On Kwame Dawes by Linton Kwesi Johnson

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Amongst Kwame Dawes’ long list of achievements, the Calabash International Literary Festival, one of the best literature festivals anywhere on earth, an eagerly anticipated (now) biennial event that has won kudos for Jamaica, is outstanding. Calabash, founded jointly by Colin Channer, Justine Henzell and Kwame, has become a Jamaican national treasure. Kwame plays a leading role in the programming of the festival, which brings together a unique gathering of writers from every corner of the globe. Here young aspiring local writers rub shoulders with Nobel laureates. After the readings and discussions there is live reggae entertainment and the final event is always a musical tribute to one of the reggae greats from the past.

Kwame Dawes is a friend who commands my respect and admiration for his extraordinary achievements in the literary world. Undaunted but inspired by the reputation of his father, Neville Dawes, who was a distinguished man of Jamaican letters, Kwame has earned his status as one of the outstanding Caribbean writers of our time. His prolific output of poetry, fiction, criticism and other writing is phenomenal given his academic and other related activities.

I must confess that it took me a while to begin to fully appreciate how good a poet Kwame is. It was some years ago, on hearing my friends Eddie Baugh and Mervyn Morris extol the virtues of his poetry, that I realised his work was held in such high regard. It was then that I decided to revisit some of his collections, and came to the realisation that I had missed much in my initial reading. The problem with me was that I was looking for the ‘reggae aesthetic’ in the language and rhythm of his verse. I had not fully understood that Kwame’s ‘reggae aesthetics’ outlined in his book, Natural Mysticism, is more about perspective than technique; a decolonised, postcolonial approach to the creation, appreciation and criticism of Jamaican and Caribbean literature. Whist I do not claim to have fully grasped the nuances of his thesis, on hearing Kwame recite his poem “Flight” from the collection Prophets at NYU in 2014, it struck me that this poem is perhaps a good example of the ‘reggae aesthetics’ at work. There are historical, political and erotic elements in the spiritual ‘flight’ of the poetic persona’s cross-Atlantic journeys over new world locations and back to Africa in search of redemption and hope. These elements—the historical, political, spiritual and erotic—constitute Kwame’s aesthetics.

Reggae music played a crucial role in the formation of an African Jamaican identity for Kwame, as it did for me. But in Kwame’s case, reggae was also a catalyst that provided a way of reading postcolonial Jamaican literature. He is therefore, like me, though further down the line, a beneficiary of the work of the Caribbean Artists Movement, founded by Kamau Brathwaite, John La Rose, Andrew Salkey and others in 1966, whose aim was the clearing of new paths for the creation and appreciation of Caribbean literature, through their activities in London and Kingston and their journal, Savacou, free from the domination of the colonial canon. That movement towards autonomy in Caribbean artistic creativity has thrown up new ways of seeing, including Kwame’s ‘reggae aesthetics’, in its wake. Listening to a brilliant lecture on Bob Marley by Kwame last summer at the Royal Commonwealth Society, it was apparent that his ‘reggae aesthetics’ has been finely tuned and is still a work in progress.

Natural Mysticism is not just an exposition of Kwame’s thesis on a new aesthetics, it provides an insightful historical overview of Jamaican literary activity in the post-independence period. In its exposition of the relationship between popular music and literature, Kwame has produced an original work in a critical tradition pioneered by Gordon Rohlehr.

—Linton Kwesi Johnson

On Kwame Dawes, part of Respect Due: Symposium on the Work of Kwame Dawes



Linton Kwesi Johnson
is an award-winning poet and political activist. He was born in Jamaica and has lived in London since he was eleven. Johnson’s first collection of poetry was published in 1974; his most recent book is Selected Poems (Penguin). He has released fifteen albums since 1978, most of them on his own label, LKJ Records Ltd. Linton Kwesi Johnson is a Trustee of the George Padmore Institute in London and of the LKJ Caribbean Educational Trust in Jamaica.

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