Although he has only released one album of new material in the last ten years, and virtually retired from the live stage after his 1985 tour, Linton Kwesi Johnson remains a towering figure in reggae music. Born in Kingston, Jamaica and raised in the Brixton section of London, Johnson invented dub poetry, a type of toasting descended from the DJ stylings of U-Roy and I-Roy. But whereas toasting tended to be hyperkinetic and given to fits of braggadocio, Johnson's poetry (which is what it was -- he was a published poet and journalist before he performed with a band) was more scripted and delivered in a more languid, slangy, streetwise style. Johnson's grim realism and tales of racism in an England governed by Tories was scathingly critical. The Afro-Brits in Johnson's poems are neglected by the government and persecuted by the police. Johnson was also instrumental (with his friend Darcus Howe) in the publication of a socialist-oriented London-based newspaper, Race Today, that offered him and other like-minded Britons, both black and white, an outlet to discuss the racial issues that, under Margaret Thatcher's reign, seemed to be tearing the country apart. For one so outspoken in his politics, Johnson's recorded work, while politically explicit, is not simply a series of slogans or tuneful/danceable jeremiads. In fact, is was his second release, Forces of Victory, where his mix of politics and music united to stunning effect. Dennis Bovell and the Dub Band could swing (as in jazzy) more than many reggae bands, and guitarist John Kpiaye, the group's secret weapon, offered deftly played, dazzlingly melodic solos. But it was Johnson's moving poetry, galvanizing moments such as "Sonny's Lettah" and "Fite Dem Back" that made it obvious that this was a major talent.
Although he never intended to, Johnson became a star, in England anyway; in America he had a small yet devoted group of fans. But political activism was as important, perhaps more important, than churning out records and touring, and after the release of his third album, Bass Culture, in 1980, Johnson took time off from the music scene, turning his back on a lucrative contract from Island. He continued to perform, but it was poetry readings at universities, at festivals in the Caribbean, and for trade union workers in Trinidad. His organizing activities included the setting up the First International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books, and greater involvement with the political organizations with which he had been long identified, namely the Race Today Collective and the Alliance of the Black Parents Movement. In 1982, the BBC commissioned Johnson to create a series of radio programs on Jamaican popular music, a subject he'd been researching for years. The programs, entitled From Mento to Lovers Rock, were more than just musical history; Johnson contextualized Jamaican music socially and politically and offered a more nuanced and thorough examination of the popular music of his native and adopted countries.
Johnson returned to the pop music scene in 1984 with perhaps his best record, Making History. Again working with Dennis Bovell, Johnson's seething political anger suffuses this recording, but it is never undone by simple vituperation. Johnson is, if anything, a thoughtful radical, more analytical than simplistic, and that adds to the power of these seven songs. Unfortunately, this would be the last new music from Johnson until 1991's Tings an' Times, which proved yet again that regardless of how much time he takes off from music, when LKJ returns, it's as if he's never missed a beat. His most recent period of recording silence has been broken by the release of a music-less poetry album. ~ John Dougan