Words and music: A look at the Caribbean’s reggae poetry

al creighton

Trickster II

(For Lee “Scratch” Perry)

A voice cried out in the wilderness.

We all came to hear the voice

in the cockpit valleys, to hear

the man with a skull in his hands.

He was mad.

It was all quite obvious.

We listened but saw no revelations,

Just a sweet madness of new rhythms.

Afterwards, we drank mannish water,

ate curry goat, and slept peacefully.


Legend puts the scratch man in trees,

comfortable in this lofty nest, where airwaves

have a clearer path to the sampling antennae

of his dangerous, bright mind.

A few were baptized to the strange

syncopations of unsteady sycophants,

but all looked to see the boy

with a sweet falsetto grained with desert grit

singing the father’s songs, just as

the Scratch man prophesied would happen.


There would be no wailing songs

without the madness of Scratch Perry;

none of the wild weirdness of Kaya,

none of the leap of images, enigmatic

mysteries like scripture; none of the miracle

of guitars twined each on each,

without this man, with his fired

brain and fingers of brilliant innovation

tweaking the nine-track sound board,

teasing out new ways to see heaven.  [. . .]

Kwame Dawes

In 1998, Peepal Tree Press published Wheel and Come Again which is an anthology of reggae poetry selected by Kwame Dawes. That was quite a significant publication and a landmark in the literature of the Caribbean, reminiscent of Voiceprint edited by Mervyn Morris, Gordon Rohlehr and Stewart Brown, which was a great groundbreaker in 1989.

Peepal Tree had already published a volume of Dawes’s own work – Shook Foil: A Collection of Reggae Poems, in 1979, which evokes the questions what is reggae poetry and why does Dawes seem preoccupied with it. Of course reggae poetry is not easy to define and remains just slightly elusive even when one reads the selections in the volume. The first thing that comes to mind is the music and the notion that somehow these poems relate to the music, maybe in theme, rhythm, ideology and language.

Kwame Dawes
Kwame Dawes

Yet the concept is not very strange and that is because the tone had already been set by the way the music and the poetry moved closer and closer together throughout the history, the way a form of poetry called ‘dub poetry’ married the oral to the scribal around 1970, the way rhythm, the creole language, qualities of orality, dread talk, the proletariat, the popular culture and the reggae sub-culture were being merged into literary forms in the Caribbean around the same time.

Since the late 1960s, critics had been flagging the need for new critical yardsticks to handle the forms of West Indian literature that had been emancipated from English literature ages ago but was being stifled by critical assessment which still thought it was English literature. Foremost among the voices that recognised the liberation and its new elements were Mervyn Morris, Gordon Rohlehr, Louis James, Edward Baugh and Kamau Brathwaite.

Yet, reggae poetry was evolving before the articulation of the critics, and it was not called by that name until Kwame Dawes did in 1997. Early in the evolution, even before the Ska, DJs and ‘sound system’ men had been talking and chanting over the musical selections that they dropped in the dance halls, boasting, proclaiming and competing against each other in what became DJ dub, the artistry of Lee “Scratch” Perry and the cryptic ‘poetic’ utterances of Big Youth. Those were the forerunners of dub poetry and the DJ compositions, American rap, hip-hop and the dancehall hits of today.

There was increasing influence of all this upon the written literature, giving rise to dub poetry and increasingly on the work of mainstream ‘scribal’ or ‘literary’ poets. Both Morris and Rohlehr were among the early commentators recognising the new forms which first appeared in print in Savacou 3/4 in 1970. Morris, who initiated the recognition of Louise Bennett (as did Rex Nettleford), did the same for rising dub poet Mikey Smith, while Linton Kwesi Johnson soared to heights in England. Stewart Brown of Birmingham and Rohlehr joined Morris in the first publication formally documenting the arrival of reggae poetry without using that name. They articulated the acceptance of the oral literature, the oral poetry, the popular culture into the mainstream category of West Indian Literature. They pointed to the written poetry with outstanding oral qualities and embraced the reggae and the calypso in the volume Voiceprint.  Paula Burnette had also acknowledged this in her anthology of Caribbean verse in 1986.

Dawes’ description of what is reggae poetry is itself poetic and musical, and much more metaphorical than the attempt to capture it in the plain prose that I have printed above. He begins with “reggae is about spaces, about the way sound fills space and then vacates space to create the suggestion of energy”. He goes on to mention the way the reggae was occupying the spaces of written literature such as novels – one recalls Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings, which won the Man Booker Prize last year.

Dawes ends up with “The nature of the reggae aesthetic in literary practice will change, as reggae too will continue to evolve, but there is an important moment in the development of Caribbean literature here. I feel quite assured in stating and in celebrating this.”

Many of the poems in Wheel and Come Again were included in Voiceprint, and are of the same quality that made them representative of “the Caribbean voice in print”. Some of them even appeared in that first groundbreaking collection, Savacou 3/4, such as pieces by Bongo Jerrey and Brian Meeks, and by early dub poets Kwesi Johnson and Jean Breeze. There are outstanding examples of poems of this nature by the leading masters such as Morris, Dennis Scott, Baugh, and Anthony McNeill. Then there are those of a later wave including John Agard, Marc Matthews, Brown, Lorna Goodison, and Olive Senior.

Many of the selections do not have the easily recognisable rhythmic features nor do they stylistically reflect the music in any overt ways. There are those that address the world of reggae in different ways, tackling subject matter, history or the popular subculture. Several of them are tributes to great personalities like Bob Marley, Winston Rodney, Michael “Ibo” Cooper or Lee “Scratch” Perry.

The name of Scratch Perry is a legend in the history and development of ska, rock steady and reggae. As a pioneer, he contributed a great deal to the music and its advance over those years.  Dawes’ poem makes reference to his contributions, saying he paved the way for the very greats like The Wailers and Marley. He calls the poem “Trickster” which gives it the quality of an Anancy, a mesmerizer and folk hero. There are several references to music, the making of the music and the recording industry in Jamaica.

It matters that this poet, academic, critic and short story writer is also a musician who spent many years as a member of a reggae band. As may be gleaned from his attempt to explain what reggae is and what reggae poetry is, he is quite deeply a musician and very immersed in reggae.  The poetry is approached through the music and that says quite a bit about how he might have gone about selecting the pieces included in the anthology.

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