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Transnational Metamorphoses of African Orality: L. K. Johnson’s Dub Poetry

Métamorphoses transnationales de l’oralité africaine : la poésie dub de L. K. Johnson
Pierpaolo Martino
p. 193-204


La poésie dub représente une forme d’art populaire black, mélange de passé et de présent, de tradition et d’expérimentation. La poésie dub utilise les anciennes traditions orales africaines (contes, musique, poésie et performance) dans le contexte de la tradition reggae jamaïcaine et anglaise, en exploitant les mêmes ressources de communication -disques, concerts, musique - utilisées par les DJS et les chanteurs de reggae. La poésie dub de Linton Kwesi Johnson - qui présente un mélange de dialectes caribéens et de rythmes reggae et dub - a beaucoup de succès auprès des jeunes caribéens qui vivent à Londres. Le travail de Johnson sur la langue donne a sa communauté - immigrés caribéens de première et de seconde génération vivant en Grande Bretagne - un code linguistique exprimé au travers d’une pratique culturelle partagée : la musique reggae. Par ce langage, Johnson peut manifester une critique de la discrimination raciale et de l’injustice sociale dans des poèmes comme It Dread inna Inglan et Sonny’s Lettah, ce qui a pour effet de provoquer une réaction engagée et responsable de son audience.

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1Dub poetry represents a major form of black popular art, standing as a perfect mix of past and present, of tradition and experimentation. Dub poetry is a form of performance poetry which makes use of the ancient oral traditions of Africa, with their focus on storytelling, and that has developed out of the reggae tradition in Jamaica and England in the mid-Seventies. In this sense, dub poets soon started to use the same channels of communication - records, live acts - as the reggae musicians, singers and DJs of Kingston and London.

2Dub poetry stands as a privileged space to investigate the connection between Caribbean and African cultures. Apart from the music and dance, it is the oral tradition, embodied in multiple social performances, which links the Caribbean reality to the African one, a link which was established centuries ago with the translation of African bodies, voices and stories into the New World during the Middle Passage. It is important to note how:

the original African cultural framework [...] needed neither literacy, letters nor books to constitute art, knowledge, civilisation and a social system. This oral nature and order of original Black culture secured its survival during the travails of slavery and the brainwashing of colonialism. There were no books, no documents, no dogmatic scriptures to be burned. The archive of African culture was not of material substance. Arriving in the “New World”, the slaves had nothing but their memory. Endowed with an extraordinary ability adapt and improve was sufficient to preserve the nature of African culture in captivity and exile. Today, the very existence of a flexible oral tradition demonstrates that resistance to the European destruction of this orally based culture has so far been successful.
(Habekost, 1993: 70)

3Orality is indeed an essential part of the Caribbean but also of the African present, indeed, even today, according to Liz Gunner:

The continent of Africa can be viewed as a site of enormous, long and ongoing creativity in relation to orality as a vector for the production of social life, religious beliefs, and the constant constituting and reconstituting of society, ideology and aesthetics. If it is language which has a crucial role in the production and reproduction of society, then in the case of orality it is often language combined with the performativity of the body, and enacted in both the public and the private space.
(Gunner, 2004: 1)

4One of the main protagonists of this enactment is the griot, whose metropolitan alter-ego, is indeed the dub poet. According to David Toop:

The griot is a professional singer [...] who combines the functions of living history book and newspaper with vocal and instrumental virtuosity [... ] although they are popularly known as praise singers, griots might combine appreciation of a rich employer with gossip and satire or rum their vocal expertise into an attack on the politically powerful or the financially stingy.
(Toop, 1984: 31-32)

5Dub poets, as we will shortly see, endorse this same role, acting as memory banks and critical voices capable of awakening people’s consciousness in relation to such issues as racism and social injustice.

6As Habekost observes:

dub poetry employs all the features of the oral traditions which were brought from Africa by the slaves (and eventually re-created and re-interpreted under European dominance)
(Habekost, 1993: 71).

