Jamaican Born Poet and Musician Linton Kwesi Johnson Wins Major Literary Prize

Linton Kwesi Johnson, a Jamaican-born pioneer dub poet, has won the PEN Pinter Prize for 2020. The prize is named in honor of the Nobel Laureate playwright and human rights activist Harold Pinter and was established in 2009 by the English PEN charity to recognize artists who have an “unflinching, unswerving” view of the world.

In announcing the award, the judges said there were “few post-war figures as unwaveringly committed to political expression in their work” as Johnson, who frequently recites his poems over dub-reggae music with the reggae artist Dennis Bovell. Johnson also won the Golden PEN Award from English PEN in 2013.

Johnson, 67, is the first black poet to be published as part of the Penguin Modern Classic series with his collection “Mi Revalueshanary Fren.” Claire Armitstead,  associate editor for culture at The Guardian newspaper and a trustee for English PEN, said that once the nominations for the award were determined, it “took all of two seconds” for her and the other judges to select Johnson as the award winner. She described the “political ferocity” and “tireless scrutiny of history” of Johnson’s work and praised it as “truly Pinteresque.”

Upon learning of the award, Johnson noted that awards are “the nourishment of every artist’s ego” and that it is good to be acknowledged, especially with an award that honors Harold Pinter who was a “free thinker, anti-imperialist and human rights champion.” He thanked the English PEN judges for honoring him a second time.

Johnson was born in Chapeltown, Jamaica, in 1952, and moved to London in 1963. He became a member of the Black Panthers in his teen years. Race Today published his first collection of poetry “Voices of the Living and the Dead” in 1974. His first LP – “Dead Beat an’ Blood” – was released in 1978. The recording focused on police brutality and street life in Brixton using Jamaican patois read to a reggae beat. Johnson is often recognized as the creator of the dub poetry genre.

The Pinter Award will be presented to Johnson at a digital ceremony co-hosted by the British Library on October 12, 2020. The poet is slated to deliver an address and to announce his co-winner, the International Writer of Courage for 2020, at the event.

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