A Eulogy for Dub Poetry
A Eulogy for Dub Poetry
In characteristic Mervyn Morris style, the distinguished professor sets out a definition for dub poetry that is as careful as it is (by virtue of its many allowances) incontestable:
“Dub poetry,” which is written to be performed, incorporates a music beat, often a reggae beat. Often, but not always, the performance is done to the accompaniment of music, recorded or live. Dub poetry is usually, but not always, written in Jamaican language; in Jamaican Creole (dialect, vernacular, nation language). By extension, it may be written in the informal language of people from anywhere. Most often it is politically focused, attacking oppression and injustice. Though the ideal context for dub poetry is the live performance, it also makes itself available in various other ways: on radio, on television, in audio recordings, video recordings and on film. Many dub poets also publish books.1
My own thoughts that follow are not so carefully laid out. They might even seem to beg for contestation. This is not an attempt to stir things up gratuitously; if I paint with large and sometimes abstract strokes, I still hope that the final image on the canvas will depict a general truth.
At the heart of this essay is a hypothesis about diasporas and how they work—about things that die a certain kind of death within them yet are also preserved inside them. I have thought for a while that a more creative anthropologist, curious about the things that a certain culture might lose naturally over a few generations, would be able to find those things largely intact within the diaspora. I have walked through Brixton already, and in certain parts of Birmingham, and in Manchester, and have heard snippets of speech from West Indian immigrants, and often times it is a kind of speech that is very much from the Caribbean but which is no longer heard there. And also, in observing the fashion, sometimes you are able to tell when it was that a person might have left—because their clothes are still preserving that time, like mementos of their leaving. Consider, for instance, that most outstanding of dub poets, Linton Kwesi Johnson, and what has become his signature look—the felt hat, the sharp tweed suit, all of which scream a West Indian of a particular era. In the diaspora there seems a natural unwillingness to let go of things that are seen as synonymous with the cultures they are separated from. It is a holding on to home. So although these things might slip away or even die in their original contexts, in the diaspora they are preserved. If you are flabbergasted that I should sing the death of something that is still practiced in certain quarters, can still be heard on certain stages, that brand of performance poetry that came out of Jamaica, you might consider this central hypothesis—that the life that some things lead and live within diasporas is a kind of mummified life.
Oku Onuora, whose original name was Orlando Wong, is often given the progenitive title of “father of dub poetry.” Orlando Wong was imprisoned between 1970 and 1977 for armed robbery. Importantly, this indiscretion has been recast in popular narrative as a Robin Hood type of crime; he had held up a post office in order to fund a community project. I do not mean to cheekily suggest that it was not really an altruistic motive behind Wong’s crime. It hardly matters, for of course the narrative of an event is sometimes more important than the event, how we imagine facts sometimes more powerful than the facts themselves.
It was in prison that Wong began writing what would become known as dub poetry and started becoming popular for it. Things almost ended, however, as soon as they had begun: after the first performance of his poetry it was found to be so subversive and had such a rallying effect, that the prison wardens became scared. Wong’s writing book was confiscated and he was forbidden to write anymore.
But in Jamaica, things are neither kept in or out of prison (not even prisoners) and there is a regular trafficking of items—cigarettes, guns, women—between outside and inside. Not only did Wong continue writing, but his poems were trafficked out into a society, then caught up in the heady excitement of Black Power. The timing was perfect. People found in Wong’s dub poems a poetry that was railing against oppression, railing against social injustice, and that had the credibility of being composed inside and coming directly out of a Jamaican prison. This was the voice of the black underclass. And if there was any concern at his Chinese surname (I do not know that there was) he would soon go to deed-poll and change it to something suitably Afro-centric.
Support built for Wong’s release from prison and at last the Michael Manley–led government offered him a full pardon. And because we can do no worse, and because we can hardly be more specific in such matters, let us call this the moment when it officially happened, when Jamaica and the spirit revolution and the rhythms of reggae and the cries against injustice and the realities of prison all fertilized each other and the whole thing went into a kind of labor. Imagine, then, the day that the prison gates opened, 1 September 1977, as the day that dub poetry was officially born into the world. Orlando Wong named himself Oku Onuora, and he named this thing that he was writing dub poetry.
