Linton Kwesi Johnson, commonly known as LKJ, is a renowned reggae poet and recording artist whose work has impacted the world of literature, music, and politics. His unique fusion of Jamaican patois, reggae rhythms, and political themes has made him a leading figure in the cultural and political landscape. With a career spanning over four decades, LKJ has used his platform to address significant social issues, giving voice to the experiences of the African-Caribbean community in Britain.
Early life and education
Born on 24 August 1952 in Chapelton, a small town in the rural parish of Clarendon, Jamaica, Linton Kwesi Johnson moved to London in 1963. He attended Tulse Hill secondary school and later pursued Sociology at Goldsmiths’ College, University of London. While still in school, he joined the Black Panthers and helped organise a poetry workshop within the movement.
In 1977, LKJ was awarded a C. Day Lewis Fellowship and served as the writer-in-residence for the London Borough of Lambeth. He went on to work as the Library Resources and Education Officer at the Keskidee Centre – the first home of Black theatre and art.
Political poetry and cultural impact
Johnson’s poetry is primarily political, focusing on the experiences of the African-Caribbean community in Britain. He has also written about British foreign policy and the death of anti-racist marcher Blair Peach. His work gained significant recognition during the 1980s, with his powerful pieces such as “Sonny’s Lettah” and “Di Great Insohreckshan” addressing police brutality against young black men and capturing the spirit of resistance during Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government.
LKJ’s use of unstandardised Jamaican patois, alongside his inventive exploration of spoken language, has made his poetry come alive with energy and authenticity. He once stated, “Writing was a political act, and poetry was a cultural weapon,” emphasising the importance of his work in challenging social norms and advocating for change.
Literary achievements and recordings
Johnson’s poems first appeared in the journal Race Today, which 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. A documentary film about LKJ’s work, also titled Dread Beat An ‘ Blood, was released that same year.
His third book, Inglan Is A Bitch, came out in 1980. Johnson’s record label, LKJ Records, launched in 1981 and has released work by some of the most prominent Jamaican dub poets. His recordings are among the top-selling reggae albums globally. 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, with Mi Revalueshanary Fren in 2002 and a Selected following in 2006.
Linton Kwesi Johnson’s live performances and style
LKJ has granted the Poetry Archive permission to use recordings taken from his CD LKJ A Cappella Live, featuring live recitals across Europe. These recordings showcase the electricity and energy of his live performances, punctuated by audience laughter and applause.
While his work is unwavering in its hostility towards oppression, and his performance style can be confrontational, Johnson’s readings are fundamentally inclusive. He invites his audience to see events from a perspective that was once marginalised but has now become widely recognised as just and appropriate. This shift in cultural perspective is, in part, a testament to the power and influence of LKJ’s work.
New and unpublished works
In August 2021, LKJ wrote a previously unpublished poem titled “Di First Lackdoun,” recounting his experiences during the first COVID-19 lockdown in London. The poem captures the joy and celebration of life amidst the challenging circumstances of the pandemic, highlighting the resilience of the human spirit.
LKJ’s legacy and influence
LKJ’s impact on the world of poetry, music, and activism is undeniable. His work has inspired prominent artists such as Steve McQueen, who used LKJ’s poem “New Craas Massakah” in his acclaimed BBC drama series Small Axe. McQueen also commissioned a new poem from Johnson, “Towards Closure,” for his documentary series Uprising. The truth and clarity in LKJ’s work continue to resonate with audiences, making his poetry and recordings as relevant today as they were decades ago.
Linton Kwesi Johnson’s career has been defined by his commitment to social justice, political activism, and the power of poetry as a cultural weapon. His work has inspired generations of artists, activists, and audiences, and his legacy continues to shape the landscape of reggae poetry and the fight for a more equitable world.