Linton Kwesi Johnson was born in Jamaica in 1952 and emigrated to Britain in 1963. He settled with his mother and father in Brixton, London. After studying sociology at Goldsmiths College, London, he became a poet, activist and musician, devoting the past five decades to documenting the Black British experience.
Johnson’s albums with producer Dennis Bovell in the late 70s spoke of police brutality and government while defining the genre ‘dub poetry’. His 2002 collection, Mi Revalueshanary Fren: Selected Poems, became only the second published on the Penguin Modern Classics imprint by a living poet, and first by a black poet.
In his Letter To My Younger Self, Johnson reflects on settling in England as a youth, his close relationship with his mother, early jobs, and becoming a poet and writer.
I remember when I was 16 being very self-conscious and interested in girls and how I looked. I was a fanatic of Jamaican music, following the styles of what people were wearing, getting involved in youth culture. My hairstyle… I think we called it a skiffle or something like that. Very low-cut style. I had a Saturday job in the rag trade, so I had access to good cloth and good tailoring. So I had made-to-measure mohair suits. Ben Sherman shirts. And when I could afford them – probably when I was 17 – brogues. They must have cost about seven quid back in those days. We’d dress up like that when we were going out.
I came to England when I was 11, a peasant boy from Jamaica. But I adjusted as young people do. I made friends with English guys at school. By the time I was 16 I’d been in England for five years. I’d been through secondary school, and I was trying to fit into British society. But it wasn’t easy for the Windrush generation. The atmosphere was quite hostile. My main focus, apart from going out and having a nice time, was my schoolwork, because I come from a very poor family, and it was drilled into us from an early age that the only way to improve yourself is through education.
Before I left for England my sister and I were looked after by my maternal grandmother in Jamaica. That was the happiest time of my life. She was a darling, a God-fearing woman. She treated me with so much love. I learned all my folk culture from her ghost stories, all the folk songs and riddles and the spirituals she sang to herself. She was key to my upbringing. We had a fantastic time, the three of us. And I was the man of the house. It was a bit sad leaving. But I was looking forward to being with my mother. So I had very mixed emotions.
I was very close to my mother. She was my role model. My father was a nice guy, and then I had a stepfather who was also a very nice man, but in terms of my outlook on life, my mum is 100 per cent my role model. She taught me the basic Christian values – be kind, be considerate, be caring, don’t laugh at someone who’s, you know, maybe physically deformed. Say please, say thank you, be polite, be courteous. My dad was a very nice man, but I might have grown up a bit more undisciplined under him, he wasn’t much of a disciplinarian. When I was a little boy in Jamaica, I used to run and hide behind him when my mum got the belt out.
My family were not political, not at all. My mother voted once, and she regretted it. She voted for Margaret Thatcher. And many years later, I asked her, why did you vote for Margaret Thatcher in 1979? And she said, “She was a woman. I thought, let’s give a woman a chance.” My own political education was shaped by my very strong moral sense of right and wrong, which came from the way I had been brought up, and my everyday experiences of racism, of being racially abused. Getting into a fight with my school, the negative attitude from some teachers, who had a very, extremely low expectation of what I could achieve academically. I knew I wasn’t dumb. I got the school prize for mathematics in my first year. And then I got a prize for English.
In my late teens, as a way of trying to express how I felt about growing up in a racially hostile environment, I started to write poetry. It wasn’t about the aesthetics. It began because I had a need for self-expression. We had a small group in the Black Panther movement who were interested in literature. We had a little workshop that used to meet occasionally, and we’d read each other’s stuff and give each other feedback.
I wasn’t the first to write in a Jamaican dialect. There was a woman called Louise Bennett. She’s now regarded as the mother of Jamaican voice, fondly known as Miss Lou. She was a folklorist, she was a theatre person, comedian, and a great performer of poetry. She wasn’t the very first to write in the Jamaican language American dialect – that was Claude McKay – but she was the one who made the everyday language spoken by ordinary Jamaicans legitimate as a vehicle for poetic expression. Another influence later on was The Last Poets, a group of African-American poets whose poetry was accompanied by percussion and used the everyday spoken language of urban black America.
When I was at school, I had early ambitions to become an accountant. But my careers officer put me off, saying we need lads like you in the army. One of the best moments of my life was when I got my exam results and I realised I hadn’t done too badly. I left school with six O levels. And some of them were grade one. I thought, I’ve done well enough to get a job as a clerical officer in the civil service. I really had to focus on earning money any way I could. No job was too dirty for me, because by the time I graduated I was a married man with three children. I worked in factories, on building sites, in the family planning clinic. I worked in Brixton market, I worked in a butcher’s, I worked in Blue Rose tailors, I worked as a librarian. I’ve done all kinds of jobs.
I probably got married too young. I didn’t plan, the kids just turned up. I don’t know if I was much of a good father, but I was certainly a loving and caring one. I just brought up my children the way I was raised. They used to spend their summer holidays with my mum and my stepfather in Luton. Of course, she would spoil the children rotten and send them home. She was very, very supportive.
It never occurred to me that I could make a living from writing, and I haven’t been able to. I’ve been able to earn a living as a musician, making records, touring and performing with the Dennis Bovell dub band all over the world. Writing was something I did as a part of a learning process. Reading, writing, listening, thinking – all of that, for me, was a part of my self-education. I never saw it as a vocation. If you told the 16-year-old me I would become known as a poet and a writer, have a successful career in music, he’d be very surprised. He probably would have found the idea of becoming well known attractive, he’d be excited by that. But I live a simple life and it hasn’t changed much. I’ve always lived in a working-class neighbourhood and most of my friends are from working-class families.
If I could have one last conversation with anyone, it would be with my father. We became estranged when I was about eight years old and then when I was 11 came to England. My parents separated and then I only saw him on the occasions I went back to Jamaica, and then he died when he was 56. So I never really had a chance to sit down and chat with him about his father and his upbringing and his history, the Johnson side of my family. I would have liked that.
I’ve never been tempted to leave Brixton [in South London]. I value my friendships and you just get used to a place. You know where everything is and where everybody is. There’s a good library. You see a lot of Caribbean people in Brixton Market. There’s record shops where you can go and buy the latest reggae album that’s come out of Jamaica. So I’m happy here. Mostly people don’t know who I am, so I really don’t get hassled. I love that. People who know me as an artist, as a recording artist or a poet, they knew me when I was a kid or when we were teenagers so it’s no big deal. Some people get surprised when I pop up on the TV, you know? The next day they say, I saw you on TV, I didn’t know you were famous!
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