Jean Binta Breeze began to write poetry in the 1970s and is now widely celebrated as a dub poet, screenwriter and director.
Her poem Isaiah caused controversy recently when the campaign group Human Rights Watch barred it from a fundraising event because it was seen as too pro-Palestinian.
“Basically it’s a poem that was commissioned by the BBC a few years ago for their poetry prom, and one of the choices of theme was the Old Testament,” said Jean.
“I went back to the Old Testament and read the chapter of Isaiah where there were strong warnings to Israel about what they were doing in that time in history. I translated Isaiah into a Rastaman coming down from the mountains to preach to the people of Israel.
“It’s a very strong poem. It talks to Israel very strongly because I have very strong feelings about the situation in the Middle East and about the treatment of the Palestinian people in a land that is equally theirs. This is creating the kind of desperation that has led to suicide bombers.
“How desperate must people be to tie bombs to themselves and blow themselves up in the process? I’m not saying that there aren’t innocent victims on either side — but I think the responsibility remains with Israel.
“And so the poem addresses that. The line that Human Rights Watch objected to — although they didn’t tell me this until after the poetry evening — was ‘you of all should find genocide obscene’. It is a line that acknowledges that genocide has happened to the Jewish people. But they objected to the word ‘genocide’.”
The controversial verse runs:
bow im head as im humbly stan
an big Israel come clean
to remember what love mean
an retreat from a murderous scene
stop pushing others to where you’ve been
you of all should find genocide obscene
God just might let yah een
“I was saying that the Israelis were committing a genocide against the Palestinian people. There were years of killing of women and children by the right wing, although they say it wasn’t sanctioned by the government. A lot of Palestinian people were wiped out.”
Jean’s style makes attending a poetry reading more akin to attending the theatre — there is a real sense of performance in her work.
“Although my poems are very personal — they tell the stories of women in particular—they are concerned with saying we are human beings and this is our story. I’m not trying to create a guilt trip of any kind, just a kind of humanity that I would like to touch base with in my audience.
“I do feel artists have a responsibility to take up the real issues. I’ve always admired artists who have some kind of conscience about what is happening in the world. I don’t think art now is as political as it was in the 1970s.
“I think a lot of what goes on on the stage has become very personal —especially in poetry. Of course we still have people like Linton Kwesi Johnson speaking out. But not many people speak with a public voice any more.
“My poems are very concerned about Third World issues, I come from Jamaica, which is a Third World country. It’s a country that has been through 400 years of colonialism, that is very poor and has many problems.
“Africa is in a desperate situation. I know the history of Africa. I know that, as Walter Rodney put it, Africa has been underdeveloped by Europe.European countries cut borders across tribes and exploited African economies over centuries.
“Europe and America have a lot to answer for. They have supplied arms to so many governments in Africa, they have supported so many coups.
“Western governments fuel wars in Africa and this could have been stopped long ago, but there is so much money to be made.
“Many people won’t speak about reparations for slavery and colonialism — when you do it’s almost laughed at with scorn.
“You have the American situation where after slavery ended each African American was promised 40 acres and a mule — which never happened. So African people of Africa and the African diaspora have been fighting a lost cause.
“Capitalism kind of rules and multinational companies have taken over the globe. They’re not concerned with the needs of people in the Third World.”
Jean Binta Breeze is performing at Marxism 2005 on Friday of this week. See www.marxism2005.net.