Linton Kwesi Johnson - transcending JAH

Reggae has, since it became popular through singers like Bob Marley or Peter Tosh, been identified with the battle-cries “Jah!” and “Legalise!” . The connoisseur rather chats of freedom and will shout “Rastafari!”, referring to the syncretist religion to which numerous reggae artists indeed adhere.

Rastafarianism finds its origins in the writings of Marcus Garvey, a US-based defender of the repatriation of ex-slaves to the African continent. The religion takes elements from Christianism, but holds emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia (alias ras Tafari, reign: 1930-1974) to be the Messiah. The redemptive thought of rastafarianism, characteristic of every messianism, stimulates its followers to point the gaze at better utopia's, where the historic shackles of slavery can be laid off and freedom reigns for everyone.

The social and geographic roots of reggae only serve to intensify this preoccupation with trading Babylon, the realm of need and oppression for better horizons. This results in references to liberation ideologies such as egalitarian socialism. The semi-colonial status of Jamaica and the steady look on the African continent inevitably lead to strong anti-colonial influences in reggae lyrics.
So, while we find songs chanting how “from the rising of the sun/ until the setting thereof/ Selassie is worthy to be praised”, others manage to weld the imaginary of socialism to religious discourse (“take up thy hammer/ sharpen up your sickle”) and Bob Marley's song Zimbabwe (“soon we'll find out who is/ the real revolutionary”) not only served as the soundtrack to the country's liberation struggle, but was sung with even more verve than the new national anthem at Zimbabwe's independence celebrations.

Linton Kwesi Johnson definitely has to be placed in this militant, anti-colonial tradition of reggae. Following his mother at the age of 11, Linton Kwesi Johnson migrated from Jamaica to England. A young black man, he was confronted with the violence of everyday racism that characterised British society and involved himself in the Black Panther movement.

At about the same time, he started on writing poetry, developing a particular style which includes his emancipatory commitments in the characteristic diction of West-Indies slang which he writes down almost phonetically. This, before you would start thi