An interview with Mutabaruka (Jamaica, 26-08-2008)
Mutabaruka was born Allan Hope in 1952 in Jamaica and after school began to work for the Jamaica Telephone Company. He had been writing poems since he was a schoolboy and after sending poems to magazines like Swing, he finally published his first book, Outcry, in 1973. Mutabaruka had also been performing his poems all over Jamaica by then. In 1976 Sun and Moon came out, followed by First Poems in 1980.
Up till then, Mutabaruka had reached his audience by performing his poems at various venues, or through the printed word. In 1980 Mutabaruka performed at a concert organised by Jimmy Cliff, the African Oneness Concert, and his peformance of a poem entitled “White Sound” went down very well. The guitarist Chinna Smith was there and thought that this poem should be recorded, and the Rastafarian elder Mortimer Planner agreed. This was the beginning of Muta’s career as a recording artiste and the 45 rpm “Everytime A Ear de Soun” was released in 1980 on the High Times label. It went into the charts and turned Mutabaruka into a recording artist and contributed to boosting his popularity. The popularity of that single led Mutabaruka to record more poems and in 1983 the LP Check It was released, containing poems like “Whey Mi Belang”, “Butta Pan Culture” and “A Watch Him a Watch Me”. Other LPs followed, like Outcry in 1984, The Mystery Unfolds, in 1986, Any Which Way… Freedom (1989), Blakk wi Bla…K…K (1991) and Melanin Man (1994). Since then Mutabaruka has been touring in Europe and America and has appeared in films and documentaries. Indeed in 1994 he starred in Haile Gerima’s Sankofa and appeared in the documentary entitled The Land of Look Behind.
Mutabaruka also began to host a radio programme on Irie FM in 1993 called “The Cutting Edge”, which is a kind of free-form talk-show during which any listener, from any walk of life, can say what they have to say and engage Muta in conversation. The conversations often take the form of lengthy “reasoning” sessions during which Muta patiently listens to everyone’s point of view and gives his own views on many topics. The programme has become extremely popular over theyears and has kept many Jamaicans up till late.
Mutabaruka has built a powerful reputation over the years as a dynamic performer and as a charismatic orator/poet whose “raps” between the poems are at least as interesting as the poems themselves.
The interview which follows was conducted on 26 August 2008 at the poet’s home in Kingston.
Interviewer: When did you first become interested in poetry ? What drove you to write ?
Mutabaruka: Well, what drove me to write was, like, schoodays, my teacher actually. It was my teacher who gave a poetry work to do, and I actually wrote a poem, and she told me to read it in front of the class. It came out quite good, you know. In those days, it was like the Black Power era. Marcus Garvey Junior was my teacher. He had an organisation that published a magazine. So we started to put poems in that magazine, and then there was another big magazine named Swing magazine, and we actually sent poems to that magazine. And then eventually they asked to put the poems in a little book just called Outcry. So that started to make me feel that poetry can be something. So we started to recite the poems all over the place, and eventually recorded it. So it was out of a school class work that gave me that feeling, you know, that I can write.
Interviewer : Why poetry ? Had you tried to write novels, short stories ?
Mutabaruka: Well, I actually wrote a play, and five years ago I wrote an opera, which is sort of being worked on in England. The poetry is how I express meself in terms of how I feel, my philosophy and my worldview. I think it helps to put my mind and my perspective in a particular frame. I can write straight, you know, like a composition… So the poems help to focus my world view and my feelings about certain things, social, political, religious.
Interviewer: And then there is the matter of the dub poet label which you’re not comfortable with,as you’ve said in the past. So basically you’re happy being defined as a poet.
Mutabaruka: Just a poet yes, because, you know, dub is not in, but the poet is still in. Because originally, I think it was Linton [Kwesi Johnson] who said that he saw the deejays at the time like Big Youth, U-Roy… So the dub was the genre of music that was popular. It was like a version to the tune; on the flipside there was the version. So the engineer was the chief architect of a dub riddim. So the deejay rhymed over that dub. But for the dub poet the poems he writes are not necessarily focused on rhythms, but on contents. It’s not the music that’s pushing the poem, it’s what he’s saying. So the dub poet is more focused on what’s being said rather than on what the rhythm is doing, as opposed to the deejay, who is also a poet, but the deejay is concerned with rhyming. So he’s contented with moving to the beat. With the poet, the beat is moving to his words. The first move of the poet is the word. The first move of the deejay is the riddim. So the poet tends to be more socially, politically aware of certain situations and the music frames it in a way that is not necessarily rhythamatic. I can be rhythamatic. We can go on rhythms and move to the rhythm and ride poems to the rhythm, but, as I said, most of the time, the poems are written before the rhythm.
Interviewer: How did you make the move from being a page-poet to being a recording artiste ?
