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Dub Poetry In And From Jamaica

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Category: English

Autor: anton 11 January 2011

Words: 9857 | Pages: 40

Table of Contents

1 Introduction 2

2 History and Development of Dub Poetry 3

2.1 The Development of Jamaican Creole – Short Overview 3

2.2 The Oral Tradition 4

2.3 From the B-side of a Record via “Toasting” to Dub Poetry 6

3 The Correlation of the Rastafarians, Reggae and Dub 9

3.1 The Rastafarians 9

3.2 The Peculiarity of Dub 10

3.3 Artists and Scenes 12

3.3.1 The Jamaican Scene 12

3.3.2 The British Scene 13

3.3.3 The Canadian Scene 14

4. Structural Characteristics of Dub Poetry 15

4.1 Patois – the Language 15

4.2 Rhythm 15

4.3 Performance 17

5 Linguistic Analysis of Dub Poetry Lyrics and Performance 18

5.1 Linton Kwesi Johnson 18

5.2 Wat about di Workin Claas? 19

5.3 Tings an Times – Performance Aspects in Comparison 21

6 Reflection 23

7 Bibliography and Discography 24

8 Appendix 25

1 Introduction

Dub poetry is often said to be a musical genre due to its close connection to reggae music, but a second glance reveals quite obviously dub poetry’s affiliation to a literary form rooted in the oral tradition of Jamaica. The generally accepted creed of dub poetry is “Word, Sound and Power”, it is self-proclaimed and clearly underlines it’s peculiarity in terms of the spoken word being the central medium. It is therefore not comparable to western poetry because the content of a dub poem achieves its value through the Creole language and the integrated rhythm (cf. Habekost 1986, 9f.).

But the term “dub poetry” as such is not easy to define and aroused controversial discussions in the late 1970’s and 1980’s, because some of the artists simply did not see themselves as dub poets. The term itself was coined by Oku Onuora, referring to it “as a technical term describing the process of sound engineering at a mixing desk in a recording studio”(Habekost 1993a: 206), but many poets such as Linton Kwesi Johnson and Mutabaruka front this term rather critically because they fear to be restricted to reggae (cf. Habekost 1993a: 206).

Even today, reggae music seems to be the super ordinate concept for everything from the Caribbean which is underlined by music because of the international high profile of Bob Marley and other reggae artists of the 1970’s. Despite the fact that some dub poets such as Linton Kwesi Johnson achieved international fame, this genre stands back and is often lumped together with reggae to the same level as Jamaican Creole is quite often not defined as independent language. One reason for the free-spirited and non-commercial character of dub poetry is its invariable use of Jamaican Creole to express “Word, Sound and Power” rather than performing in Standard English for commercial purposes.

Therefore this paper argues that through dub poetry, especially the native Creole lyrics, the artist is able to constitute an African identity. The message is supported by the special style and structure of the poem, quite often but not necessarily underlined by music. This thesis will firstly be underlined thoughout the paper by a portrayal of the oral tradition in the context of Jamaican history and the development of dub poetry. Then the peculiarity of dub is emphasised and an overview over the artists and different scenes is given. The structural characteristics and parameters serve as foundation for the following linguistic analysis of dub poetry lyrics and performances. Finally the linguistic analysis will be reflected.

2 History and Development of Dub Poetry

The development of dub poetry is strongly based upon Jamaica’s history in close connection to African slave labour and their total emancipation in 1834 (cf. Holm 1994: 340). In the past, education was predominantly reserved to the white population in Jamaica and to the ones with a higher status. With the gained independence in 1962 literacy has increased to 76 % (cf. Holm 1989: 471), so that the oral culture of Jamaica increasingly achieved support from the literary side. The genre of dub poetry is based on the phenomenon of the Caribbean oral culture and has its roots in storytelling and the promulgation of news.

2.1 The Development of Jamaican Creole – Short Overview

To portray the development of dub poetry a short overview over the Jamaican Creole synthesis is rather helpful, and gives a first insight into the peculiarity of dub poetry language and the importance of native Creole for its message. It is closely connected to the period of massive slave importation and the miserable circumstances of the slaves during the period of British colonisation in the West Indies.

The developmental history of language in British colonies like Canada or Australia is extremely different from that of the West Indies. The settlers predominantly from the British Isles spoke English and automatically passed the language on to their descendants and to others through close contact, whereas in the West Indies slaves from divergent African regions were imported to work on sugar plantations, with most of them stemming from different linguistic backgrounds. People were hardly able to communicate among each other and therefore it came to “a restructuring of English that resulted in Creole, a distinct language system with words derived from English but with phonology, semantics and morphosyntax influenced by African languages and other forces” (Holm 1994: 328). The slaves were hardly in contact with the white English speaking population but had to communicate with the other slaves and the white overseers. The Creole phoneme system is modified to accommodate the West African languages and the lexicon contains many English stemming words (cf. Sand 2002: 81f.).

A Creole has to be differentiated from a pidgin, which “is a reduced language that results from extended contact between groups of people with no language in common; it evolves when they need some means of verbal communication” (Holm 1994: 329). Characteristically Pidgins are simplified in the number and complication of words, with many words having multiple meanings and are restricted to a particular domain and furthermore are no one’s native language. Therefore it can be said, that Creole developed out of Pidgin because an entire speech community has adopted it as a first language. The process of creolisation consists of the development of phonological rules, vocabulary covering all domains and an organized grammar (cf. Holm 1994: 329ff.).

2.2 The Oral Tradition

Even our culture is familiar with the oral tradition, meaning the bard or troubadour who used to travel from European town to town in order to announce the latest news from the royal dynasty. But the phenomenon, as it is known here, is not of such a great importance as for the Caribbean cultures because here it was only one source for historical tradition, next to putting culture and history into writing. Despite the more than 400 years of western domination in Africa and the Caribbean and furthermore the erasure of the African language, this culture was able to survive due to the distinct oral tradition. Mouth to mouth propaganda and the passing on of personal knowledge from one generation to the next was not in the reach for their white masters (cf. Habekost 1986:32ff).

