By Linton Kwesi JohnsonYuri Prasad
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Mekin Sense Outta Nansense

This article is over 22 years, 2 months old
Linton Kwesi Johnson spoke to Yuri Prasad about poetry, music and the fight against racism.
Issue 263

What was it like to be a poet and a black political activist in the 1970s? How did the two come together and what kind of issues did you take up?

I came to poetry via politics. I discovered black literature as a consequence of my involvement in the Black Panther movement. We never came across any black literature or literature about blacks at school. When we did history–we did British history, we never did anything about slavery.

Part of my awakening was a book called ‘The Souls of Black Folk’ by WEB Dubois. It moved me very deeply, stirred something within me, and that made me want to write. That book was about the experiences of African-Americans in the post-emancipation period. So for me writing poetry was a political act. It was a way of articulating the anger and the hurt of my generation–growing up as black youth in a racially hostile environment.

I didn’t believe that at that time a black poet could have the luxury of art for art’s sake. It had to be in the service of the struggle. I tried to use poetry to highlight particular movements and to record certain events. I was involved in the campaign for George Lindo, a guy from Bradford who was framed by the police on a robbery charge–I was inspired to write some verse about it. I was involved in the carnival movement, and when they tried to ban the Notting Hill Carnival in the 1970s I wrote a poem called ‘Forces of Victri’. There was the campaign to get rid of the infamous sus laws, the old Vagrancy Act that was suddenly rediscovered and used against my generation, mercilessly by racist cops. I wrote a poem dealing with that called ‘Sonny’s Letter’, which took the form of a letter from prison. That’s the way that my poetry and my political activity came together.

Do you think that the battles against racism that you fought in the 1970s have to be fought again today, and do you think that racism is getting worse?

Certainly in places like Oldham and Burnley it sounds as if it is getting worse. I think that is largely due to the fact that a section of the working class has been neglected, particularly in the areas where the Labour Party is known to be corrupt.

I don’t know if racism in general is getting worse. I remember a time when trade unions came out in support of Enoch Powell and his demand for repatriation. They marched in London shouting, ‘Send them back,’ and all that. Today you have a black man, Bill Morris, head of the Transport and General Workers Union, one of the biggest unions in the country. That’s a measure of how far things have changed, and I think we have made progress.

The Macpherson report finally admitted that most of Britain’s institutions, including the police, are racist. I remember when the New Cross fire happened, within 24 hours, without any investigation and without any forensic evidence the spokesperson for Scotland Yard ruled out the possibility that it could have been a racist attack. We’ve come some way, but we still have to fight for equality and social justice.

The question of police racism is still here. The fact that throughout the 1990s we have the frightening rise in the incidence of black deaths in police custody is indicative of that. The five police officers who have been indicted in Hull in connection with the death of Christopher Alder are an example of that. So is the case of Roger Sylvester. In some ways we have made some progress, and in others we haven’t made any progress at all.

Increasingly music is adopting a hybrid form–it is borrowing from many cultures. Do you see any connection between that and the development of a global movement against capitalism?

It is a reflection of the world in which we are living–reggae itself was a hybrid music. People talk about the global village–everywhere you go people are fighting back against all kinds of oppression. Whether it has taken on a global dimension I don’t know. What I do know is that I am 100 percent in support of the anti-capitalist and anti-globalisation movement. Somebody has to stand up to these multinational corporations.

The power of international finance capital is making national sovereignty increasingly meaningless–even if we make certain demands on our government, they are limited as to what they can and cannot do. I recently saw a film about Jamaica called Life and Debt, which showed how the IMF policies had impacted on Jamaica. When I saw that film what came into my mind was the anti-capitalist movement.

The film explained in an eloquent way why these movements came into being. It’s good that film-makers, singers, songwriters and dramatists are dealing with these issues. How people respond is up to the individual artist. You can’t legislate for art. It comes from the soul–you can’t tell people what to focus upon.

I am very disappointed by this New Labour government. I don’t think that they have moved radically to match their rhetoric. It still feels like the Tory period–business as usual. The sense of hopelessness and the sense of despair are still here, particularly in industrial England. What is New Labour doing about it?

How do you feel about your engagement with the movement for social justice now?

I’m a little bit more dislocated than I used to be, because my main involvement was in the radical black movement, and that has gone into decline in the years since Thatcher. I try to support local struggles. There was a time when I was out supporting the miners, but all those types of struggle are not happening.

But I am still deeply committed to the idea of social justice, and to bringing about racial equality and radical change. My audiences are getting younger and younger. There is a radical current out there among the young people. They are looking for something to get involved in, to channel their rebellion into, but ‘tings and times’ have changed, and 2002 is not like the 1980s.

Mekin Histri

now tell mi someting

mistah govahment man

tell mi someting

how lang yu really feel

yu couda keep wi andah heel

wen di trute done reveal

bout how yu grab an steal

bout how yu mek crooked deal

mek yu crooked deal?

well doun in Soutall

Where Peach did get fall

di Asians dem faam-up a human wall

an dem show dat di Asians gat plenty zeal

gat plenty zeal

gat plenty zeal

it is noh mistri

wi mekin histri

it is noh mistri

wi winnin victri

now tell mi someting

mistah police spokesman

tell mi someting

how lang yu really tink

wi woodah tek yu batn lick

yu jackboot kick

yu dutty bag a tricks

an yu racist pallytics

yu racist pallytics?

well doun in Bristal

dey ad noh pistal

but dem chace di babylan away

man yu shooda si yu babylan

how dem really run away

yu shooda si yu babylan dem dig-up dat day

dig-up dat day

dig-up dat day

it is noh mistri

wi mekin histri

it is noh mistri

wi winnin victri

now tell mi someting

mistah ritewing man

tell mi someting

how lang yu really feel

wi woodah grovel an squeal

wen soh much murdah canceal

wen wi woun cyaan heal

wen wi feel di way wi feel

feel di way wi feel?

well dere woz Toxteth

an dere woz Moss Side

an a lat a adah places

whe di police ad to hide

well dere woz Brixtan

an dere woz Chapeltoun

an a lat a adah place dat woz burnt to di groun

burnt to di groun

burnt to di groun

it is noh mistri

wi mekin histri

it is noh mistri

wi winnin victri


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