How would you reconcile the apparent contradictions between the local, linguistically exclusive origins of dub poetry and the international success of such figures as Linton Kwesi Johnson, Mikey Smith and Mutabaruka?

At the heart of the apparent contradiction between the local origins of dub poetry and its international success is the question, ‘what is it about dub poetry which touches us?’ Although dub poetry is a genre that has firm origins in Jamaica, and much of its content is exclusive in both language and cultural reference to a black Jamaican audience, this has not prevented a number of dub poets rising to international success. Reasons for this success include the performance nature of dub poetry, its roots in popular and Rastafari culture, its linguistic origins, its dual form and the desire of the poet to reach out to the people.

Any cultural medium, which succeeds on the international arena as well as on a small local scale, must have a way of appealing to large numbers of potentially diverse peoples. Through an examination of the roots of dub poetry in Jamaica, it becomes clear that dub poetry is the offspring of a larger and older tradition of popular culture in the country, which is very much based on reaching out to large audiences through the medium of the spoken word. The ‘spoken word’ tradition is a rather generalistic categorisation and encompasses a number of different oral traditions: many stemming, perhaps from the West African ‘griot’ tradition. ‘Griot’ is an African word meaning ‘poet’, one speaking for the people in the language of the people. Significantly, the voice modulation and projection of this type of performer was key to its success: the drama of the performance was invested with meaning.

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The preaching tradition in Jamaica is an example of how this type of oral performance manifested itself in the West Indies, being used to communicate messages, whether religious or political, directly to the congregation in church. Calypso performers and performances developed this tradition by fusing nation language and ideas with music and rhythm, all dependent on each other for the wide dissemination of a message, usually satirical and often politically motivated. Popular Calypsonians achieved a legendary status and a political authority in the eyes of their public – but perhaps because the objects of their critique were local figures and occurrences, and because Calypso music is a West Indian tradition, which has not been exported, Calypsonians only really achieved local fame and success.

With these oral performance traditions already extant in Jamaica, and with Calypso increasingly commercialised and marketed towards tourists, the new variations on vocal performance made by DJs and ‘toasters’ over the ‘dub’ side of records were almost a natural progression. In the 1960s, music on Jamaican radio was given over almost exclusively to the music of white America, which led to the creation of ‘sound systems’ where Jamaican and black American music was played, in private fenced-off yards.

Dub grew from the ‘toasters’, who talked “smart and silly”1, spontaneously commenting on everyday happenings and events whilst they changed records. The DJs developed this idea when they deliberately performed in this way over the ‘dub’ side of a record. The dub side was the ‘B’ side of a single, on which was just the music without any song lyrics recorded over. The DJ’s performance was firmly rooted in the sound system culture, and predicated on reaching out to this audience. “The whole idea behind it is to liven up the dance … and to get people involved in the music.”2

It was the growing popularity of Rastafari as a movement of Black Nationalism and social change, along with the influence of Kamau Brathwaite’s ‘rediscovery’ of Africa which gave a huge impetus to West Indian cultural production, and dub poetry in particular. Brathwaite was a scholar, and member of the Academy; after spending time in Ghana in the early 1960s he returned to the West Indies influenced by the African oral aesthetic, and strongly concerned with the state of society. “To me an artist has to speak from his society,”3 he said. He was interested in the close relationship between music and speech and championed the use of nation-language in West Indian poetry, instead of a reliance on Standard British English; he had a huge influence both on his generation and on the following generation of West Indian poets.4

The Rastafari movement was a hugely important religious and socio-political movement. Importantly, it grew from roots of resistance, and concerned the day-to-day lives of ordinary people, rather than being restricted to academic spheres. Rastafari is a mass coalition against social injustice and racial oppression; it gained huge popularity in Jamaica from the 1960s, especially after the visit of Haile Selassie I) in 1966. The movement saw the importance of reason and discussion, and the word as an instrument of power. The goal was to enable ordinary black people to overcome and exclude the Oppressor, without having recourse to high academia; new words were integrated in to the Jamaican vocabulary, which were then disseminated through music.

