black performance poets

black performance poets
   Black performance poets have developed African and Caribbean oral traditions into a varied poetic language that is rooted in the speech of their communities, creating a powerful sense of black British identity through social documentary, the articulation of autonomous political thought and pure entertainment. Many poets have also developed sophisticated methods of transcription for their essentially oral work, so that the sound of the spoken voice is brought to the reading eye. In 1976 Linton Kwesi Johnson coined the term ‘dub poetry’ for work that he and the Jamaicans Michael Smith, Mutabaruka and Oku Onuora were performing, inspired by the ‘toasting’ of reggae sound-system DJs U Roy and Big Youth, and the Last Poets’ percussion-driven street poetry. Using Afro-Caribbean patois (following the example of the previous generation of writer/performers including James Berry, Edward Kamau Brathwaite and Louise Bennett), dub poetry uses speech- and reggae-rhythms (rather than the iambic pentameters that predominate in conventional English poetry) simultaneously to resist received pronunciation and to make their poetry familiar to audiences alienated by literary/academic writing. Much dub poetry deals with contemporary sociopolitical issues, but its variety is demonstrated by Jean Binta Breeze’s love poetry and the playfulness of Benjamin Zephaniah.
   Black performance poetry has taken many forms and subjects. Louise Bennett’s investigations of folklore and dialect poems influenced John Agard’s playful ‘calypso poetry’. Merle Collins has drawn on the African tradition (often performing to Ghanaian high-life accompaniments played by African Dawn). Valerie Bloom, Scottish-born Jackie Kay and Grace Nichols have focused on the experiences of black women. A new generation of poets have relied on rap and hip hop rhythms, rather than on reggae (often explicitly titling poems ‘raps’). Lemn Sissay has become a significant figure in the 1990s: in addition to his own work (including a collaboration with dance act Leftfield in 1995 on their 100,000-selling album Leftism) he has been active in promoting black and Asian performers through community publishing, workshops and visits to schools and libraries, in a tradition of community-based action exemplified from the 1970s by Linton Kwesi Johnson’s involvement with the Race Today collective. Although still marginalized, black performance poetry has an increasing currency in the mainstream, signalled by Agard’s appointment as first poet in residence at London’s South Bank Centre, and Zephaniah’s (unsuccessful) nomination for honorary chairs in poetry at both Oxford and Cambridge.
   Further reading
    Binta Breeze, J. (ed.) (1986) Critical Quarterly 38(4)(‘Word Sound Power’, a special edition on performance poetry).
    Sissay, L. (ed.) (1997) The Fire People: A Collection ofBlack British Poets, Edinburgh: Payback Press.

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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