Linton Kwesi Johnson
Linton Kwesi Johnson was born on 24 August 1952 in Chapelton, a small town in the rural parish of Clarendon, Jamaica. He attended elementary school in Jamaica, came to London in 1963, went to Tulse Hill Secondary School and later studied Sociology at Goldsmiths College, University of London.
Linton was a member of The Black Panther Movement, and a founding member of the New Cross Massacre Action Committee.
He is a freelance journalist, broadcaster, recording artist, and company director. He has received numerous awards for his contribution to music and poetry. His recordings are amongst the top-selling reggae albums in the world. He is known and revered as the world's first reggae poet.
In 2002 Linton became the second living poet, and the first black poet to have his work published in Penguin's Modern Classics series, under the title "Mi Revalueshanary Fren".
Below is an abridged version of Linton's interview:
00:00 Linton talks about his educational background and occupation.
01:13 My biggest influence was my mother. She was my role model in my attitude towards life, my values, the way I look on the world, my sense of right and wrong, my sense of justice and injustice.
01:48 The Black Panther Movement was a black power organisation that emerged in this country in the late 60s, early 70s. It modelled itself on the ideas of the American Black Panther Party. They were an organisation struggling against racial discrimination, struggling for rights for black people, and struggling against police brutality and murders that were taking place in America. We were going through similar experiences in this country. The slogan of the organisation was “Black Power, People’s Power”. It was involved in campaigning around issues of education, employment, for justice in the courts and against police brutality.
02:56 I became a member because as a black youth growing up in this country it was part and parcel of my experience: The experience of racial oppression, of being marginalised, of being persecuted by racist police officers, of being put in lower streams in school and not given the same equal opportunity for learning as other kids. Those were the things that motivated me, my sense of injustice as a youngster.
03:35 I learnt a lot about our history, our culture. There is an old saying: Knowledge is power. The more you know the more self confident you become. Ignorance is powerlessness.
04:02 The idea of The Black Panthers was basically that you had to organise yourselves to change your situation. You couldn’t just sit back and hope that someone would do something for you. You had to get together with people who were in the same position as you, who were suffering from the same kind of injustices and do something about it.
04:46 We achieved a lot because we helped to transform people’s consciousness. We helped people become aware of their situation and that they were not powerless. They could do something about it, organise and mobilise themselves, protest, agitate, and try and transform their situation. We helped to raise the consciousness of a lot of young people about whom they are and gave them the basis for understanding that, and to locate themselves in the world.
05:35 I don’t think The Black Panthers use the term “Babylon”. It is a Rastafarian term borrowed from the Old Testament. In the Bible, Babylon is the epitome of evil and oppression.
06:04 Like all movements of this kind, once they have served their purpose they fizzle out. There was a shift in politics in this country. It was no longer simply about colour. It became a class struggle. So we became part of a working class movement. We realised we had things in common with white working class people. We were in the same situation and we had to join forces and be in solidarity with each other. So we shifted from the politics of race to the politics of class.
07:04 I can’t really think of the biggest event that had the most effect in terms of my life, but the biggest event in the life of the black communities in this country was the New Cross fire that happened in January 1981. When Yvonne Ruddock was celebrating her 16th birthday at 439 New Cross Road. A racist, fascist threw an incendiary device through the window, which resulted in a fire in which 13 young blacks lost their lives and 26 were seriously injured. That was the most significant event in the collective life of black people in this country.
08:24 I don’t know if I can answer the question of the biggest idea that has affected me.
08:40 The youth of today are no different from the youth of my generation really. We had gangs and knives, and there were stabbings. I think the significant difference is that we were more politicised. We were more driven by ambition because our parents had come to this country in order to seek a better opportunity for themselves. We made the most of the opportunities we had. We refused to tolerate the things our parents tolerated, although they did so reluctantly. They had to put up with things when they arrived in this country that they wouldn’t have tolerated under different circumstances. They didn’t have the freedom to do as much about it as my generation did because we had no responsibilities. If you were a parent you couldn’t just walk off a job every time you were racially abused. But my generation didn’t have those considerations and we rebelled against racial oppression. The second most significant difference I think is that there were less stabbing incidents when I was a youth. Guys would cut other guys to warn them not to mess with them. Very rarely you would stab somebody. The youth nowadays don’t cut, they stab. We didn’t have the availability of guns that young people now seem to have. We weren’t living in the same materialist driven world. The consumerist ethos that dominates society now wasn’t around when I was younger. That ethos is being driven by the revolution in new technologies. Young people are now growing up in an environment of instant gratification. But by and large young people today are not that different from when I was a youth.
11:49 My message for the youth of today is that you can change the world. The world doesn’t have to be the way it is now. The world could be a better place and every generation of young people has a pivotal role to play in bringing about change. Believe in yourself. Education is key: Knowledge is power, ignorance is powerlessness.