7These include:

songs of African and/or slave origin characterized by the African-derived “call-and-response” pattern [...] folk tales such as historical narratives about individual slaves, “duppy” or ghost stories, or the famous “trickster narratives [...] children games [...] nursery rhymes [...] riddles [...]proverbs.
(Habekost, 1993:71 -72)

8A privileged space in dub poets’ narratives is reserved to the imagery of the Bible, channelled through the oratory of preachers, and recontextualised by a black, more specifically Rastafarian perspective. It is out of this context that images like that of the Exodus, of fire, of blood, Zion and Babylon emerge with fresh and powerful meanings which are extensively investigated in reggae and dub narratives.

9Rastafari’s faith - that thanks to Bob Marley’s rasta-inspired work stands today as a known and practiced credo all over the world - deeply affects dub poetry which, as Habekost maintains, is basically ”a social, revolutionary art form where a radical voice shouts of the struggle of the oppressed all around the world“ (Habekost, 1986: 17).

10The very possibility of shouting to reach a vast and responsive audience is rendered by dub poetry’s connection with music. If on the one hand African orality explains the poetic and, in part, social dimension of this (relatively new) art form, on the other hand it is music, more specifically reggae music - which developed out of ska, and rocksteady in mid-Sixties Jamaica- which stands as the very source of dub poetry’s global appeal. The term dub poetry refers, indeed, to the essential link between oral poetry and reggae music. Dub is a musical genre that emerged in Jamaica in the early Seventies. The practice of creating dub music stems from making instrumental versions of popular reggae singles to put on the b-sides of 45 RPM recordings. According to Maskowitz: ”The style is achieved by taking a completed song and stripping away the majority of the melody material in a new mix of the song“ (Maskowitz, 2005: 94). As cultural theorist Dick Hebdige puts it in his cult essay Cut ’n ’mix:

On the dub the original tune is still recognisably there but it is broken up. The rhythm might be slowed down slightly, a few snatches of song might be thrown in and then distorted with echo. The drums and bass will come right up to the listener and demand to be heard.
(Hebdige, 1990: 83)

11Dub basically implies a process of rewriting/retelling, of rearranging voices which through their particular instrumental or vocal grain (Barthes, 1977) start to tell stories which ask for other voices and other stories. Indeed, with the emergence of dub, crowds at sound system dances enjoyed singing the lyrics themselves. However the most important effect of the dub version was that it allowed ”the DJ of the sound system to toast (or rap) over the playing drum and bass line“ (Maskowitz, 2005: 94). It is out of this context that key figures such as Big Youth, U Roy and I Roy emerged. These toasters became highly influential figures for dub poets such as Michael Smith, Oku Onuora and Linton Kwesi Johnson.

12Linton Kwesi Johnson is undoubtedly one of the most important and authoritative voices in British (dub) poetry. He was born in 1952 in Chapelton, a small town in the rural parish of Clarendon, Jamaica, where he spent his early childhood immersed in oral narratives. Speaking about this period the poet remembers:

I got most of my folk culture from my grandmother. In the kind of environment we lived in there was no entertainment. No radio, no television, no books in the house. I didn’t grow up with books. The only book we had in the house was the Bible. And so for entertainment, my grandmother, especially on a full moon night, would tell us stories, duppy stories, and she would make us guess riddles and that sort of thing and that was our entertainment.
(Harris and White, 1999: 52)

  • 1 ”LKJ“ is the tag Johnson has adopted since the mid-Seventies. In the early Eighties he even establi (...)

13Johnson came to Britain in 1963 to join his mother who had emigrated to London two years before, went to Tulse Hill secondary school in Brixton and later studied Sociology at Goldsmiths’ College. Whilst still at school, he joined the Black Panthers, helped to organize a poetry workshop within the movement, and developed his work with Rasta Love, a group of poets and musicians, with whom Johnson’ ”would improvise on different kinds of drums and ... make up words to go along with the rhythms“ (Harris and White, 1999: 59). As an activist in the Panthers, LKJ1, acquired a deep political consciousness - through a deep and responsive understanding (investigation) of black people’s subaltern position in 1970s Britain - and discovered black literature, particularly the work of DuBois whose The Souls of Black Folks inspired him to write poetry. In addition, as a young member of the Caribbean Artists Movement (CAM), LKJ participated in the ”groundbreaking debates that took place within the organization concerning the appropriate forms and themes of artistic production among members of the Caribbean exile community in Britain“ (Dawson, 2007: 73).

