work by some of the most prominent Jamaican dub poets. His own recordings are amongst the top-selling reggae albums in the world. In 2005 he was awarded a silver Musgrave medal from the Institute of Jamaica for distinguished eminence in the field of poetry. Johnson is the second living poet, and the only black poet, to be published in the Penguin Classics series: Mi Revalueshanary Fren in 2002, with a Selected following in 2006.

Linton Kwesi Johnson has generously given the Poetry Archive permission to use these recordings taken from his CD LKJ A Cappella Live, which includes previously unpublished works. The energy of his live recitals gives the recordings a unique electricity, interspersed with the laughter and applause of audiences around Europe. While his work is unremittingly hostile towards the situations of oppression it pits itself against, and his performance style is sometimes confrontational, Johnson’s readings are always firstly inclusive, insisting that his audience see events from what 20 years ago was the ‘other side’ of the traditional view of social history, but has overwhelmingly come to be shared as the just and appropriate one. Such a shift in our cultural perspective is at least partly a testament to the power and influence of Johnson’s work, openly and unashamedly political, which seeks constantly to defy the adage that ‘poetry makes nothing happen’. As a poet unusually and refreshingly aware of the function and responsibility of that role, Johnson’s readings of his poems range from incendiary, to lamenting, to the intelligence and good humour of ‘If I Wos a Tap-Natch Poet’, which appraises and embraces his position as a spokesperson for social justice and for joyful celebration, while displaying his gifts as an inimitable poet who always speaks with his ‘own sense of time’.

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  • Linton Kwesi Johnson: Selected Poems
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