Mutabaruka: What happened was that, in the 1980s, Jimmy Cliff did a concert where he lived. I was just a poet reading poems and Mortimer Planno, he heard me reading poems and he suggested that I should be on that show. So I went with Jimmy Cliff’s band and I rehearsed that poem, “Everytime I Hear the Sound”. I rehearsed it with that band and then I went on stage and did it, and it was a total success. So I came back to Kingston, and Earl Chinna Smith, who was a leader for the band, he had a record company named High Times, and then I went to him ,and he recorded the poem. And it went up to the charts. It was the first dub poem to enter the pop charts in Jamaica. And then that propelled me as an artiste, as a reggae artiste, because after that poem, we did an album named Check It. We came out of Jamaica, we went to Cuba with Jimmy Cliff, and then after that we went to California. And outta that California show came touring; I started to tour, I went to Nigeria the year next. I started to tour America. That aided to shape it. That tune “Everytime I Hear De Sound” was my first published recording. I did record a poem before, but it wasn’t released. It was called “Where Me Belong”. That poem was produced by a brethren named Errol Thompson and it was arranged by a sister named Enright. She was a guitarist with a band named Truth, Larry McDonald’s band, the percussionist who used to play with Taj Mahal and Gil Scott-Heron. I did that poem in Harry J’s studio. That was my first recording in a studio. But this “Everytime I Hear De Sound” was what propelled me as a recording artiste.
I: The first poem in the First Poems collection is a piece entitled “Call Me No Poet or Nothing Like That”. Well, what’s wrong with the word “poet”, or what was wrong with that word when you wrote that poem ?
M: What happened was that I grew up in a situation where I did not know of any Caribbean poet. When I went to school I did not know that Caribbean people write poetry, because most of the poems that I know were from Shakespeare, Keats, Chaucer, Milton and these poets. So I rejected that because, you know, that is not connecting. I related poetry to Keats, Milton, Chaucer, and I would say that what I’m writing is not necessarily poetry because I did not go and study what is the basic way to write poems. My poems were just an expression of what I think and what I believe in. So, in writing that poem, “Call Me No Poet or Nothing Like That”, is just to rebel against poetry as it was seen in the context of English literature. The English literature poetry was what we know: I didn’t have anything else. We had Miss Lou [Louise Bennett] but nobody saw Miss Lou as a poet. She was seen as a folklorist, a comedian, but she was really a poet. So it was really a rejection of de British idea of poetry. Why should I write poems about flowers, birds, and all these things ? So we didn’t know anything about Caribbean literature. I never grew up studying Caribbean literature.
I: Another of your poems in that early collection is entitled “Nursery Rhyme Lament”.
M: Oh yeah, that’s a social commentary based on what we learn in school. Again, those nursery rhymes were not called poetry. They were called “nursery rhymes”. So in school we know them, we never really studied them. Every child in Jamaica just had to heartically know them. You never ever get a homework to go home and study a nursery rhyme: you just automatically know it. When we began to know them and becoming more conscious and aware of the stupidity, not the stupidity, but not understanding the connection they had with our reality, ‘ca maybe the guy who was writing it knew the idea that he had in his mind, but we didn’t, we just knew it as a nursery rhyme. So when I started to understand, getting conscious and everything, I said “What kind of stupidness are these people teaching us ?” without explaining what it is all about. We were able to just say it, off the tip of our tongue.. It was just a take off these things to say: “this is our reality. You know cow jump over the moon long time before man go to the moon”. So all these other things, this is my reality, you know, Beverley Hills, as opposed to the illusion of the nursery rhymes.
I: There are three poems in the First Poems collection which constitute a kind of trilogy about Afro-Caribbean cults: “Revive”, “Retrieve”, and “Reconcile”.
M: Well, that is me now going into retentions, you see. In that book you can see we started to get aware and conscious of certain other things outside of my normal education. So this Kumina, the ground vibrate, these things were memories that was when I was with me grandmother. I remember these places me and my grandmother used to go, and I’m starting to reflect on it now. This was part of the African rententiveness of it. So “hear the drumbeats echoing through the trees”, you know. All of these things is memories of when I was with my grandmother, and now becoming a part of that “drumbeat echoing through the trees”.
I: These poems are very different from poems such as “White Sound” or “It’s Not Good to Stay inna White Man Country Too Long”, which made you famous. I’ve read somewhere that “It’s Not Good…” had been inspired by the plight of West Indian immigrants in Britain…
M: That poem was inspired by Linton Kwesi Johnson. He had a poem entitled “England is a Bitch”, and I’m saying to meself from Jamaica, he’s from Clarendon actually, and I’m saying to meself, “If England is a bitch, why stay there ?”. So that was my … answer to “England is a Bitch”.
I: And how did he react to that “answer” ?
M: Well, him just say that dey know that ! ‘Ca I was interviewing him just the same way you’re interviewing me now, and I tell him “Linton, you know seh that poem was written because you talk about England is a bitch…”. Politically, he was a very strong political person in England. I am a Rasta, and him [was] a Communist, and I am saying “Our idea, Rastafari idea is Africa, repatriation”. His idea is to stay in England and fight it out. Yeah, that poem was an answer to that.
I: It’s a very powerful piece.
