Updated: Nov 12, 2020
Earlier this year, in July, a British poet of Jamaican roots was awarded the prestigious PEN Pinter prize for “his political ferocity and his tireless scrutiny of history,” reported the Guardian culture editor Claire Armitstead.
Of course it was Linton Kwesi Johnson, whose 1975 book Dread Beat and Blood formed the basis for the 1978 debut album Dread Beat an Blood, which brought him widespread acclaim and created the genre of dub poetry.
That was a time of heightened conflict between black youth and the police force, which used the 1824 Vagrancy Act to stop, search, arrest, detain and assault young black men – part of the racist violence which LKJ redefined as “terrorism”.
“Heavy, heavy terror on de rampage/But don't you worry, it is so near/Fratricide is only de first phase/Yes the violence of the oppressor running wild/Dem pickin up we yout dem for fe sus/How we prophesise a black, a black, a black conquest/And the national front is on the rampage/Making fire-bombs for Burnley/Terror-fire, terror-fire reach me/Such a sufferin wi sufferin in dis burnin age of rage.”
His second album, Bass Culture, was released in 1980, the year of riots in Bristol, which were followed by more riots in 1981 in Brixton, London; Toxteth, Liverpool; Handsworth, Birmingham; and Leeds. That was forty years before the 2020 PEN Pinter award, because the more things change, the more they remain the same.
By then the Notting Hill and Labour Day carnivals in London and New York respectively were annual declarations that we were there to stay. On a more quotidian basis, however, our re-creation of a home community, the modern incarnation of the African slave dances, was in the weekend dances, which Andre Tanker described in his “Basement party in New York city: downtown shakedown, uptown boogie”:
“Downtown rockers, uptown blues/Streamlined ladies in spike-heel shoes/Green card lovers in a corner dancing close/Illegal immigrants — them jumping up the most.”
Marley was riding high on the airwaves and Tanker was influenced as everyone else. “Basement Party” had reggae’s shuffle rhythm and a hint of those Jamaican horns. But the overall flavor came from the uptempo bass rhythms of TT’s emerging soca.
“Sweet soul music and a disco/a rhythm and blues/and run the dubso calypso/but don’t get confused/Mr DJ, cause we put all these rhythms together/and we give them some plays/You know the whole place start jumping/and the vibrations raise.”
West Indians had created a stable trans-national community. In Brooklyn you could buy anything from back home, especially foodstuffs, even the most trifling or perishable things. If the wild anarchic spirit of back-home Carnival was stifled by American teetotaling Puritanism, Labour Day celebrations found direction in a different vibe: through roti, souse, jerk pork, pelau, doubles, pastelles, escoviche, coo-coo. Even the exotic foods such as mango chow, grape Solo and chilibibi.
Alongside singing together, sharing food is perhaps our oldest human ritual, the ceremonial recognition of family and community. Humans must have been doing that since we crowded around fires in caves. Today a Trini abroad longs for nothing more than his mother’s cooking. Again, "Basement Party":
“Well, the whole place was a ram-up and a cram-up with people till they couldn’t hold no more/but still they kept on coming – if you see them squeezing through the door/And check the lady in the kitchen/she got a peas and rice coming up hot, coming up hot/with some big red peppers, to put the Caribbean flavour in the pot/I keep the rhythm jamming hot.”
They shuttled between the US and home. Back then, unlike other immigrants West Indians rarely applied for US citizenship. Many considered their sojourn temporary, that they would one day return home, even after decades, even after it was quite impossible. Why? Partly because of the regular visits to the islands where their navel strings were buried. Being in regular contact with societies where the majority was black, they could only imagine home as a place that every public stone, leaf, road, building and beach belonged to them.
LKJ’s Londoners were not so. By the 70s even the second generation of (Black) British was considered outsiders. Less welcome than the US immigrants, perhaps because there was no previous black community to compare them favourably against, and because Britain was a long-settled country with ancient white myths of origin.
As today, periodic political campaigns were launched in England to send the West Indians back to the Caribbean. Yet, ironically, perhaps because of the old colonial Mother Country ideology, perhaps because one quickly loses touch with home across the Atlantic, these immigrants, unlike their US counterparts, considered themselves to be (Black) British citizens. And as such they bridled at being denied the rights of full citizenship. Hence the difference between Tanker's Trini “Basement Party” and LKJ’s Jamaican “Street 66” – same topic, different attitude:
“di room was dark-dusk howlin softly six-a-clack/charcoal lite, defying site woz moving black/Di sound woz muzik mellow steady flow/An man-son mind jus mystic red, green, red, green…pure scene/no man would dance but leap an shake/dat shock tru feeling ripe/Shape dat soun tumblin doun/makin movement, ruff enough.”
The music is even darker, Johnson’s voice deeper, heavy as the burden you've borne for four centuries, as only a Jamaican's can be. Beside it the bass walks slowly, accompanied by a doleful harmonica. The animating spirit inside Street 66 is not that of a party but rather a guerrilla camp. The music fuels a heady war dance:
"di mitey poet I-Roy woz on di wire/Western did a skank and each one lawf/him feelin irie, dread I/’Street 66,’ di said man said/’any policeman come yah will get some righteous, rass klat licks/yea mon, whole heap a kicks’"
Tanker's basement party and LKJ's bues dance receive unwelcome guests:
In New York: "Just then I heard a knocking/it was a visit from the police on the beat/They say they just get a complaint/from a neighbour on the block/and the music gotta turn down real low/or the party gonna stop."
In London: "hours beat di scene movin rite/when all of a sudden/bam bam bam a knockin pan di door/'Who's dat?' asked Western feelin rite/'Open up! It's the police! Open up!'"
After that, the full distance between the two events is manifest. In Tanker's New York: "The jamming get stronger/And the music stay free/you know the police get lock inside a rhythm/whole night I see them searching for the key/to one love."
But in LKJ's London: '''Open up! It's the police! Open up!'/'Wat address do you want?'/'Number sixty-six! Come on, open up!'/Western feelin high reply/'Yes, dis is Street 66/step rite in and tek some licks'"
Maybe the differences are simply pragmatic. You could get away with it in London but if West Indians beat a policeman in New York the entire force would return, guns blazing. People would die. Certainly the different temperament of Jamaicans and Trinis are also at play.
Andre Tanker lived and died in Trinidad. At times he struggled to make a living through music here, but after a brief stint in the US in the 1960s he absorbed the ideas of Black Power and rejected any further idea of migration:
“I went away, looking for another home/tried to run away, run way from my destiny/In another world, a world that was strange to me/tried to change myself, change my identity/but strong is the power of love/and the power of freedom/and the power of blackness fills my heart yea/I come back to stay.”
Years after he explained that "Back Home" was one's attitude to home. “It’s not really about going anywhere, as people may have thought,” he claimed. “It’s about being educated out of your environment and rediscovering yourself.”
Maybe. You needn't live abroad to be in a foreign land. Contrariwise, you don’t need a plane ticket to return home. Indeed, that inward journey could be the more important one. Today, however, now that 71 million Americans have voted for Donald Trump; and Black Americans realize they are and have always been in what my partner describes as an abusive relationship; perhaps they might reconsider Marcus Garvey's advice about returning home. Maybe Andre Tanker is even more relevant now:
"I went away, I leave and I come back home/I come back to stay, I must see mih way."