14The forms and themes of LKJ’s lyrical production cover a wide range of possibilities but they often become intermingled in a complex dialogical process in which the very form of Johnson’s artistic enunciations translates the audience into a real participant in the rich political and social debate which inhabits the body of his work. As in African oral narratives, form and content become a single entity: the voice of this postmodern griot, as we will shortly see, is not that of a detached observer but that of a social activist asking for a collective response. In order to fully understand Johnson’s revolutionary message it is essential to start from an analysis of his revolutionary style.

15Speaking about his position in relation to Caribbean poetry, he acknowledges the relevance of the work of E. K. Brathwaite in breaking the poetic conventions - which were to some extent the heritage of British colonialism (in particular of the colonial educational system) - and which were to be preserved, at least in part, in the work of Nobel prize winner Derek Walcott. According to LKJ:

A revolution was started in Caribbean poetry by Edward Brathwaite where he was trying to create a new aesthetic that wasn’t based on the meter of English poetry, the iambic pentameter. He incorporated the rhythms of Caribbean speech... blues rhythms, calypso rhythms and so on. In a sense what I’ve been doing with reggae, what I call reggae poetry is to consolidate that revolution that was started by Brathwaite in terms of the language and in terms of the aesthetics.
(Gross, 1997)

  • 2 In this essay Brathwaite writes: ”Nation language is the language which is influenced very strongly (...)

16In a very recent interview published on The Guardian, LKJ refers again to Brathwaite being for him an invaluable source of inspiration ”because he more or less subverted the whole canon of English poetry. There were elements of jazz, you could hear the drums and the language of West Indian folk tales. This was about the Caribbean and the new world experience“ (Wroe, 2008). It is interesting to note how Brathwaite himself made reference to Johnson’s work in his 1984 essay History of the Voice in which he elaborated his important theory of a Caribbean nation language2.

17The poetic revolution started in the 70s by LKJ himself was to be characterized by an inventiveness and experimentation at the level of speech and rhythm which recalls Brathwaite’s groundbreaking work, in such collections as Rights of Passage, Masks and Islands. There are, however, some essential differences. Brathwaite’s aim was that of recounting the Caribbean experience, creating important connections with the African past, asserting the presence of that past, even at the stylistic level through a creative combination of English, Caribbean patois and African languages. Johnson is basically an exile whose migration to Britain had its proper soundtrack; in other words, Johnson’s migration took place in the same decade in which reggae conquered (that is migrated to) Britain. If in Brathwaite’s poetry it is possible to hear the sound of the African drum, in Johnson’s it is almost impossible to escape the sound and the voice of reggae’s key musical instrument: the bass.

18Dub poetry lives in a sort of double articulation. Performers may decide to perform with a dub/reggae band providing the sonic backdrop onto which the poet can enunciate his lines or he may choose to perform in a solo voice recital. LKJ is familiar with both forms. What, however, is absolutely striking about Johnson’s solo voice performances is the capacity of the artist to translate his voice into an instrument providing the beat and the melody of all reggae tunes. In short, the voice, becomes the bass and vice versa. Besides, in an interview broadcasted on BBC in 2003, LKJ confessed how in composing his music he always starts from the bass; and while in the 70s - in order to develop his ideas - he had to rely on other musicians, nowadays he plays the bass himself.

19Reggae and dub’s tendency to privilege the bass as possibly the most important instrument in the band, also has its political implications. Indeed Western pop music tends to confine the bass to its function of accompanying instrument turning it in a subaltern instrument to be perceived - along with the drums - below the level of the singer’s voice. As new musicologists - such as Fabbri (2001) and Frith (2002) - have variously proved, a song has its inner social complexity. Songs, particularly in the West, are organized according to strictly hierchical principles. In this sense, reggae and dub’s creative interpretation of the bass stands as an attempt to subvert (Western) conventional norms. Significantly, another genre of black music - Funk - is based on a valorisation of the bass. In dub and reggae the bass not only gives the beat; it also sings, and singers always dub the bass. That’s why in terms of sonic perspective, bass and drums are, especially in dub, always in the foreground while the melody is usually in the background (Van Leuween, 1999).