The oral tradition of the African culture originates in the African griot, who is said to be the first poet of mankind. Underlined by rhythm and music he transports everyday news, poetry, old myths or historical facts to the people. He used to accompany celebrations such as wedding ceremonies with his traditions. “The griot is a professional singer … who combines the functions of living history book and newspaper with vocal and instrumental virtuosity” (Toop in Habekost 1993b: 78).

Additionally, Jamaica looks back on a long tradition of story telling. Stories were important for the people to exchange information and for entertaining purposes. The content was quite often based on old and already known stories and was frequently adapted to the new situation. The Ananse (or Annancy) stories are the most familiar and famous ones. Ananse is an African godlike figure who is able to adopt man-shape. He is a trickster and an underdog serving as symbol of the position of the slaves and nowadays suppression in general (cf. Habekost 1987:32ff). Other features of historical oral tradition include songs of African origin characterized by the “call and response pattern”. In this tradition one lead-singer “bomma” tells the story and the others “bobbin” respond to the story in a chorus. Furthermore, dub poets adapt riddles, proverbs, children games such as handclapping and nursery rhymes (Mutabaruka: “Nursery Rhyme Lament”) in their performances (cf. Habekost 1993b: 71ff).

Dub poetry is generally based on these narrative elements and poets even “emphasize that they belong to the oral tradition that originated in Africa and is still alive today. And indeed, being a mixed art form itself, fusing poetry with musical rhythms and a little drama, dub poetry takes up the African tradition of art” (Habekost 1993a: 209) and takes it as the most important source for inspiration. The oral tradition has an even mystical significance for dub poetry because of the underlying innate rhythmical structure, sounds and diction. It is summarized as the central element linking the Caribbean present to the African past of the people. At that time the slaves’ memory was sufficient to preserve cultural and historical information (cf. Habekost 1993b: 70).

Today the dub poets develop their poems further along the lines of the traditional features of orality. But due to urbanisation and the rapid technological advance, the body of oral tradition is shrinking to a smaller repertoire and the mentioned traditional forms are transferred into more contemporary forms of orality, making use of technology and the increasing desire of the people to gather at public performances. These modern equivalents of the oral traditions have several functions as in the past, with all of them basing on the traditional source material: The entertainment issue arouses the attention of the masses, while the poetry is used as instrument to reshape the Jamaican identity. Furthermore dub poetry performances serve still as the collective memory of the culture and is a medium used to reflect upon cultural values (cf. Habekost 1993b: 73f.).

The dub poetry scene is of course aware of the conventional form of poetry and literature, and partly even publishes their works in a written form, as Linton Kwesi Johnson’s Tings and Times. But orality, meaning the act of performance – live or on recordings – is still vindicated from critics and scholars as the central aspect. Dub poetry’s credo “Word, Sound and Power” evokes, that the word without the sound is dead, like printed words. If the word is accompanied by the “dynamics of voice, sound and rhythm” (Habekost 1993b: 79) it can be revived. The spoken word is part of the meaning (cf. Habekost 1993b: 75ff) and the poetry’s emphasis lies on the direct message and reality as keyword, without the usage of stylistic devices or complex imagery.

2.3 From the B-side of a Record via “Toasting” to Dub Poetry

In Jamaica, the traditional genres of Mento and Calypso coexisted for a long time, but after World War II it missed to suit the external circumstances and cultural necessities of the people in Jamaican ghettos. People wanted to compensate the absence of self definition and for that reason seasonal workers then imported Rhythm and Blues music from the United States, which was the cornerstone for the development of Ska in the 1950’s and later on the Rock steady. Towards the end of the 1960’s these movements gave birth to the Reggae music. It had an enormous impact on the people and invited them to identify with the critical and somehow philosophical lyrics. Reggae expeditiously swashed over the oceans to an international audience and signified according to Habekost (1986: 24) the arrival of the African pulsation in the slums of the western hemisphere in the twentieth century. The African culture was promoted into the cities. This pulsation symbolises the African drums underlining music and rituals (cf. Habekost 1986: 23f.). In the form of drums this pulse beat is also found in reggae music and accompanied by other instruments its sound aims at the stomach or belly in order to feel it, not at the head (cf. Habekost 1986: 24).

In the beginning reggae music was published as single, because for the time being no albums were produced in Jamaica. The virtual piece was to be found on the A-Side of the single and the dub-version on the B-Side. A newly mixed instrumental, with drum and bass stepping further into the foreground of the piece, was referred to as dub-version. Technology was fast-paced and therefore the producers were able to experiment with several sound tracks during their recordings and could creatively play a part in the production by means of integrating strange sounds and background voices. A rather simple definition of a dub version is the process of dubbing the vocals out of the piece, but “this description is incomplete, since it does not account for the many sound variations and effects that can be added to this instrumental, changing it into a new musical format” (Habekost 1993b: 53). The foundation of dub-versions on records is accredited to King Tubby and Lee Perry, with drum and bass being the fundament at all times. Their experiments predominantly included the creation of a sound vacuum through the omission of drum and bass for a shorter time sequence. This effect created an echo and a certain tension, which was filled by the other musical instruments such as the lead guitar or the keyboard. This achieved tension in the piece could only be relieved by means of a re-entry of drum and bass. Numerous bands also followed this phenomenon and even played dub-versions of their pieces on live concerts and therefore made use of the interplay between melody and rhythm (cf. Habekost 1986: 25f.). In Habekost’s Verbal Riddim Luke Ehrlich explains the phenomenon of dub:

Think of the reintroduction of the music track as a “plunge”: During the a cappella vocals the abdomen is not being resonated by the bass, and the head is occupied by the singing. When the band drops back in, the awareness of the listener is quickly diverted town towards the abdomen for a moment and the cerebral stimulus of the singing ceases (1993b: 55).