In narrating its birth, however, I may have already begun to hint at some of the reasons dub poetry would eventually die—or if not “die” fully, at least “die down.” Dub poetry was the voice of a revolution and revolutions do not last forever. There are, for this reason, revolutionaries who have found themselves out of work, fighters desperately looking for a war to fight. The Jamaican dub poet Klyde Broox has already written to me—all sound and fury, as it were—upset at my suggestion that dub poetry is not as alive today as it was in the 1970s or the ’80s. Some concession must be made here—for Broox is writing out of Canada, a space and a scene that he knows much more intimately than I do. And yet, Broox seems not to fully understand my argument—for if my point was simply that dub poetry has seen a natural falling off over the years, I would be fighting a straw man. The case is almost incontestable, the dubious exception of Canada notwithstanding. My point is not to pronounce the death of the form but to perform a sort of autopsy and figure out why and when the death occurred, and also why it is that some of us insist on propping up the corpse. Broox, by all accounts, and indeed from my own experience, is a generous spirit and the most conscientious of activists. Broox probably feels himself attacked, or else called on to defend the movement he has committed his life to. He probably thinks that to sound the death of a movement is the same as diminishing the importance of that movement. After all, revolutionary fighters do not want to find that they are out of work because the revolutions they championed have ended; nor do they wish to discover that a whole new nuclear war has begun while they have been continuing the fight uselessly with outdated muskets. And this may be part of the problem—that poets such as Broox, and others who earnestly and uncritically wave the flag of dub poetry today, do not seem to have the poetic arsenal to insist on the thriving power of the art form in which they work.
If I Were to Write a Dub Poem
Back in Jamaica, I am watching the newscast and see probably the most traumatic thing I have ever seen on television. Viewer discretion is advised, but this hardly prepares me. The news footage is of a very thin man wearing only a small pair of shorts. His black skin has become white with dust, as if he has lived for months under a chalkboard; he is in fact rolling about on the marl ground, shivering. Three police officers look on and they have their batons raised and use these to occasionally beat the man.
The man is not of sound mind, and apparently he has not long ago stabbed his wife to death. In this moment of footage, however, he is no longer the aggressor. He is at the mercy of the three officers who have taken it as their duty to punish him, and of the community who are looking on, angry at what his psychotic meltdown has caused. The crowd—his neighbors—are cheering on the officers.
And then it happens: one police officer begins to threaten the man. You cannot hear what he is saying from the footage (all of this is being recorded by a camera phone), but you notice how the sergeant cocks his head upward and begins to mouth what seems to be slow and dangerous words. The crowd cheers even louder, and this you can hear. The police officer, as if energized by the crowd, now reaches into his belt and raises his gun instead of his baton. He walks around the full circle of the man, like something out of a mafia film, then points his gun directly at the man’s head and pulls the trigger.
Sometimes the human body does strange things when it knows it is about to die. This was not the kind of gunshot death I had seen in movies. The man’s body lurched violently and desperately underneath a car, as if it would be safe there. And then the footage ends.
Maybe that is a strange thing to put into the middle of this essay, but something occurred to me as I watched that news footage—the kind of thing that should occur to most of us many times per week: that there will always be things in this world that we should be shouting about; that there will always be injustices both in the wide world and in our particular worlds; that there will always be placards that need writing; that although revolutions end, new ones ought to spring up every morning; that although dub poetry today makes such a faint sound, the need for a poetry with the same kind of conscience has never diminished.
We need voices of protest in Jamaica, and in Brixton, and in Toronto. It is just that dub poetry seems to too often manipulate today’s hurt and pain into yesterday’s shape—the shape of the 1970s. The oppressor, however, is no longer that easy category of the “white man.” Too often I have been to readings and heard my generation—we who are the children of the rebels of the ’70s, we with our posh education, we with our dreadlocks that never had us thrown out of the house—chanting down Babylon with a blissful unawareness that we have in fact become Babylon, that we have become implicated in this system of oppression and that our dark skins do not make us innocent of anything. And while I do not want to glorify the kind of art that is borne out of hardships, there is something about Oko Onuora’s poetry, coming out of prison, and something about Linton Kwesi Johnson’s poems, narrated as they are on the edge of the riots in Brixton—there is something that they can affect that my own generation often do not get right. There is something lost in volume and potency when we try to mimic a sound rather than create our own, fashioned out of our own introspection and pain; when my generation attempts dub poetry it seems to always come out as a smaller sound, and a lesser fury.
When Dub Poetry Made a Greater Sound
Let us consider two dub poems.
Mikey Smith’s “Me Cyaan Believe It” takes us on a tour around Jamaica in the 1970s and gives us a catalogue of injustices, inequalities, and hardships. All of them are commented on with the rhetorical remark, “Me cyaan believe it”:
Me seh me cyaan believe it
me seh me cyaan believe it
room dem a rent
me apply widin
but as me go een
cockroach rat an scorpion
also come een
nose haffi run
but mi naw go siddun pon high wall
like Humpty Dumpty
me a face me reality 2
The lament, “Me cyaan believe it,” is, of course, rhetorical. The persona is not turning his eyes away from these things. In the words of the poem, he is facing his reality and asking us to face it too. The poem asks us to lose our innocence in the same way that it incorporates so many nursery rhymes—“Humpty Dumpty,” “Bapsikaisico pinda shell,” “the little boy who blew his horn,” “the blackbirds baked in a pie”—and forces them to also lose their innocence. Even the nursery rhymes are called in to bear witness to the things that can hardly be believed. One of my favorite moments in the poem is the interaction between the “bwoy” and his employer:
De odder day
me a pass one yard pon de hill
When me teck a stock me hear
“Yuh clean up de dog shit?”