20LKJ’s voice is voice as bass; it is vibrating, immersive; the grain of Johnson’s voice, as Barthes would call it, speaks directly to the body, working as a sonic link between different bodies. It is voice as flux. The very fluidity of the voice affects the very quality of the language, which escapes any standard or conventional form. In the introduction to his first collection of poems - Dread, beat and blood - Johnson explains:

The kind of thing that I write and the way I say it is a result of the tension between Jamaican Creole and Jamaican English and between those and English English. And all that, really is the consequence of having been brought up in a colonial society and then coming over here to live and go to school in England soon afterwards. The tension builds up. You can see it in the writing. You can hear it. And something else: my poems may look sort of flat on the page. Well, that is because they’re actually oral poems, as such. They were definitely written to be read aloud, in the community.
(Johnson, 1975: 8)

21Here LKJ, besides explaining the dialogical origin of the language he uses, also makes reference to his poetry as transcription, to its life on the page. Even though transcription stands as a betrayal of orality - writing being according to Ong ”a particularly pre-emptive and imperialist activity, [which] tyrannically locks [words] into a visual field forever “ (Ong, 1988, 12) - LKJ seems particularly interested in creating a powerful and compelling written version of his oral poems. Discussing this point with Mike Phillips, LKJ explains: ”I want the poem to look like a poem on the page. I want it also to sound. I want that the reader when he’s looking at it he feels compelled to speak the word (instead of having it in his head)“ (Phillips 2003). In 2002 Johnson became only the second living poet and the first black poet to have his work published in Penguin Modern Classics under the title Mi Revalueshanary Fren, where the phonic transcription of the Jamaican English pronunciation foregrounds vis-à-vis established norms of grammar and Received Pronunciation. LKJ’s disruptive entrance into the cultural establishment was undoubtedly a ”noisy“ one: the average white reader who’s not familiar with his performances is stricken if not disturbed by a language which is English without being English.

22Johnson’s work on language has, according to Hitchcock (1993), the effect of providing his community - that of first and second generation Caribbean immigrants living in Britain- with a shared linguistic code enunciated through a shared cultural practice, which is reggae. Through this very language, Johnson can comment on racial discrimination and social injustice, provoking an active/committed reaction from his audience. This complex dialogic can be perceived in It Dread inna Inglan whose 1978 album version opens with an (African-like) call and response pattern which conveys the sounds of a peaceful street protest in which the griot and his community speak in defence of poor George Lindo a Jamaican worker living in Bradford who was wrongfully convicted of armed robbery:

Dem frame-up George Lindo
up in Bradford toun
but de Bradford blacks
dem a rally round [... ]
Maggi Tatcha on di go wid a racist show
but a she haffi go
rite now.
West Indian
an Black British
stan firm inna Inglan
inna disya time yah.
far noh mattah wat dey say.
come wat may,
we are here to stay
inna Inglan
inna disya time yah...
George Lindo
him is a working man
George Lindo
im is a famili man
George Lindo
him neva do no wrong
George Lindo
di innocent one
George Lindo
him noh carry no daggah
George Lindo
him is not no robber
George Lindo
dem haffi let him goh
George Lindo
dem bettah free him now
(Johnson, 2002: 25-26)

23It is interesting to note, how LKJ invites all members of different black communities - Africans, Asians, West Indians - to stand firm in England and face reality, namely Margaret Thatcher’s racist politics. In short here the griot is, again, calling for an active response from a joint community.