The B-sides soon achieved as much popularity as the virtual piece on the vocal side of the single. The development, in which this phenomenon resulted, was labelled as “Toasting”. A “Disk Jockey” (DJ) or “Master of Ceremony” (MC) even today makes use of dub-versions as a basis for his “sprechgesang”, which he puts like a slice of cheese on the dub-version. With their sound systems (mobile discos) the DJ’s imitated American radio broadcasters and the rock and roll DJ’s in the first instance, and then gained the opportunity to make use of their newly acquired freedom to bring their personal touch into play. From that point on DJ-ing became more than only changing records, but via instrumental dub-versions they achieved a platform and a basis for their personal message. “Yet the developing style was neither singing nore mere talking: it was a mixture of both, a sing-song style, a staccato-like lyrical outburst following the rhythmic pattern of the dub, rhymed, with a verse-refrain structure” (Habekost 1993b: 56). The growing competition and the rise of the sound systems forced the DJ’s to develop a personal style to impress the audience and to stand out from the crowd. Social protest, everyday stories and entertainment issues are only a short insight in the frequent topics of “toasters” (cf. Habekost 1986: 26ff).

Great and well-known “toasters” such as U-Roy or Big Youth served as inspirational source for the movement of dub poetry as much as Bob Marley with his immense success. His death grinded reggae to a halt and catapulted this genre into the background. Subsequently dub poetry became generally known and gained access to a constantly growing audience (cf. Habekost 1986: 28f.). The poets’ lyrics embodied again the power of revolution and therefore corresponded again to what the people expected and wanted as source for personal inspiration (cf. Habekost 1986: 29).

In the 1970’s several divergent styles came up among DJ’s, and because of high competition the scene developed in fast pace and in many different directions, with all of the artists focusing on social themes, partly inspired by the Rastafarian movement. The DJ’s did not only try to stand out through their lyrics but also made use of a showy style. In the early days of DJ-ing the artists did not exclusively function as entertainers, but also transferred the “storytelling event from its ancient form to the modern structure of electronic communication. Moreover, up to the end of the 1970’s the DJ was not only an entertainer, but in a society that was marked by a high rate of illiteracy, also functioned as a newscaster” (Habekost 1993b: 57). The dancehalls developed into meeting points but also encouraged the listeners to come up with a “rebel identity” because of the opinions the artists proclaimed. The DJ, as the term is understood today, solely functions as the entertainer with his music, but it is the DJ of the 1970’s who inspires the dub poets because of his retention of the African oral culture (cf. Habekost 1993b: 55ff.).

It can be said that in a certain way DJ’s and dub poets follow exactly the same approach, since both use rhythmic speech to follow the drum and bass pattern of the dub piece but there are several important points that differentiate the DJ from the dub poet according to Habekost’s Verbal Riddim (1993b: 57f.):

• dub poets compose their lyrics rather than improvising them

• deeper lyrical message in dub poetry than in DJ-ing started in the 1980’s: “slackness style” of a DJ

• “ragamuffin” style of the DJ’s in word performance differs from the slower recital and the high attention to the lyrics of dub poets

• dub poetry’s omnipresent rhythm, with music being only one variety to underline it

• dub poetry develops music out of the poetry, whereas DJ’s make use of already available music to underline their talkover

The synthesis of dub poetry cannot clearly be put in a specific time frame. This genre was not invented but was developed by numerous artists, on the one hand paralleling each other and on the other independently not knowing about others at all. But when the public interest in the artists grew strongly the coinage of the term dub poetry came up. When Linton Kwesi Johnson published his first album in 1978, dub poetry achieved the international breakthrough in the music scene (cf. Habekost 1986: 30f.).

3 The Correlation of the Rastafarians, Reggae and Dub

For a long time Jamaican Creole had been regarded as sort of a corruption of Standard English (Queen’s English), and even Patois-speaking parents tried to condition their descendants not to use the “dutty talk” because of the identification with poverty and lacking education. The Jamaicans were not given the chance to become aware of their own tongue, and therefore did not realize that it had developed into a full language to be proud of. Four hundred years of slavery and heteronomy distorted their awareness and acceptance of Jamaican Creole, which had been reinforced by means of brainwashing techniques (cf. Habekost 1986: 18).

Through Louise Bennett, who started to write and perform stories and poems in Jamaican Creole in the 1930’s, the self-confidence concerning their own language Patois began to grow. She did not follow political objectives or even stood out through a radical writing style, but became known for the consequent use of Patois in her lyrics. This process or development can be regarded as the informal manifestation of Jamaican Patois as official national language and encouraged dub poets, Rastafarians and the reggae movement to consciously make use of the Creole in their arts (cf. Habekost 1986: 19f.).

Another feature of the orally manifested culture of Jamaica is the fact, that its written language is not static as for instance the English language or German. The absence of a unitised spelling is keeping the Jamaican Creole lexicon alive, and moreover allows the orthography to adapt to new situations and to broaden the language to extend the meanings of certain words (cf. Habekost 1986: 20).

3.1 The Rastafarians

The growing awareness of the power of their language encouraged the Rastafarians to develop an expanded variation of Jamaican Creole. This so called Dread Talk is the attempt of the Rasta to bend the Jamaican Creole lexicon to reflect their social situation and religious views. Once developed by the Rastafarians for a closed group with special beliefs, elements of Dread Talk are today very commonly used by the youth because of reggae music’s influence on their language (cf. Pollard 2003: 4f.).

The expansion of their lexicon attests to a certain creativity, as numerous word categories exist. Velma Pollard came up with three dominating word categories in Dread Talk: The Language of Rastafari (2003):

The first category “in which known items bear new meanings” (Pollard 2003: 8) is used also quite frequently in reggae lyrics or dub poems, and brings for instance biblical words back to usage. /babilan/ (Babylon) is given a different connotation and stands for the establishment and the authorities in Jamaica. It has a negative tone and can be translated as policeman.

Words of Pollard’s second category are rather symbolic and display an examination of the standing of the Jamaican people in society and furthermore a reflection of their suppressed past. “Words that bear the weight of their phonological implications” (Pollard 2003: 10) symbolise in a way the emancipation of the Jamaican people and their intention to make the people aware of their freedom. /ovastan/ is used instead of understand and indicates that the speaker is in control of the situation, therefore stands over it. Words like /dounpress/ are used in a similar context.

The pronoun “I” is of special importance to the Rastafari and is opposed to the Jamaican Creole /mi/ “as expressive of subservience, as representative of the self-degradation that was expected of the slaves by their masters” (Pollard 2003: 11). The /ai/ words make up the third category in Pollard’s classification and also cover the frequent usage of /ai/ as prefix and as replacement for initial sounds.

