it is noh mistri wi mekkin histri it is noh mistri wi winnin victri(“Mekkin Histri” LKJ)
“The trouble with the English is that their history happened overseas, so they don’t know what it means”(The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie)
In order to appreciate the achievement of Linton Kwesi Johnson (LKJ), the African/Caribbean/European dub poet, one must come to terms with the cultural specificity of the voice, and what the voice can do. Mekkin histri. Making history? What recidivism might this be at the end of the twentieth century? The double-displacement of an African- Caribbean Black living in England, diaspora upon diaspora, comes with a double-indemnity—making and history. What cultural logic obtains in the construction/reconstruction of subjectivity as subaltern, the articulation of the margin, the trace, the veve, that still allows a trenchant sense of history, of the need to make history? Can we still conceive of subjects that make history, have a history to make, remake at a cacophonous rendezvous of victory? To understand why this notion is not a mystery (the History, for instance, of imperialist certitude) but a problematic, one must understand what makes this history: one must come to terms with the history of the voice, what Kamau Brathwaite calls the “invitation and challenge,”2 or what Edouard Glissant defines as “literature” and “oraliture” (the fragmented and therefore shared histories and voices of peoples).3 One can read this history as an introduction in LKJ’s sonorous beat, and one can see this history in a dissidence of voice, in all its synesthesia and dislocation.
The sounds of dislocation. Our trust in electricity makes the archive of the voice seem a recent technology: LKJ himself is “available in all three formats” (CD, cassette, and the fast disappearing LP). But the voice at issue has, shall we say, a much longer geneology, a history that “happened overseas.” Thanks to Columbus’s “discovery” (the kind of “surprise” common to colonialism), the Amerindians of the Caribbean were soon in short supply and so began one of the darkest chapters in forced relocation and labor in human history. Except, of course, that such a chapter remains largely unwritten, not just because of racist ideology, the loathsome lacuna of the “official story,” but because this history is an archaeology of voice, a history intoned more than inscribed. As such, it is a history articulated in the clash and fierce concatenation of colonial power and resistance characterized by the internecine struggles of languages and cultures, Ashanti, Yoruba, Congolese, French, English, Spanish, and Dutch. The word creole only begins to do justice to the range of this struggle even if its logic of hybridity suggests a new understanding of what constitutes “sound” evidence. Theory has trained us, and rightly so, to be suspicious of the voice and the ontology it confers. Yet, what I am calling dub identity is not about the presence of being, but being in between, the “Middle Passages” that Brathwaite (among others) has elaborated, or the “black atlantic” model that Paul Gilroy has proposed.4 The problem of dub is the sound of diaspora, and its doubling, its versions. Thus, if the following notes are read as an introduction to LKJ, they only begin to imagine the utterance he makes, in all its complexity, as testimony and travelogue: the subjective states of being, in between.
Obviously, in his history of the voice Brathwaite is not claiming that dub poetry, Jamaican “sound” poetry, the righteous riddim of resistance, is purely a phenomenon of sound (who would want to fall into that Cartesian chasm of speech/writing made infamous by Derrida?). He is saying, however, that without an adequate theory of performativity and voice one cannot hope to fathom cultural expression under the mark of cultural erasure, the colonizer/ postcolonizer’s denial of voice, whether poetic, polemical, or political. For Brathwaite, language from the Anglophone Caribbean is “a process of using English,” not just in the well-documented sense of creolization (patois), but a particular socialization of the voice. Brathwaite’s specific concern has been for an anglophone...