The musical vehicle for this movement of black expression, resistance and social change was first ska, but quickly became reggae. A characteristic of reggae music was its Rastafarian influences, and aside from the religion, the socio-political implications of Rastafari had a widespread appeal to audiences. Reggae’s worldwide popularity, spread by musicians such as Bob Marley amongst many others, proved that there was an audience – and a market – for what had started out as a Jamaican cultural phenomenon, yet spoke to oppressed peoples across the world. Van Dijk shows how Rastafari has spread from Australia to Zimbabwe via the Pacific, South America and Russia.5

With roots reggae, whilst the substance of the lyrics needs to be paid attention to the music is ultimately the most important factor, and takes precedence over the lyrical content. Dub poetry is the inverse; although some poets perform on top of a musical track, it is the words, their content and their sound, which are the most important, and the music is a product of the poetry. Furthermore, the broad concerns touched on in the genre of dub poetry are related both to the concerns voiced by members of the Academy such as Kamau Brathwaite, and to Rastafarian concerns about the oppression and poverty faced by black people. Indeed, Mikey Smith, Mutabaruka, and Jean Binta Breeze have very close links to Rastafari, and Linton Kwesi Johnson has been heavily influenced by Rastafari chants and music

Although taking inspiration from the DJs, dub poetry does not merely provide atmosphere and titillate. It “functions as poetry to be recited to poetry-listening audiences.”6 With this, there is the dual function of dub poetry: coming from these oral traditions, dub poetry can be both performed, in front of an audience, or recorded for distribution. Functioning as poetry, it can be written down and published.

Thus, arguably unlike poetry itself, which can often be ‘exclusive’ and directed solely to well-educated audiences, dub poetry is emphatically a cultural rather than a ‘high’ literary form. The poets perform from the perspective of being part of ‘the sufferers’, part of the society, and making an impact on this society, rather than being removed and commenting upon it. Linton Kwesi Johnson says: “from the time I began writing, my initial inspiration came from the general conditions that black people were living under and what we were experiencing”; Mikey Smith notes similar concerns: “me feel seh anything me feel, everybody feel it too … me seh to people: ‘Look not you suffering here alone. There is other people far out.”7 Thus, the dub poets show themselves to be explicitly speaking from the society about which they are also talking.

The work of two poets, Mutabaruka and Mikey Smith, will now be examined; I will omit Linton Kwesi Johnson who, because of his dual Jamaican – British upbringing, has a dual field of cultural reference and thus has a voice into both cultures and audiences. Mutabaruka and Smith, however, both perform out of specific origins, urban Jamaica, and their poetry reflects this.

Although dub poetry is not a cultural medium which has an ‘academic’ exclusivity (i.e. which would only be understood by educated people), in its use of nation language, and in its voicing of local concerns, another type of exclusivity is created. Mikey Smith’s ‘Mi C-YaaN beLieVe iT’ is, in cultural, linguistic and geographic terms, exclusive. Specifically targeted at a Jamaican audience, Smith’s poem is in Jamaican English and makes local, social and geographical, references. To a native speaker of British English, with only European cultural references, the poem can seem initially baffling, particularly because Smith does not pander to those who cannot refer to a Caribbean field of allusion. ‘Mi C-YaaN beLieVe iT’ is a poem that seems to voice the concerns of particular people or just to echo conversations overheard; a parent wearily describes a daughter’s illegitimate child, a potential tenant looks warily and the cockroaches and scorpions in his new flat, and none of them “cyaan believe it.”

Those without knowledge of Jamaican English may feel excluded by the language and references in the poem; in the poet’s eyes, however, the issue of accessibility is more important. The poem must be completely understandable, and oriented towards those for whom Smith is writing. His poem is written in nation language – in the vernacular of his target audience – with expressions such as ‘an bap si kaisco she pregnant again’, which are exclusively Jamaican. He plays on words for the benefit of an audience which is disenfranchised and left behind by politics in Jamaica – ‘de tricks / dem call partisan pally-trix’ he is playing on the notion of ‘tricks’ in the word ‘politics.’ The reader, for whom the daily grind of poverty-stricken life in Jamaica is unknown, perhaps misses some of the finer meaning of the poem, for example, the significance of the Orange Street fire. In a way therefore, the audience is defined by their ability to understand – which is the ultimate authentication of his poetry in terms of its social commitment, although inevitably it excludes people outside this society.

