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World Music Features

Linton Kwesi Johnson

Linton Kwesi Johnson and Benjamin Zephaniah

By Garth Cartwright
Published March 14, 2006

Word Sound Power has long been a reggae maxim: Linton Kwesi Johnson and Benjamin Zephaniah both embody it. The two are friends yet could hardly be more different.

Word Sound Power has long been a reggae maxim: Linton Kwesi Johnson and Benjamin Zephaniah both embody it. LKJ pioneered dub poetry in the U.K. in the mid-’70s. Jamaican–born, he arrived in England at age 11 and by his teens was writing poetry in patois that dealt with the injustices toward non-white citizens. Zephaniah grew up in a Rastafarian community in Birmingham and developed his poems while entertaining punters at blues dances and sound systems. Both realized their polemical poems worked even better with a reggae groove behind them. LKJ became a national figure in the late 1970s when his first albums (for Virgin and Island) attracted both praise and loathing. Zephaniah debuted on record in 1981 and has become a spokesperson not only for black British issues but also on vegan and Palestinian rights.

The two are friends yet could hardly be more different. LKJ is dapper, distant and admittedly slow at writing new poems. Zephaniah is a whirlwind of dreadlocks, good vibes and creativity—poems, music, novels, essays and journalism flow from him. 2002 was a good year for both: Johnson issued LKJ In Dub: 3 (LKJ Records) while Penguin Books published Mi Revalueshanary Fren: Selected Poems, which affirms Johnson’s position as Britain’s “alternative poet laureate.”

Zephaniah had Refugee Boy, a novel for teenagers dealing with the ordeal of an Eritrean youth struggling to survive in London, and This Is Britain, a photo and textbook for children detailing kids from different communities across the U.K. LKJ completed a poetry reading tour of the U.K. and toured with his band internationally. Zephaniah crisscrossed North America promoting Refugee Boy and represented the British Council as a poet in Thailand, Sri Lanka and Libya. What they share is a philosophy: both consider themselves activist poets in the tradition of Shelley.

“I don’t have to make a new recording every six months or year to stay in the public eye,” says LKJ. “I’m my own man. I’ve always preached independence and I practice it. I’ve never sought to record or issue contrived material. You can’t commission me to write a poem about anything. I write when I feel that I have something to say. So that’s why my output is not so great.”

LKJ may never have sold huge amounts of albums or books but his influence is marked through the growth of dub poetry and conscious hip-hop. “I started out underground and I consciously tried to create my own style, find my own voice, and I inspired people along the way. If you can give people the confidence to try something along the way then I’ve achieved something. People who have inspired me are the older writers: black Surrealist poets from Martinique and Bonga Jerry, an early Rasta poet from Jamaica. I used to like early reggae toasters like Prince Buster, melodic and telling a story across the beat; the Last Poets, who used street language; and James Brown tunes like “Say It Loud, I’m Black And I’m Proud.” Dancehall, the beat can be quite infecti