As it can be seen in the examples above, protest and revolt becomes visible in the Dread Talk words. Therefore this language developed into a popular medium for reggae music because of the expressiveness the Rastafarian language distributes to the lyrics. Many of the reggae musicians and also dub poets belong to the Rastafarian movement and strongly identify with their values. But today “the language no longer (necessarily) connotes commitment to the problems of the “sufferer” or to Rastafari” (Pollard 2003: 35).

This movement did not enjoy public acceptance at all times, but the development of reggae in the 1960’s is one important pillar in the increasing internationality and the reformed acceptance of the Rastafarian beliefs. Another important step in the relief of their miserable reputation was the publication of a survey on the movement by three leading scholars of the University of the West Indies. In 1966 the Rastafarian movement developed into a political factor in Jamaica with Haile Selassie’s visit to the country. The whole country was very enthusiastic, against the expectations of the state authorities (cf. Habekost: 1993b: 82ff.).

3.2 The Peculiarity of Dub

Dub poets regard themselves as “freedom fighters”, an important belief which connects them to the Rastafarian cult. Rastafari for most of them is a “spiritual framework for a distinctive black militancy” (Habekost 1993b: 87) and together with the emergence of reggae music it can be regarded as matrix for dub poetry. What makes dub poetry so special can be summarized as combination of music, drama, poetry, literature and performance; and it therefore helps to preserve the Jamaican folk tradition characteristically for the Caribbean culture (cf. Habekost 1993a: 205).

Their Rastafarian background is closely linked to the various aspects of their poems and serves as platform for the dub philosophy and resistance topics. Though their words the poets can publicly comment on the “system of modern society in general, on the other hand many poems provide an alternative concept at the same time” (Habekost 1993a: 208). Dub poetry directs its revolt against racism, nuclear armament and oppression in general. Moreover they support the idea of “a peaceful, multi-racial society with equal rights for everybody and total freedom for any cultural activity” (Habekost 1993a: 208). Their close connection to the African background in their poems also goes back to the transmission of their ancestors’ oral culture, and remains one of the most important cultural heritages they want to pass on. In his essay “Dub Poetry – Culture of Resistance” (1993) Habekost summarizes the mission of dub poetry as the constitution of “an African identity which is expressed not only in the message of the actual words but also by the particular style and the structure of poetry” (Habekost 1993a: 209), which leads to another important issue of Caribbean history. The Jamaican school system is still British-oriented and neglects or even ignores the cultural history, according to statements of famous poets like Mutabaruka or Zephaniah. The schools literature and poetry lessons follow the European scheme and prefer to teach Hamlet instead of emphasizing Jamaica’s oral culture or pieces by Louise Bennett (cf. Habekost 1993a: 208ff.).

The idiosyncrasy of dub poetry is moreover indicated through the omnipresent rhythm, which accompanies the poem from beginning to end. This specific rhythm is connected to the “flowing chain of words” (Habekost 1993a: 207) and does not depend on the background music, as one might think. It is audible even if the poet performs without music and recites his poem a cappella. Dub poetry’s uniqueness goes together with the combination of “two dissimilar artistic expressions” and can be described as “musical and wordical” (Habekost 1993a: 207). The term sound in the dub poets’ three pillars “Word, Sound and Power” also refers to the rhythm and the citation of the poem, and illustrates that only the two together can achieve the total unfolding of the meaning and therefore result in the power of the poem. But also European elements are visible in dub because of the increasing written publications of poems. This conscious decision might be the poets attempt to attract the attention of the public as a “real” poet and not solely as a musician or performer. Concerning the poem’s form, artists nowadays exclusively reject the classic European poetical form – the iambic pentameter – due to it’s symbolism for European dominance and the prevention of development (cf. Habekost 1993a: 208ff.).

Another issue which gives a certain unconventionality to dub poetry is the mere usage of Creole language in contrast to the rather commercialized reggae lyrics of Bob Marley, in his golden age predominantly written in Standard English. Their consequence in “making poetry” in Patois results in a renunciation to attract the international masses. Nevertheless dub poetry achieved international recognition and fame, with Linton Kwesi Johnson setting a good example. This firmness demonstrates their efforts for the general acceptance of Patois, the language of the people and the most basic expression of their culture (cf. Habekost 1993a: 210f.).

3.3 Artists and Scenes

The dub poetry movement is mainly concentrated in the three major areas Kingston, London and Toronto. The establishment as an independent genre ironically reached the advanced stage not in Kingston, but in Europe and America. Through the publication of the first dub poetry record in 1978 the genre finally reached the mass audience. The artists did not only put their lyrics onto existing reggae rhythms but formed their own bands and toured the world (cf. Habekost 1993b: 15).

3.3.1 The Jamaican Scene

The development of the Jamaican scene is closely linked to the political situation in Jamaica. The scene had difficulties in the 1960’s because of the lacking platform for arts and the constant “tension between the academic establishment and the grassroots people of the ghettos” (Habekost 1993b: 22). Towards the end of the 1960’s the Black Power began to establish ties between many intellectuals and the Rastafarians, which resulted in a better opportunity for the growing of arts and poetry. The Manley era dominated the 1970’s and created an art-friendly political climate, paralleled by a growing academic interest into the Rastafarian movement.

As a part of Michael Manley’s cultural policy, the Cultural Training Centre was opened in Kingston. His aim was to transfer the creativity from the ghettos into the public by means of providing scholarships to underprivileged talents. The training centre contains four schools (Fine Arts, Music, Drama and Dance) and “quickly evolved into a meeting point and springboard for the new poetry movement” (Habekost 1993b: 23). The students received a professional training, which can be admired in Oku Onuora’s or Jean Breeze’s performances. During the 1980’s they formed together with Michael Smith and the Poets In Unity group the kernel of Jamaica’s dub poetry scene, and the Drama School served as their permanent base (cf. Habekost 1993b: 22ff).

When the Conservatives came into power in 1980, the dub poets could not expect any further official support and therefore had to find different ways “to establish itself outside the institutionalized form of the Drama School” (Habekost 1993b: 23). Many of the poets turned towards the music industry and made use of the opportunity to perform outside Jamaica, with the Drama School still remaining an important address.