Despite this, it would be hard to argue that the poem is so far removed from Standard English, and the struggle of humanity, to be incomprehensible. “If they happen to be local words, bit by bit, we come to understand the local world and the poets’ attachment to it”8 says Chamberlain of nation-language poetry. Hence, we can empathise with the characters in the poem – ‘de oppress and de dispossess’ – for whom ‘life is a stiff fight.’ Although inevitably Smith writes specifically about the suffering in West Indian society: “a sad and constant reminder that they [are] still not free of the legacy of slavery, nor of the need for voices to cry freedom.”9

Linguistically, if the poetry is read, the unstandardised spelling can actually help the reader pronounce and therefore understand unfamiliar words: siddung and bwoyfren, for example. Breiner calls Smith “the Olympic boxer of dub”10 for his complex rhythmic shifting; and we who may have difficulty with the language cannot fail to understand the sentiment of the poem, or to appreciate its rhythms and rhythmic changes. Even if it is not performed, for example, in the ‘Who dead? You dead? / Who dead? Me dead?’ section we immediately catch the sense of urgency and utter confusion, followed by a howl of anguish at ‘Eleven dead / Wooeeeeeeee.’

In performance, an audience outside Jamaica may have more trouble distinguishing particular words and phrases. However, the rhythm and oral expression which are an integral part of dub poetry will be more easy to appreciate if the author is reading the poetry aloud rather than the reader trying to decipher it on the page. Mikey Smith said himself of those who are not close to Jamaican language and culture “You can feel it. If you can’t understand some of it, you can feel it.”11 The success and renown of Mikey Smith in an audience beyond that of his native Jamaica is thus easier to understand.

Whilst writing about the oppressed Black Nation from a Jamaican perspective, perhaps even more than Mikey Smith, Mutabaruka is a dub poet who is very concerned about directing his poetry towards this audience, and one way he does this is through language. Mutabaruka’s lexeme contains ‘dread talk’, language that has developed from Rastafari, and is a positive affirmation of black consciousness. It developed in the 1960s and 1970s, and was popularised through reggae: in ‘Dis Poem’ Mutabaruka talks of ‘overstanding’ instead of ‘understanding’: “the logic being that if you are in control of an idea you stand over it.”12 An audience which does not form part of a group that has a strong notion of Rastafarian terms (say, a white Anglo-Saxon audience) risks feeling excluded from the language.

Equally, Mutabaruka subverts western European cultural traditions for his own ends: In ‘Two Poems on: What I Can Write’

Can I write poems


Tall green grass

Shadin the tough

Earth, …

I write of tall trees

Shadin black skins


Hot death

These images of nature, which are traditionally associated with lyric romantic poetry, are juxtaposed with, and ultimately abandoned for, the images of black people dying to emphasise Mutabaruka’s manifesto. It is not the time to write about nature, about ‘rainbow coloured birds’, other things, such as laid out in ‘Dis Poem’: ‘apartheid / racism / fascism / the klu klux / klan / riots in brixton’ are more important.

Of course, this commitment to poetry with strong social and racial concerns does not preclude international renown and success. However, the way that Mutabaruka is concerned about how his poetry must relate to a certain audience perhaps limits mass consumption and a mass market for it. His poetry is not superficial, or obviously for entertainment; it is angry and engaged and is written to capture an audience’s attention. When I listen to Mutabaruka, I find that his poetry can seem to be one long stream of invective and criticism.

However, Mutabaruka is not writing for a white British audience like me; his poetry seems local to Jamaica and excludes me, because my own field of reference and experience is elsewhere. However, Mutabaruka’s international success – in the last three years he has toured in South Africa, the United States, Israel, Holland and Germany alone – is testament to the fact that ‘dis poem is the rebirth of a people’, i.e. black people; his poetry is relevant to a worldwide movement of change and rebirth, particularly (but not exclusively) for oppressed black people. This, therefore, generates a worldwide interest; not merely restricted to Jamaica.

Having made some general comments as to why artists like Mutabaruka and Mikey Smith have had international success despite the local origins of their dub poetry, I will examine the issue of dub poetry’s international popularity in more detail. Dub poets such as Smith and Mutabaruka address issues from a Jamaican perspective, which are pertinent to black or oppressed minorities around the world. The oral performance style which forms part of dub poetry, has developed from a need to communicate and reach people in their own language. There are also other reasons that have made them successful internationally.