An me cyaan believe it 3
Even on the page we can “hear” interesting nuances in this exchange of voices; the punctuation helps us. At the employer’s first cry of “Hey, bwoy!,” he answers with a question mark: “Yes, mam?” It seems to suggest a kind of meekness or submissiveness. But this response is not alert enough for the employer’s liking. She cries again, “Hey, bwoy!” And he responds now with appropriate military attention: “Yes, mam!” Exclamation mark. Then the humiliating question, “Yu clean up de dog shit?” The vibrancy of his answer now drops sharply. Downgraded from the bright exclamation mark before, we now just get a full stop. “Yes, Mam.” The denigration signaled here is not simply that the “bwoy” has been given the menial duty of cleaning up the dogshit but that more than likely this is not a “boy” at all. The Jamaican poet Lorna Goodison once asked, When is it that the Yard Bwoy (which is how Jamaican middle-class employers often refer to the fully grown man employed to tend their grounds) will finally graduate to the man that he actually is? When does the Yard Bwoy become, at last, the Yard Man, and the Yard Man, the Man-a-Yard?
The end of Mikey Smith’s poem prophetically documents a kind of psychic fragmentation, gesturing perhaps to his own demise. The absurd begins to happen—the persona travels from Kingston to Jamaica; he tries to subtract twelve from a dozen and then sees his mother in heaven. We get the plaintive cry, Madhouse, Madhouse—a dreadful pronouncement over the city of Kingston every bit as damning as Derek Walcott’s “Hell is a city much like Port of Spain.”4 Smith’s poem finally turns to its readers and accuses us of not believing these atrocities either—not in the rhetorical sense in which the poem uses the phrase “me cyaan believe it,” but in the actual sense that maybe we live such comfortable lives, so far away from these other existences, that we do not need to believe or engage with matters of social injustice and inequality.
Yuh believe it?
How yuh fi believe it
when yuh laugh
an yuh blind yuh eye to it?
But me know yuh believe it
me know yuh believe it 5
That cry, “Lawwwwwwwwwd,” was one of Mikey Smith’s signature sounds, this distended groan from the belly, a guttural and elemental cry for all that is rotten in the state of Kingston. In Mikey Smith’s poetry was a mighty sound and a great fury.
If Smith took us on a tour of Jamaica, in “Inglan is a bitch” Johnson takes us on a tour of London. We see it through the eyes of an immigrant barely making a living in the city. The poem is not autobiographical; Johnson is speaking for a larger human condition. The persona is imagined literally inside the belly of the beast—working on the underground, and despite the circularity of the work, he still does not know his way “around” London:
w’en mi jus’ come to Landan toun
mi use to work pan di andahgroun
but workin pan di andahghroun
y’u don’t get fi know your way aroun’
Inglan is a bitch
dere’s no escapin’ it
Inglan is a bitch
dere’s no running whey fram it 6
Throughout the poem the refrain changes slightly in each of its seven invocations. It graduates from a passive acceptance to a more active engagement and finally to a prompt toward revolution. First we get “Inglan is a bitch, there’s no running whey fram it,” which seems a statement of passivity and acceptance of what England will throw at the subject. Then we get “Inglan is a bitch, noh badda try hide from it,” more passivity, then “Inglan is a bitch fi true, a noh lie mi a tell, a true,” which is a shift in tone. The voice of insistence is creeping in. The next refrain change is decidedly empowered—“Inglan is a bitch, you haffi know how fi survive in it,” and then “Inglan is a bitch, you betta face up to it.” So then we come again, now, to “Inglan is a bitch, there’s no running whey fram it.” This is not the passive acceptance of its first invocation; this is a readying for revolution. The final shift in the refrain is indeed the challenging “Inglan is a bitch, a whey we a go do bout it?” 7
If you hear Linton Kwesi Johnson read his poetry, particularly his dub poetry (for I am careful not to pretend that all of LKJ’s poems are dub poems), you will hear an incredibly distinguished performance: one that usually refuses applause during its length; one that is never histrionic; one that is forceful but subdued. You will also get a lesson in history. LKJ usually creates a kind of pedagogical space. He is careful to locate his poetry in a particular time and place, understanding, perhaps, that a newer generation growing up in contemporary and proudly multicultural British cities might not immediately understand that their freedoms were birthed out of the strain and strife that his own generation faced in a less healthy, more segregated, more racist Britain—one that demanded a poetics of sound and fury.