24Most of LKJ’s early poems deal with the conflict between members of the Black British community and the police, which in the Seventies stood for institutionalized racism. The most significant poem in this sense is undoubtedly Sonny’s Lettah (dealing with the Sus law or Suspicion Law allowing the police to arrest a disproportionate number of black youths) which in 1996 Johnson published in a ”a capella“ (that is, a solo voice) version, succeeding in the very difficult task of translating a typical written form - the letter - into an oral tale, differentiating through rhythm, timbre and intonation the stanzas of the poem:

Brixtan Prison Jebb Avenue
Landan S.W. 2 Inglan
Dear Mama
Good Day
I hope dat wen
deze few lines reach yu,
they may find yu in di bes af helt
I really dont know how fi tell yu dis.
cause I did mek a salim pramis
fi tek care a likkle Jim
an try mi bes fi look out fi him [...]
mi an Jim stan-up waitin pan a bus nat cauzin no fus when all af a sudden a police van pull-up.
Out jump tree policeman.
de hole a dem carryin batan.
Dem waak straight up to mi an Jim.
One a dem hoi awn to Jim seh him tekin him in; Jim tell him fi let goh a him far him noh dhu notn an him naw teef nat even a burn. Jim start to wriggle di police start to giggle
mek I tell yu whe dem dhu to Jim
mek I tell you whe dem dhu to him:
dem tump him in him belly
and it turn to jelly dem lick him pan him back
and him rib get pap
dem lick him pan him hed
but it tuff like led
dem kick him in him seed
and it started to bleed
I jus couldn stan-up deh,
an noh dhu notn:
soh mi jook one in him eye
and him started to cry
mi tump one in him mout
and him started to shout
mi kick one pan him shin an him started to spin mi tump him pan him chin an him drap pan a bin
an crash anded
More policeman come dung an beat mi to di grung; dem charge Jim fi sus. dem charge mi fi murdah
Mama, dont fret, dont get depres an doun-hearted. Be of good courage till I hear fram you.
I remain your son, Sonny.
(Johnson, 2002: 27-29)

25The passages in which the protagonist reports to his mother of his little brother being kicked by the police and of his impulsive reaction to the policemen’s violence stand as examples of Johnson’s capacity to turn the rhythms and timbres of his voice into those of the reggae bass. Indeed while in the previous stanzas Johnson’s enunciation is characterized by a sort of liquidity, by a certain softness of tone, in the two stanzas in which he reports of the fights, the accents become much more emphatic, and, in a sense, music becomes the conflict, as we can see in the following transcription in which the underlined words are those uttered on the beat:

soh mi jook one in him eye
and him started to cry
mi tump one in him mout
and him started to shout.

26These are the kind of accents - usually falling on the first and the third movement of a musical bar - that the bassist stresses in a reggae line. Johnson celebrates the voice of the bass in his cult poem Bass Culture in which musical sounds become social voices, powerful and disturbing voices which - within the metropolitan context of private reggaes parties - the poet contrasts with those of white repressive culture, which would like to silence them:

Muzik of blood
black reared
pain reared
heart geared
all tensed up
in the bubble an the bounce
an the leap an the weight-drop/
It is the beat of the heart
this pulsing of blood
that is a bubblin bass
a bad bad beat
pushin gainst the wall
whey bar black blood [...]
(Johnson, 2002: 14)

27Sonny’s Lettah, Bass Culture and other well-known poems such as Inglan is a bitch - which according to Dhondy can be considered ”the first working-class hymn of the black community“ (Dhondy, 1980: 5), New Crass Massakah (in which Johnson reports of a racially motivated arson attack in January 1981 which resulted in the deaths of fourteen young blacks) and The Great Insurrection, besides being dub masterpieces had the effect of awakening people’s consciousness with respect to racial violence and discrimination, inviting them to act namely to react, to that very violence through active mobilisation. The Brixton riots of 1981 -which Johnson narrates in The Great Insurrection - had in Johnson’s words the effect of making the British state sit up and take note of the fact that black people had some power, ”and when you have some power they make concessions“ (in Phillips 2003). As LKJ’s observes, ”if today there are some black people in the media and in the government it is a direct consequence of these action“ (Ibidem).