Mutabaruka is the poet connected to Jamaica. Furthermore he is the Jamaican artist, who did not start his career because of the Drama School. He has the reputation as the angry young poet because of his aggressive style. Next to LKJ, Mutabaruka published the most dub records and he performs rather frequently at Jamaican festivals and award shows. Furthermore he extensively tours abroad in the USA, Europe and Africa with an immense success. According to Habekost “he is seen by many people as a reggae star rather than as the serious poet he insists on being” (1993b: 26).

3.3.2 The British Scene

The growth of the British dub poetry scene, which to a great extent is based in London, mirrors a certain development and depends on a number of factors. The majority of poets started to perform in their local communities, some of them even as DJ’s. Though their work with political groups and their social activism, dub poets achieved political and social credibility, and therefore were given first opportunities to present their poems along these lines. From 1980 to 1985 the Black Writers Workshop in Brixton provided workshops for poets and therefore had an important impact on the development of the British scene.

The Alternative Cabaret scene organized performance shows on a regular basis. Next to comedians, singers or tap-dancers dub poets were given a regular platform. Besides this, the British dub poetry scene owes its popularity to the alternative publishing group Apples & Snakes who helped to popularize dub poetry in Britain with regular performance possibilities for artists (cf. Habekost 1993b: 27 ff.). The international breakthrough came with the musical vacuum after Marley’s death in the early 1980’s. The interest of the media grew steadily because of the public’s attraction to dub poetry’s “unspoilt political approach, which was much easier to accept than most of the Rasta-inspired reggae” (Habekost 1993b: 28).

At this point one remarkable dub poet from the British scene deserves to be mentioned. Benjamin Zephaniah is characterized through his delinquent youth and came to dub poetry via the dancehall and sound system scene. He moved to London and rather quickly worked his way up to bigger audiences and furthermore established himself as socio-political activist. He became a star of the alternative scene and assumed the office as Linton Kwesi Johnson’s successor when he bid farewell to the stage in 1985. In contrast to LKJ, Zephaniah managed to always stay in contact to his audience and fan base. He liked the public attention and had a talent to communicate with the audience. He also used the advancing technology for his poetry and additionally developed the phenomenon of the “dub opera” in 1985 (cf. Habekost 1993b: 28 ff.).

An institution like the Jamaica School of Drama was not existent in Britain, and therefore a country-wide network among the British poets was missing. But many poets from all over the world regarded London as a melting pot, obligatory to travel to and meet fellow poets (cf. Habekost 1993b: 32).

3.3.3 The Canadian Scene

Lillian Allen is responsible for the development of dub poetry in Canada. She settled in Toronto and was encouraged in political activism, which influenced her writing. She finally turned to dub poetry after meeting Oku Onuora at the World Festival of Youth in 1978 and was thrilled by his message, so that she self-published a book in 1982. Later she formed with Clifton Joseph and others a poetry performance group “De Dub Poets”, who started to attract large audiences in Canada (cf. Habekost 1993b: 33f.).

Compared to the Jamaican and European dub scene Canada developed differently, which makes out the peculiarity of the Toronto scene. The diversity of style results out of the numerous non-Jamaican poets from all over the Caribbean, who encouraged the development of the Canadian rap music. Moreover it can be said that the solidarity that was missing in the British scene was even stronger visible in Canada, “nearly all of whom feel themselves to be an integral part of a movement” (Habekost 1993b: 35). Because of the female dominance among Canadian dub poets, female elements are strongly characteristic for poems stemming from Canada.

4. Structural Characteristics of Dub Poetry

The three major parameters in dub poetry are the language, the rhythm and the performance of a piece. These elements have to harmonize with each other; moreover the quality of the poem highly depends on the correspondence of “Word, Sound and Power” with the way the performer connects to his audience. Dub poetry differs strongly from the traditional English verse metre one immediately connects to poetry, as it is known in the European sense. In the following the structural characteristics of dub poetry will be described and the differences in comparison to standard comprehension of poetry will be underlined.

4.1 Patois – the Language

Through the effort of people like Louise Bennett, Patois has achieved a certain acceptance as language in Jamaica. But “this tolerance is based on the notion of Patois as a medium appropriate only to indigenous Jamaican entertainment” (Habekost 1993b: 66). The language still has immense difficulties to work its way out of the slums and to achieve full acceptance as proper language by the society. English is even now the official language of Jamaica and keeps Patois from moving into the Jamaican classroom to support their cultural history and oral tradition. Dub poetry generally reflects the fight against oppression with a militant language and the artists moreover regard themselves as “linguistic agents” (Habekost 1993b: 63) in a fight against Jamaican Creole as “bastard language”.

Style shifts are characteristic for the turbulent linguistic history in Jamaica and their frequent occurrence, be it consciously or unconsciously, is also one important issue of dub poetry. This alternation between Patois, with its different levels of the Creole continuum and standard Jamaican English reflect the cultural situation and history in dub poetry, and can therefore be regarded as a stylistic device.

As a consequence of the poets living conditions in rather urban areas, their Patois predominantly does not even out at the strong basilectal end of the continuum but is a moderate more urban version. The language style of dub poetry is accompanied by additional features such as “ghetto slang” and “Dread Talk” (cf. Habekost 1993b: 63ff.).

4.2 Rhythm

The choice of words reflects a musical beat in a dub poem, “marked by syncopes and drops” (Habekost 1993b: 91) and for that reason rhythm is the essential structural characteristic in the art form. This certain beat connects the ear of the audience to the musical rhythm of the reggae background, and thus evolves into a complete whole. “Riddim” characterizes the language of dub poetry, so that Jamaican Creole is the unique language able to create this rhythm. In contrast to Standard English, Patois is only lightly stressed and therefore develops a totally divergent picture of the poem if recited in the Creole. The different stress pattern of the language prevents the audience from analysing a dub poem in terms of the classic English verse metre (cf. Habekost 1993b: 91ff.).