LKJ often divides his dub poems into three decades. He will say, these are from the ’70s, and then, these are from the ’80s, and then, these are from the ’90s. It is impossible not to note that we never get dub poetry of the new millennium as, if even the poet laureate of the movement locates the genre in a time that has passed—as if even he is aware of the genre’s death, or at least wary that the very attempt to protest capitalism was being put onto the production line.
Poets such as Johnson and Jean Binta Breeze, and even Benjamin Zephaniah, with all his “doggerel,” as Carolyn Cooper rightly puts it, expressed the desire to write other things and in other forms. All three have since ventured into other writing projects—essays, adult and children’s novels, and poetry that cannot be classified as dub. In their own ways they have broken free from a genre that could have stifled their talents by demanding they continue the same minstrel show night after night.
Another thing that might have happened was dancehall. Beenie Man, Bounty Killer, Shabba Ranks, Vybz Kartel, Mavado—names that will quickly date the present essay. Over the years songs from these artistes have become the new music of youth and rebellion and protest. With the likes of Taurus Riley, Jah Cure, and Gyptian, it is too much to say that reggae has died, but even in its most contemporary form it lacks what we might call the “dub” feel of the ’70s. Without a proper musical source, then, with its fountain of youth dried up, it is little wonder that dub poetry makes a lesser sound today than it once did.
When Mikey Smith died in 1983, Kamau Brathwaite, a poet receptive to the influence of a dub poetics on his craft, wrote the elegiac poem “Stone.” It is a stunning and heart-breaking work—a eulogy for one of the most talented dub poets there ever was, but perhaps in its own way, a eulogy for dub poetry itself. It at once captures Mikey’s voice, the sound and the fury of it, that distended elemental groan, “Lawwwwwwwwwwwd.” It documents the madness that was happening to him and laments all the poems that were not chanted, all the dub that was bleeding out of this young man, and maybe out of the entire world. The poem raises one final, angry, awful, plaintive, beautiful sound, protesting a death it could not stop from happening:
When the stone fall that morning out of the johncrow sky
i could not hold it brack or black it back or block it off or limp
away or roll it from me into memory or light or rock it steady into night.8
Dub poetry will continue to live a sort of life in the diaspora because there will always be nostalgic consumers who want to purchase the product. It will also continue to live a sort of life in Jamaica, trotted out every August for Independence Day or any other cultural celebration, where it will share a stage with Dinki Mini and Kumina and other forms we find it so hard to say goodbye to, but which also require their own eulogies. I do not think I can do a eulogy more eloquent than Brathwaite’s, but here is my own small attempt:
It was born on September 1, 1977. It walked on streets that others were afraid to walk on. It spoke on behalf of the poor and the forgotten. It made the kind of sound that is more than a sound—it is an action. It acted on things that needed to be acted upon. It went around the city of Jericho; it shouted, and walls came down—in Kingston, and in Brixton, and in Bristol. It taught us that there are times to be angry, indeed, to be furious, and that fury can be composed into a thing of eloquence. It is probably not the voice of today, but it is a voice that our own should willingly resonate with. Indeed, should more poetic voices today carry in them the echoes of Dub, it would be a very good thing. Rest in peace, Dub Poetry. Walk good, and mek good duppy follow you.
A version of this essay will appear in Kei Miller's forthcoming collection of essays, Writing Down the Vision: Essays & Prophecies (Peepal Tree Press)
Dr. Kei Miller is Reader in Caribbean Literature at University of Glasgow, where he also directs the Creative Writing Program. His collection of essays Writing Down the Vision: Essays & Prophecies will be published by Peepal Tree Press this month.
1 Mervyn Morris, “Dub Poetry?,” in Is English We Speaking and Other Essays (Kingston: Ian Randle Publishers, 1998), 36.
2 Mikey Smith, “Me Cyaan Believe It,” in Stewart Brown, Mervyn Morris, and Gordon Rohler, eds., Voice Print (London: Longman, 1989), 37.
4 Derek Walcott, “The Spoiler’s Return,” in Brown, Morris, and Rohler, Voice Print, 166.
5 Smith, “Me Cyaan Believe It,” 37.
6 Linton Kwesi Johnson, Selected Poems (London: Penguin, 2002), 39.
7 Ibid., 39–41.
8 Kamau Brathwaite, “Stone,” in Middle Passages (Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Bloodaxe, 1992), 64.