Honorary doctorate leaves LKJ speechlessSunday, August 29, 2021
He is in the business of words, but poet and reggae artiste Linton Kwesi Johnson admits that the conferment of the honorary degree of Doctor of Letters by The University of the West Indies, Mona campus, has left him speechless.
Speaking with the Jamaica Observer from his London home, Johnson, popularly referred to as LKJ, a prominent figure in the black cultural scene in the United Kingdom since the 1970s, noted that although he has already received two such honorary degrees, this one, which comes from The UWI in Jamaica, the country of his birth, is extra special.
“I am very humbled by this honorary doctorate... It is quite amazing... I am at a loss for words to adequately describe how I am feeling at this time. The truth is I have two other honorary doctorates. The Doctor of Literature from Rhodes University in South Africa and the Doctor of Letters from Southampton University here in the UK. Getting one from UWI is beyond my wildest dreams. For me it is an acknowledgement that I have done something that has made persons take note.” Johnson said.
Johnson noted that the “something” he has done over his near 50-year career is to give younger poets the voice to say, “I can do it too.” This, he said, was important for him as he used his art and craft for political activism and hopefully changed, to some extent, the story of black folk in a country in which they were marginalised.
Born in Chapleton, Clarendon, Johnson migrated to the UK in 1963. While still at school he joined the British Black Panther movement. He helped to organise a poetry workshop within the movement, and developed his work with Rasta Love, a group of poets and drummers.
“I did not set out to make poetry a career. It was rather a visceral need to assist black youth like myself who were living in a racially hostile environment. I got into music by accident, but quickly realised that by combining it with my poetry I would be able to reach a much wider audience. I was encouraged to record an album and this I did in 1978 when I released the album Dread and as they say, the rest is history. I was inspired by The Last Poets, an African American group who used percussions and everyday language as a vehicle for discourse... it was rhythm with words. I also had the confidence passed down to us through Miss Lou [ Jamaica folklorist Louise Bennett-Coverly]. She established a precedence, and she must be regarded as a national treasure,” said Johnson.
The 69-year-old is “trying to retire”, as he noted that travelling and performing takes a lot out of him, but he is pleased with what he is seeing at certain levels with the current slate of poets coming out of Jamaica.
“I'm trying hard not to do anything these days. But people won't leave me alone. I try to fill my days with daily walks and lots of reading. The current pandemic and lockdowns have helped in this regard as the performance scene kinda col' up at this time. As for Jamaica and the poets, I am not fully aware with what's going on but I'm pleased with some of the stuff that I see. The re-establishment of the Poet Laureate programme is fantastic and should do a lot to encourage the youngsters,” Johnson shared.