In 2010 the poet Linton Kwesi Johnson wrote that in the 1960s and 1970s “there was not an institution of the state not riddled with racial prejudice”. When we met in south London in mid-March, during a time when the phrase “institutional racism” features in headlines about everything from the Metropolitan police to schools, I asked him if he felt that was still true. “Of course,” he said. Does he believe in the abolition of the police? “No. We can’t have police abolition. There’d be anarchy.” He smiled – the only time he smiled in our hour-long meeting – and a mischievous twinkle briefly appeared in his eyes. So how does he imagine things getting better? “I don’t know. Ask the home secretary.”
Johnson told me he was tired when we met outside the Commercial in Herne Hill – his local – at midday. The door was locked, and he peered through the window, while I asked how far away he lived, what else he had on that afternoon. “I’m very busy,” he said, before a bartender unlocked the door, welcomed him by name, and proceeded to pour the tap water he had ordered.
Johnson, who has lived in south London since 1963, when he was 11, wasn’t interested in telling me how his home borough of Lambeth has changed over the years. “There are not so many black people living in this neighbourhood as there used to be,” he said, shrugging, once we had settled into a corner of the still empty pub. He wore a dark overcoat and kept his checked flat cap on. “It’s become more gentrified. That’s about it.”
He had more to say about poetry, in which he began his career as a spoken word performer (he is described as “the father of dub poetry”), recording artist and political activist. “At the end of the day, poetry is really about the distillation of experience through language that can offer, on rare occasions, fleeting insights into the human condition,” he said. His first collection, Voices of the Living and the Dead, was published in 1974. More of his “politically conscious verse” was collected in Inglan is a Bitch (1980). “I began with political verse because that’s what inspired me, that’s what moved me to write, in a sense – chronicling the black experience, what it was like being in a racially hostile environment, and what was going on in our communities.”
Johnson, 70, was born in the rural town of Chapeltown in Clarendon, Jamaica, in 1952. His father was illiterate and his mother’s schooling had ended when she was 14. The couple separated and in 1962 his mother moved to Britain. Johnson followed her a year later, attending Tulse Hill School in Lambeth and later studying sociology at Goldsmiths College.
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The emigrants of the Windrush era had been encouraged to move to Britain but were met with racial hostility. “A lot of people from my parents’ generation held their heads down and dealt with the racism that confronted them in their everyday lives as best they could,” Johnson said. But he and his contemporaries were different. “We were what I have called the rebel generation. We weren’t as passive as our parents. We’d been to school here, some of us had white friends. We didn’t have this sense of being third-class citizens; we were just as good as anybody else.”
Police oppression was rampant. “The fact is: when I was a youth, it was clear to us that the police, the Metropolitan police in particular, had declared war against the black youth of our generation. They were racist and they were corrupt. That war is a protracted one that continues to this very day. It’s a war of attrition against young black men.” As a member of the British Black Panthers, Johnson had been taught to witness arrests of other black youth, to note down their name and address to inform their family. In 1972 he was “brutalised” by plain-clothed officers for doing so in Brixton Market. In court he was acquitted of wrongdoing, while the officers were moved to another part of the borough – “which just meant that they were victimising black people somewhere else”. Fifty years on, his grandson is still regularly stopped and searched by police.
As a young man Johnson found solace in reggae music. He was both a critic of the genre, writing reviews for Melody Maker and Race Today, and part of the scene, performing his poetry in patois over dub music played by Dennis Bovell and his band. “It wasn’t just good music to dance to,” he said. “It gave us a sense of identity in a hostile environment where we were being othered. We fell back on our own cultural roots. Reggae music was like the umbilical cord that kept us connected to the land of our birth, or our parents’ birth. Reggae music at that time was the most socially conscious popular music of any genre anywhere in the world. It was the nexus of a cultural resistance.”
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In 2001 Johnson was invited to compile a selection of his poems for publication in the Penguin Modern Classics list. He was the first black poet, and only the second living one, to be included. Guardians of the “canon” of British poetry were critical of the decision. Did he care to be invited in? “Not in the slightest bit,” he said, straight-faced.
Johnson writes about the experience in Time Come, a new collection of criticism, political reflections and autobiographical essays that spans 1975 to 2021, as well as his friendship with John La Rose, the activist and founder of New Beacon Books, the first specialist Caribbean publisher in Britain. But he didn’t want to get bogged down in conversations about his place in the literary landscape. “I don’t wanna…” he paused. “Art was there. More importantly we organised ourselves. We agitated, we demonstrated, we campaigned. We fought for justice in the courts, we fought against dumping our children into schools for the ‘educationally subnormal’. We fought for equity in wages and all this sort of thing. It wasn’t just, you know, the youngsters, the children of immigrants, decided to write political poetry.”
Johnson, alongside La Rose, was one of the organisers of the Black People’s Day of Action of 2 March 1981. Thousands of people gathered together to demand justice for the victims of the New Cross house fire of that January, in which 13 young black people had died. “We couldn’t just sit by and do nothing,” he said. “There was no outpouring of sympathy from the white communities, there were no messages of condolences from anybody in authority, from the prime minister or the Queen or whatever. We were subjected to horrendous acts of terror.”
In April that year the Brixton riots – clashes between mainly young, black protesters and the Metropolitan police – marked a height in racial tensions. Johnson wrote about the event in his poem “Di Great Insohreckshan”, which appeared on his album Making History in 1983:
It woz in april nineteen eighty wan
doun inna di ghetto af Brixtan
dat di babylan dem cauz such a frickshan
dat it bring about a great insohreckshan
an it spread all owevah di naeshan
it woz truly an histarical occayshan
There were similar uprisings – “high points of rebellion” – in the Handsworth district of Birmingham, and in Tottenham, north London, in 1985. The reverberations of these uprisings are still being felt, Johnson said, in the riots that followed the fatal shooting of Mark Duggan by police in 2011, and in the Black Lives Matter movement, which he found “quite encouraging, just to see that these youngsters have taken the mantle and there has been some continuity between the generations”.
There is still progress to be made: police violence “has not abated”. But Johnson’s “rebel generation” changed the experience of black people in this country for the better. “That’s the significant point I’m trying to get over to you,” he said, insistent. “We’ve changed England, and in a sense we’ve changed ourselves as well. Through our struggles, through our organising, through our building autonomous institutions and through our uprisings and insurrections. But as I said, the struggle continues.”
“Time Come: Selected Prose” by Linton Kwesi Johnson is published by Picador. Johnson will be in conversation at Cambridge Literary Festival on 22 April. Tickets are available here. NS readers get a 20 per cent discount on all events: use the code NSSPRING23 at checkout
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