To achieve this certain rhythm or riddim, words and sound have to grow together. Numerous parameters make a contribution to this process. The multiple functions of the rhyme include the support of the rhythmic construction of the piece and help the poet’s memory when reciting the poem (cf. Habekost 1993b: 93). Unlike in European poetry, the repetition of words is emphasized in the black tradition. The European principle in a creation is the keyword progression, whereas black culture is about a cyclical development. Another prominent repeated feature is the already mentioned “cut” in the background music of a dub piece. Drum and bass take a short break and therefore create a vacuum (cf. Habekost 1993b: 93ff.).

Through the style of performance the dub poet can create different effects and moreover navigate the perception of the piece. Dub mostly is a mixture of talk, song, chant and music. If the performer has a certain musicality and theatrical skills, he can powerfully perform even without instrumental accompaniment. But if one element is missing, the rhythm of the word can break down and fails to be set in motion. Some of the following techniques, as displayed in Habekost’s Verbal Riddim – The Politics and Aesthetics of African-Caribbean Dub Poetry, are characteristic methods strongly underlining the message of the poem. Early dub poets relied on minimal expression by making use of only one strong word, which has the power to substitute a whole sentence. Moreover, the device of minimal expression is the strongest device to “channel rage into a poetry structure” (Habekost 1993b: 96). A series of minimal expressions produces a short line, a list of keywords, sometimes even divided in syllables like:




These two characteristic devices, combined with repetition and multiple rhyming, emphasize the riddim in performance and additionally visualize it in its written form (cf. Habekost 1993b: 96ff.). Another stylistic tool which has an immense impact on the audience is the onomatopoeia by using words that “paint the sound”. Poets imitate the noise of various sounds, for instance Levi Tafari when he voices the sound of a drum in his poem “De Tongue”. In the written form this sound painting looks quite absurd and lacks the effect of the oral performance: “BUM BUH BUM CHA, BUH BUH BUM BUM BAH CHA” (cf. Tafari in Habekost 1993b: 97).

4.3 Performance

Dub poetry is the poetic form with the largest performance variety: a cappella recital, musical accompaniment, live or recorded, visualized through filming or integrated in a theatre play (cf. Habekost 1993b: 98). Each of these media demands a different performance by the artist and therefore it is varying according to the context. The same poem can turn out to have a different centre of gravity, emphasis or stress, depending on the medium chosen by the poet and his connection to the audience.

In a live performance the clear articulation of the words, the diction and pace are rather important parameters for the success of a poetry recital. The poet has to develop a vocal control and has to use his voice as an instrument (cf. Habekost 1993b: 99). Some poets even act out their pieces when they step on stage. They do not need a script to read their pieces, what gives them the freedom to run around actively on stage. Linton Kwesi Johnson on the other hand is known as a rather static artist, who does not underline his message with acting or visibly expresses his emotions through mimics or gestures.

5 Linguistic Analysis of Dub Poetry Lyrics and Performance

In the following Linton Kwesi Johnson, one of the most influential dub poets in Great Britain and even worldwide, will be introduced. He has published several albums and even compiled a number of his poems in the written form. Furthermore this chapter analyses the linguistic peculiarities and structures of his poem “Wat about di Working Claas”, published on his 1984 album Mekkin Histri. In addition to the mere linguistic aspect, this paper moreover focuses on performance issues in a comparative analysis of one poem recorded a cappella in contrast to the studio version recorded for the album.

5.1 Linton Kwesi Johnson

Born 1952 in Chapeltown, Jamaica Linton Kwesi Johnson (LKJ) moved to London together with his mother at the age of eleven. After his graduation from school he studied Sociology at Goldsmith College, University of London. Then he joined the Black Panther movement in 1970 and organized poetry workshops and worked with Rasta Love, a group of poets and percussionists.

His poems first appeared in the journal Race Today in 1974. His first book Voices of the Living and the Dead was still published in Standard English, whereas his second book was written in Patois Dread, Beat an’ Blood (1975) and was later released as record. The following third book is called Inglan is a Bitch (1980) and the following three records were published on the Island label: Forces of Victory (1979), Bass Culture (1980) and Mekkin Histri (1984) and the dub compilation LKJ in Dub (1981).

In the early 1980’s he founded his own record label and became involved in journalism and worked as a reporter for Channel 4 television. He also toured regularly with the Dub Band and produced albums with other writers. In 1985 he published a live album and in 1991 came up with a new album Tings and Times, which is also the title of his selected poems.

LKJ was made Associate Fellow at Warwick University in 1985 and was made an Honorary Fellow of Wolverhampton Polytechnic in 1987. Additionally, he received an award at the XIII Premo Internazionale Ultimo Novecento from the city of Pisa for his contribution to poetry and popular music (cf. Johnson 1991:64). Today LKJ lives in Brixton. Mi Revalueshanary Fren, a selection of his poetry, was published in 2002 as a penguin Classic edition with an introduction by Fred D’Aguiar.

5.2 Wat about di Workin Claas?

This poem was published in 1984 on LKJ’s Mekkin Histri album. In order to distribute an overview over the differences between the original lyrics in Jamaican Creole and my translation into Standard English both versions are contrasted as follows:

0 Wat about di Workin Claas? What about the Working Class?

1 fram Inglan to Poelan from England to Poland

2 evry step acraas di oweshan every step across the ocean

3 di rulin claases dem is in a mess – o yes the ruling classes are in a mess – oh yes

4 di capitalis system a regress the capitalistic system is regressing

5 but di Soviet system naw progress but the Soviet system now progresses

6 soh which wan a dem u tink is bes so which one of them you think is the best

7 wen a di two a dem di workahs a cantess one of the two of them the workers are contesting

8 wen crisis is di aadah af di day when crisis is the order of the day

9 wen soh much people cryin out fi change nowaday? when so much people are crying out for change nowadays?

10 soh wat about di workin claas so what about the working class

11 comred chairman comrade chairman

12 wat about di workin claas? what about the working class?

