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Poet Linton Kwesi Johnson awarded the PEN Pinter Prize 2020

By Shola Adenekan

image by (c) English Pen Tuesday, July 7, 2020.

The dub poet, musician, broadcaster and civil rights activist Linton Kwesi Johnson, has been awarded the highly-regarded PEN Pinter Prize. The award committee says Mr Johnson will receive the honour in a digital ceremony to be co-hosted by the British Library on 12 October, where Mr Johnson will deliver a speech. The judges praise Mr Johnson’s work, and remark that “few post-war figures have been as unwaveringly committed to political expression in their work.”

Mr Johnson was the second living poet and the first poet of African descent to be published in the Penguin Modern Classics series.

Linton Kwesi Johnson was born on August 24, 1952, in Chapelton in Clarendon, Jamaica. He came to Britain with his parents in 1963, and attended Tulse Hill Secondary School, in South London, before studying Sociology at Goldsmiths College, University of London. He joined the Black Panthers as a student and helped to organise a poetry workshop within the movement. In 1977, he was awarded a C Day Lewis Fellowship, becoming the writer-in-residence for the London Borough of Lambeth for that year. He went on to work as the Library Resources and Education Officer at the Keskidee Centre, in London, the first home of Black British theatre and art.

Johnson’s poems first appeared in the journal Race Today, where his first poetry collection Voices of the Living and the Dead, was published in 1974. This was followed by Dread Beat An’ Blood, published in 1975 by Bogle-L’Ouverture. That collection of poetry, was also the title of his first LP released by Virgin Records, in 1978.

In 1981, Mr Johnson launched his own label, LKJ Records, with two singles by the Jamaican poet Michael Smith. Mr Johnson has worked in journalism and produced materials for organisations that include the London-based Race Today Collective, the BBC and Channel 4. In his journalism work, as in his poetry, Mr Johnson tells the story of Black people, from their own perspective. He provides critical insights, drawing from his experience of the Caribbean and Britain.

Mr Johnson’s works over the years have been critically-received. The influence of his work on people of African descent is comparable to figures like Amiri Baraka, Stuart Hall and Paul Gilroy. His works not only give voice to Black Britain, but to people of African descent around the world, especially the Caribbean.

Commenting on Mr Johnson’s work, Claire Armitstead of The Guardian (UK), points out that Linton Kwesi Johnson’s impact on the cultural landscape over the last half century has been colossal and multi-generational.

“His political ferocity and his tireless scrutiny of history are truly Pinteresque,” she says. “As is the humour with which he pursues them.’

Mr Johnson says: “Having received a Golden PEN award from English PEN in 2013, I was surprised to learn that, seven years later, I have now been awarded the PEN Pinter Prize. Awards are the nourishment of every artist’s ego. It is always nice to be acknowledged. It is especially gratifying to receive an award that honours the memory of esteemed dramatist, Harold Pinter, free thinker, anti-imperialist and human rights champion. I would like to thank English PEN and the judges for their kind consideration in honouring me again.”



Poet Linton Kwesi Johnson awarded the PEN Pinter Prize 2020

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