28If according to Bakhtin (1926) the poet receives his words and learns how to give them an intonation in the whole course of his life, thanks to an exploratory process of communication with the social context in which he lives, then Linton Kwesi Johnson stands as one of the most important poetic voices in contemporary British culture. Indeed his dub poetry stands as a highly successful attempt to give poetry back to people, creating polyphonic soundscapes in which one can hear the voice of a whole community besides and within that of the poet.

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Bakhtin M, 1926, Slovo v žizni I slovo v poezii, Zvezda, 6.

Barthes, R., 1977, The Grain of the Voice in Image, Music, Text, London, Fontana, pp. 179-189.

Brathwaite, E. K., 1973, The Arrivants: A New World Trilogy, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

—, 1984, History of the Voice, London and Port of Spain, New Beacon.

Dawson, A., 2007, Mongrel Nation. Diasporic Culture and the Making of Postcolonial Britain, Michigan, University of Michigan Press.

Dhondy, F., 1980, Introduction in Johnson, L.K. Inglan is a Bitch, London, Race Today Publications, pp. 7-9.

Du Bois, W. E. B. 1965, (1903), The Souls of Black Folks: Essays and Sketches, London, Longmans, Green.

Fabbri, F., 2001, La canzone in Nattiez J. J., Enciclopedia délia musica. Il Novecento I, Torino, Einaudi, pp. 551-576.

Frith, S., 2002, Songs as Texts in Frith, S. Performing Rites, Oxford, Oxford University Press, pp. 158-182.

Gross, J., 1997, Linton Kwesi Johnson. Interview, URL

Gunner, L., 2004, Africa and Orality in Abiola Irele F. & Gikandi, S. The Cambridge History of African and Caribbean Literature, Volume I, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, pp. 1-18.

Habekost, C, 1986, Dub Poetry. 19 Poets from England and Jamaica, Neustadt, Publishers Michael Swinn.

—, 1993, Verbal Riddim. The Politics and Aesthetics of African-Caribbean Dub Poetry, Amsterdam and Atlanta, Rodopi.

Harris, R. & S. White, 1999, Changing Britannia: Life Experience with Britain, London and Port of Spain, New Beacon.

Hebdige, D., 1990, (1987), Cut’ n’ Mix. Culture, Identity and Caribbean Music, Routledge, London and New York.

Hitchcock, P., 1993, It Dread inna Inglan. Linton Kwesi Johnson, Dread and Dub Identity, Postmodern Culture, 4, 1 (September, 1993)

Johnson, L. K., 1975, Dread Beat and Blood, London, Bogle-L’Ouverture.

—, 2002, Mi Revalueshanary Fren: Selected Poems, London, Penguin.

Maskowitz, D., 2005, Caribbean Popular Music: an Encyclopedia of Reggae, Mento, Ska, Rocksteady and Dancehall, Abingdon, Greenwood Press.

Ong, W. 1988, Orality and Literacy, The Technologizing of the Word, London and New York, Routledge.

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Van Leuween, T., 1999, Speech, Music, Sound, Macmillan, London.

Wroe, N, 2008, I Did My Own Thing. (Interview with Linton Kwesi Johnson), The Guardian.


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1 ”LKJ“ is the tag Johnson has adopted since the mid-Seventies. In the early Eighties he even established his own record label entitled LKJ Records, which is based in South London.

2 In this essay Brathwaite writes: ”Nation language is the language which is influenced very strongly by the African model, the African aspect of our New World/Caribbean heritage. English it may be in terms of some of its lexical features. But in its contours, its rhythm and timbre, its sounds explosions, it is not English, even though the words, as you hear them, might be english to a greater or lesser degree" (K. Brathwaite, 1984: 13).

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Pierpaolo Martino, « Transnational Metamorphoses of African Orality: L. K. Johnson’s Dub Poetry »Journal des africanistes, 80-1/2 | 2010, 193-204.

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Pierpaolo Martino, « Transnational Metamorphoses of African Orality: L. K. Johnson’s Dub Poetry »Journal des africanistes [En ligne], 80-1/2 | 2010, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2013, consulté le 02 juin 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Pierpaolo Martino

Attaché de recherche, Université degli Studi di Bari, Italia (

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