13 dey pay di caas they pay the cost

14 dey cary di craas they carry the cross

15 an dem naw goh figet and now they are going to forget

16 dem tanks in Gdansk the tanks in Gdansk

17 dem naw goh figet dem tanks now they are going to forget the tanks

18 fram di east to di wes from the east to the west

19 to di lan I love di bes to the land I love the best

20 di rulin claases dem is in a mess – o yes the ruling classes are in a mess – oh yes

21 crisis is di aadah af di day crisis is the order of the day

22 di workahs dem damandin more pay evryday the workers are demanding more pay everyday

23 di peazants want a lat more say nowaday the peasants want to have a lot more say nowadays

24 di yout dem rebelin evrywhey the youth (plur.) is rebelling everywhere

25 evrywhey insohreckshan is di aadah af di day everywhere insurrection is the order of the day

26 is a lat a people cryin out fi change nowaday a lot of people are crying out for change nowadays

27 noh baddah blame it pan di black workin claas nobody blames it upon the black working claas

28 mistah racist mister racist

29 blame it pan di rulin claas blame it upon the ruling class

30 blame it pan yu capitalis baas blame it upon your capitalist base

31 wi pay di caas we pay the costs

32 wi suffah di laas we suffer the loss

33 an wi naw goh figet New Craas and we are now going to forget New Cross

34 nat a raas not a race (?) / the rest (?) / harass (?)

35 wi naw goh figet new craas we are now going to forget new cross

One rather prominent characteristic differentiating Jamaican Creole from Standard English is the terminal consonant omission, as already applied in the title of the poem. In workin, the cluster of two consonants is reduced to one. “Creole English reduces or restructures English consonant clusters within and across syllables by either rearranging the sounds, increasing the number of sounds or decreasing the number of sounds” (Roberts 1988: 55). Next to the [g], consonants such as [d] and [t] are also frequently omitted to reduce the cluster, as in Inglan (l. 1) or caas (l. 13). The overall pronunciation when listening to the recitation of this poem and the Jamaican Creole spelling further indicate that certain vowels, especially [a], like in acraas (l. 2) are stressed by means of doubling the vowel.

In its spelling, words like chairman (l. 11) and racist (l. 28) do not differ from the Standard English equivalent, but the album version of the poem shows that LKJ interchanges the vowels AI and pronounces the term as chiarman. This may be an ironic allusion to the term cheer, with the mocking undertone being reinforced by calling him comred. As already mentioned in the previous chapters, dub poetry mainly concentrates on political protest as obviously in this poem. According to L. Emilie Adams in Understanding Jamaican Patois – An Introduction to Afro-Jamaican Grammar, the insertion of new “intrusive” vowels is another common feature in Jamaican Patois. Here again the difference can only be noticed when listening to the poem. The pronunciation of racist turns out to sound like an [i] sound had been inserted before the first vowel of the word.

An outstanding attribute in this poem is the elision of the internal [r] sound before the consonant [d], which results in a vowel change. The [o] becomes [aa] and is additionally stressed in wen crisis is di aadah af di day (l. 8).

The [th] sound does not exist in Jamaican Creole. The [h] is dropped as in tink (l. 6) or the voiced dental fricative is replaced by the [d] sound as for instance in di (l. 4) or dem (l. 6). The spelling of the [th] sound can be can be symbolized as follows (cf. Roberts 1988: 53):

Standard English Creole English Word

Г° пѓ  d пѓ  that, bathe

Оё пѓ  t пѓ  thief, teeth

The preverbal marker a is usually used in Jamaican Creole to indicate the Progressive. This tense particle appears for instance in a regress (l. 4) or a cantess (l. 7) and indicates an ongoing action. There may also be a connection to old English “they are a-dancing” / dem a dance” (cf. Adams 1991: 30). Moreover the construction of a verb + -in can also indicate the continuous aspect of the statement, for example demandin (l. 22) and rebelin (l. 23), with the past participle here functioning as a full verbal construction. Zero copula is a rather frequent feature of Jamaican Creole (cf. Roberts 1988: 70f.). The future is normally indicated through go. In line 15 is said: an dem naw goh figet, but according to Adams the cluster should be subject + a go + verb (cf. Adams 1991: 26), which can either mean that in this case the future marker had been abbreviated or that, if figet is read more in the sense of forgiving the syntax of this line is shaped through a serial verb. In this interpretation, the word go would indicate the direction away from the speaker and underline the fact, that the major importance in Jamaican Creole lies on the verb (cf. Roberts 1988: 64).

Another version of cluster reduction is the prevalent absence of the [s] at the end of a word, “which indicates third person singular in the verb, possessive and plural in the noun” (Roberts 1988: 55). In line 27 noh baddah blame it pan die black workin claas the third person singular [s] sound at the end of the verb is missing. In contrast to this typical characteristic of the language, LKJ quite frequently makes use of the plural [s] sound in nouns as in workahs (l. 22) or peasantz (l. 23), even though the regular Jamaican Creole plural marker dem is following in line 22. Another example of double plural marking is di rulin claases dem is in a mess – o yes (l. 20). In one of the following lines the typical plural marking construction of a noun can be seen, as in di yout dem (l. 24). The fact, that LKJ makes use of the final [s] sound in verbs and nouns might be an indication for a register closer to the acrolect end of the Creole continuum.

In contrast to the usual syntactic method of putting the to be highlighted element of the statement, or in this case line, to the beginning (cf. Roberts 1988: 65f.), LKJ starts his verses and lines with rather weak words and puts the major elements which are important for the message of the poem and therefore serve as a guideline at the end of each line. Moreover he can reinforce his statement by means of his rhyming pattern, as for instance rulin claas, capitalis baas, caas, laas, Craas, raas, and crass (ll. 29-35).

5.3 Tings an Times – Performance Aspects in Comparison

“Tings an Times” is a rather long poem and was firstly published on LKJ’s homonymous album in 1991. In this chapter this studio version of the poem is contrasted to “Tings an Times” on the a cappella publication from 1996.

A first look on the lyrics of the poem already reveals its different stages and the developmental line, even without reading the lyrics closely. It opens with a series of minimal expressions or single past participles. This alliteration is stretched out over six lines and reappears several times throughout the poem, which is fairly typical of the Black oral tradition. It surrounds the stanzas, which tell the story and allows the reader or listener to “digest” the message and additionally serves as a short pause in this rather long poem. The outward design of the written piece moreover mirrors the cyclic development of the poem through the arrangement of words on the page, as for instance fi days upan days upan days upan days paralleling an up and down movement.