We have already seen how nation language and expressions in Smith and Mutabaruka lead to difficulties in transcription and irregular spelling,

Making … sense inaccessible. On the other hand, these same compositions, recorded as song or as melodrama … can reach and interest a wide international audience without compromising their distinct, almost militant, West Indian character.”13

Breiner notes the inherent dichotomy of a dub poem, which is based on an oral performance, being noted down and published. The fact that dub poetry’s form is essentially an oral performance form lends itself well to recording and selling on tape, vinyl or CD. In this way, performances can be listened to repeatedly; the inherent musicality and rhythm in dub poetry enhances this experience. The substance of the lyric eventually embeds itself into the subconscious of the listener. This happens in the same way that when you listen to reggae, you start by appreciating the sound, and the full content of the song is revealed after repeated listening.

The “Island Records / Faber & Faber” duality – in other words audio publishing versus written publishing – of dub poetry has had a number of consequences. Audiences can buy recordings of many dub poets, which means a potentially ephemeral performance becomes a durable entity, and a product, which can be exported overseas to raise interest, awareness and sales.

This is unlike the calypso medium, little of which was recorded and noted when it was at its height and it therefore stayed a local phenomenon. CDs have a larger and wider market than books of poetry: dub poetry thus becomes an experience that is not exclusive to those usually well-educated people who buy books of poetry. Nevertheless, those who do read poetry are also catered for by the publication of dub poetry. This includes the literary ‘Academy’, through which dub poetry can be discussed, disseminated, analysed and popularised in a market and a milieu sometimes far removed from that for which the poetry was originally intended.

Another factor that has surely helped the international success of dub poetry is the fact that Jamaica was a British colony, and that the nation language used by the poets discussed here has strong roots in the English language. Let us not forget the West Indian Diaspora in communities around the world who have provided a ready-made market for dub poetry, as they did for reggae, before. The fact that English is the most widely spoken language in the world has undoubtedly helped the export potential of dub poetry, and its ability to touch so many people. Similar artistic and sociocultural movements, which have grown from local origins in a language other than English have rarely spread so internationally: one could cite the cultural production of the French Antilles, which has seen far less international renown than its English-speaking counterparts.

Finally, let us not underestimate the power of poetry to touch people, wherever it originates. “Good poets, in good poems, make us feel that the words they use are the only ones possible, and that the words are their own. Handmade and heartfelt.”14 What do these dub poets really aim to achieve? They want to reach out to an audience, which is touched, moved and empowered by their poetry – wherever in the world they are.

In conclusion, it becomes clear that despite dub poetry’s Jamaican origins and frame of reference, it has been successful because its concerns actually reach out to wide audience. This is thanks to the various oral, cultural and religious traditions predicated on communicating with people, from which this genre comes, and the worldwide spread of Rastafari and reggae culture. Its roots in the English language, its performance nature and the dual medium through which it is disseminated all culminate to prove that the apparent contradiction between the international renown of certain dub poets and their local origins proves to be just that – a contradiction only in appearance.


Breiner, L An Introduction to West Indian Poetry, Cambrindge University Press, 1998

Chamberlain, J Come Back to Me, my Language: Poetry and the West Indies, Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1993

Markham et al Hinterland, Caribbean Poetry from the West Indies and Britain, Bloodaxe, Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, 1989

Murrell, N Chanting Down Babylon, The Rastafari Reader, Temple University Press, 1998

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1 Chamberlain, JE Come Back to Me, my Language: Poetry and the West Indies, p.235

2’Interview with Linton Kwesi Johnson’, Hinterland ed. Markham, p.257

3 Breiner, L An Introduction to West Indian Poetry, p.16

4 Breiner, West Indian Poetry, p.168

5 Van Dijk, FJ ‘Chanting Down Babylon Outernational’, Chanting down Babylon: the Rastafari Reader, p.195

6 Hinterland, p.257

7 Hinterland, p.277

8 Chamberlain, JE Come Back to Me My Language

9 Chamberlain, JE Come Back to Me My Language, p.236

10 Breiner, An Introduction to West Indian Poetry, p.190

11 ‘Interview with Michael Smith’, Hinterland, p.282

12 Chamberlain, JE Come Back to Me my Language, p.142

13 Breiner p.193

14 Chamberlain, Come Back to Me My Language


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