After 40 years and 27 albums, the Jamaican poet and activist says there is still more to be done.
Linton Kwesi Johnson wishes for a quiet and relaxed life after dedicating over four decades of it to fighting racism through his poetic verse that has elevated him to one of the greats of the craft.
“I’m getting old now. I don’t tour any more. I’m trying to have a quiet life, but people don’t want to leave me alone,” says the 64-year-old Jamaican Briton.
One of the institutions that didn’t leave him alone was Rhodes University. The university recently bestowed upon LKJ, as he is known to his legion of fans, an honorary degree in literature. He travelled for more than 24 hours to the Eastern Cape town of Grahamstown to accept the honour.
“It means that you are still in demand and you should be flattered. I’m grateful that I have managed to make a career out of music. It’s not arrogance. It’s just fatigue,” he responds when I ask if it’s annoying when a performing artist and writer is not left alone as he wishes.
We are sitting in a boardroom at Rhodes University in Grahamstown. He has just returned from a sightseeing drive to nearby Port Alfred. The previous night he had accepted an honorary doctorate in literature.
He has toured the world in a career spanning over 40 years, delivering his hard-hitting verse, a message against racism, fascism and injustice to appreciative audiences. LKJ has published several volumes of poetry since 1974. He has recorded 27 albums, where he delivers his verse to the accompaniment of reggae music rhythms, a sound made famous in his country of birth, Jamaica.
“It is the power and ubiquity of reggae music that has brought me here today. For although I am a published poet, reggae music is the vehicle that has afforded me a global audience for my verse,” he said in his acceptance speech.
LKJ is no stickler to the rigid confines of English grammar like William Butler Yeats.
Instead, he delivers his radical message in a mixture of Jamaican creole and English. While this has elevated him to cult status, especially among young black people around the world, it has put him at odds with the conservative English media who even accused him of “wreaking havoc in schools and helped create a generation of rioters”.
It’s an accusation he wears with pride.
“I was very proud of that,” he says with a hearty laughter, saying it makes him happy to be viewed in that manner by “the enemy”.
The enemy? Who or what is the enemy?
“The right,” he answers. “The racist right wing press in England.”
In 2002, his poetry was published in the Penguin Modern Classics series, making him the first black poet, and only the second living poet, to have been honoured in this way.
This also drew sharp criticism from “the enemy”.
But LKJ takes it all in his stride. In fact, he doesn’t give a damn.
“They thought, well, the fortress of British literature had been…