The two performances differ quite obviously from each other through the divergent recitations of the performer. In the studio version, the major musical instrument appears to be the recitation, with the drums, bass and other instruments adapting to the rhythm created by LKJ’s voice. It can be said, that there is an alternating and interacting reflection between the rhythm of the words and the musical rhythm of the background. Due to the musical accompaniment, the poem partly gets the character of a song. The seriousness of the topic is slightly mitigated for the entertainment-seeking listener, but for all that the message still remains in the foreground.

The a cappella recitation rather starts in the style of a sermon or political speech. But the crucial element of dub poetry, the rhythm, is still obvious and can be felt by the listener. With his choice of words, the alliteration and the constant rhyming in the beginning of many lines, all the ends and the rhythm of the language dominates the poem. In this recitation one gets the impression of listening to a story teller, whose emphasis on certain aspects or words in the poem underline the main points and invite to reflect upon the message. Furthermore, this performance is more dramatic than the one recorded with musical accompaniment. The poet spontaneously adapts to the atmosphere by means of speeding up his recitation to create tension or slowing down in order to stretch the poem, as in the above cited passage. In the studio version he does depend on rhythm of the background music, because otherwise the harmony would be disturbed. A cappella the performer needs to help himself with intonation, pace and rhythmic speaking in order successfully deliver his point to the audience. The atmosphere in the a cappella recital is automatically different from that of a concert, where the listener from the time being feels the rhythm of the music and then becomes aware of the rhythm of the word, as the poem evolves. The absence of music furthermore reinforces the concentration on the message. Here also by means of repeating certain lines the listener automatically gets prepared for the next stanza and can reflect upon the preceding lines. But here the slow passages and short lines are the only parts in the performance where the audience can relax to a certain extent, whereas in the other version the ear can have a rest during the instrumentals and therefore can process the message.

As already mentioned, LKJ is known to be a rather static poet without overwhelming gestures and dramatic movements on stage. Therefore the a cappella recital reminds one, at least to some extent, of a classical European poetry reading with a harsh undertone of a political speaker in action. For the dilettante ear, the album version seems to be more entertaining, whereas the other recital of the piece directly connects the listener to the rhythm of the language and the message of the poem. But here again for the ones who are acquainted with the lyrics, Linton Kwesi Johnson’s register and overall speech style are for the most part comprehensible, even for inchoate dub poetry “consumers”.

6 Reflection

The portrayed poems in this paper clearly reflect the values of Jamaica’s oral tradition. The consequent usage of Jamaican Creole underlines the importance of “the language of the people” versus “the language of the establishment”. Via the Creole, LKJ criticizes the system explicitly in his poems and makes use of the radium to reflect upon cultural values. Dub poetry therefore clearly serves as an instrument to constitute an African identity.

The importance of the oral tradition in dub poetry is also visible in the analyzed poems. In both cases LKJ does not only describe one certain image or impression, as rather commonly done in classical European poetry, but distributes a message and tells a whole story. Here the African oral culture of repeating certain items is also taken up again so that the listener can easily recall the message. This technique mirrors the tradition of the African griot.

The word, predominantly in its articulated form, is the essential element in dub poetry. Therefore the choice of words in the analyzed poems is important and also reflects the alive Jamaican Creole lexicon without unitized spelling, with LKJ adapting the orthography and pronunciation of words to new situations. The linguistic analysis of “Wat about di Workin Claas” proofs that dub poetry can only unfold its message by means of using the Creole, because Standard English is too static and rule governed in terms of spelling and pronouncing words and therefore unable to suit dub poetry’s purpose. For instance the spelling of oweshan (l. 2) in the above mentioned poem seems to be an adjustment to the context. The term owe is integrated into this word, which on a second glance might indicate an allusion to the British of owing the Jamaicans over four hundred years of independence and liberty.

Moreover the analysis of the second poem “Tings an Times” shows that the rhythm does not depend on the background music, as one might think. Jamaican Creole is a rhythmical language and in poetry drum and bass are only used to reinforce this rhythm. Performing without music appears to be a greater challenge for the poet because intonation, pace and rhythmic speaking make out the success and message of the poem. This might be slightly easier when accompanied by drum and bass because the instruments indicate the rhythm and can also serve a guideline. To some extent there is an audible parallel to traditional European poetry recitations when listening to LKJ, but the straightforward message seldom hidden behind complex imagery or rhetoric devices indicates clearly, that dub poetry is an independent genre not comparable to traditional poetry.

7 Bibliography and Discography

Adams, L. Emilie. 1991. Understanding Jamaican Patois: An Introduction to Afro-Jamaican Grammar. Kingston: LMH.

Habekost, Christian. 1986. Dub Poetry: 20 Dichter aus Jamaica und England. Neustadt: Buchverlag Michael Schwinn.

Habekost, Christian. 1993a. „Dub Poetry – Culture of Resistance“ in: Bremer, Thomas and Ulrich Fleischmann, eds., Alternative Cultures in the Caribbean. Frankfurt: Vervuert.

Habekost, Christian. 1993b. Verbal Riddim: The Politics and Aesthetics of African-Caribbean Dub Poetry. Amsterdam: Rodopi.

Holm, John. 1994. �English in the Caribbean’. in Burchfield, ed. Cambridge History of the English Language, Vol. V, Cambridge: UP.

Johnson, Linton. 1991. Things and Times: Selected Poems. Newcastle: Bloodaxe Books.

Pollard, Velma. 2003. Dread Talk: The Language of Rastafari. Kingston: McGill-Queens University Press

Roberts, Peter. 1988. West Indians and their Language. Cambridge: UP.

Sand, Andrea. 2002. “English in the Caribbean” in: Allerton et al. eds., Perspectives on English as World Language. Basel: Schwabe.

Johnson, Linton Kwesi. 1984. Making History. London: Island.

Johnson, Linton Kwesi. 1991. Tings �An Times. London: LKJ Records.

Johnson, Linton Kwesi. 1996. LKJ A Capella live. London: LKJ Records.

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