M: Well, it’s the first poem that I did that branded me a racist, ironically, in America. But it inspired a lot of Africans in Europe to go back to Africa, ‘ca I’ve been to Europe, and I’ve been to Africa, and a lot of youths there tell me that the first time they hear me say that poem in Germany or France, it made them think about dem country, and eventually end back to dem country. But in America, where people is not aware that Jamaica have a connection with England, when you say “white man country”, Americans have the presumptiousness to say that America is a white man’s country, and America is not a white man’s country ! It belongs to the Native Americans. So they take offence to it in America, mostly in America. But it carry me, you know. It helped to propel Mutabaruka the poet to show that this is a poet of a different thinking, that the political, Rastafari thinking is engrafted into the poetry, you know.
I: Another of your famous pieces is “Revolutionary Poets”.
M: “Revolutionary Poets” is a reaction to the 1960s. Eldridge Cleaver, Gil-Scott Heron, a lot of these revolutionaries left the revolution, and drugs out, like Jimmy Hendrix, Janis Joplin, drugs out. When I was coming up in the late 1960s, and I started to listen to these artists, they were very revolutionary, black or white, they were very revolutionary. Those were hippie days, the Black Panther movement, Eldridge Cleaver, a whole heap of them, drugs get them out, and Gil-Scott, he was the main one. When we look at their poetry, and what they were saying, and then look at heir life, as a youth, when I started to become revolutionary, I said “But how dem people become that way ?”, and I started to reflect on Jamaica’s situation, and I realised that a lot of leftists, Communists, dem was fighting against Marcus Garvey and Rasta. They were saying that Rasta is escapist. But when you look at the situation, is only Rastas leave, because most of these Marxists become a part of the system that is now seen as an oppressive system. So that poem was a reaction to that.
I: One of your poems, entitled “Dis Poem”, is about the relationship between the poet and the reader or listener.
M: Ironically, “Dis Poem” was just written in a way that I was just writing things, different aspects of the struggle, that I was confronted with, and I don’t like to write long poems, I can’t remember long poems. So I write “Dis Poem”, trying to make a collage of different aspects of the struggle, and it was getting too long, and I thought “I can’t write in that way, the poem will continue inna mi mind”. So I ended it that way:”Dis poem will continue in your mind”. It is me, it is actually me I’m talking to ! I’m talking to meself. It’s my mind I’m relating to. But I’m sending it out there because somebody have to be reading the poem. I’m surprised that a poem that I never really thought out, I never really think it out, has become one of my most popular poems. I’ve seen it remixed in House, Techno, I’ve seen it danced to by the National Dance Theatre Company, Rex Nettleford; I’ve seen it performed by different people all over the world. Some youth did it in House riddim, from Chicago, and it is my biggest-selling tune outside of Jamaica. What they did was to take the words and make a beat to it, and since then I’ve had about seven different remixes of “Dis Poem” by different people all over the world, Israel, Germany, England, America, South Africa, so much different remixes… As I said, NDTC made a dance out of it without the music; that was something to see.
I: Now, “Dis Poem” reminds me of another of your poems which “continues in your mind” after you’ve stopped reading it. It’s entitled “Siddung Pon de Wall a Watch Him a Watch Me”. It’s obviously about social issues, the two Jamaicas facing each other.
M: Yeah, it’s a paranoid system in which poor people believe that everything rich people have was stolen from poor people, and rich people believe that everything they have, poor people want it. So there’s a paranoia, schizophrenia happening in the society where I am watching you and he is watching me and no-one is getting anywhere, you know. It’s a paranoia poem: who’s watching who, where am I in the whole scheme of things.
I: Another of your poems was inspired by a well-known rock steady number by Prince Buster, “Judge Dread”, and is entitled “The People’s Court”.
M: Yeah, that’s my biggest-selling record in Jamaica. There’s a Part I and a Part II, one about politicians and one about religion.
I :So where does Prince Buster fit into the dub poetry scheme of things ? Was he an inspiration ? Because what he did in the 1960s in a way prefigured what the deejays and dub poets did later on…
M: No, no, what happened was that there was a tune in the 1960s named “Judge Dread” against the bad man-dem at the time. He was singing against the rude boys. “The People’s Court” is the title of a court-on-TV programme. It’s an American show where they show the courthouse with normal people, real-life courthouse. So the title comes from that programme. And then I’m remembering ‘Judge Dread” when he was trying the rude boys, so I said I’ll use that riddim to update it now and do the people’s court and try the politicans. And it was so successful that in my thinking politics and religion is the main problems that we have. My thing was to go back into the studio and now talk about the religion, and about what religion is doing to the people. The two a dem was a hit. It was actually banned at the time in Jamaica.
I: Moving on to another aspect of your career. For 16 years now you’ve been hosting a very popular show on Irie FM called “The Cutting Edge”. What led to start that show at the time ?
M: Well, the radio station asked me to do a programme. I’m a collector of a whole heap of different music, so they wanted someone who could play reggae from around the world, different reggaes and African musical styles. So when I went there, inna my thinking, I couldn’t just sit down for three hours and just play pure reggae and say nothing. So in playing the music I started to talk and eventually the talking become what was driving the show, rather than the music. So I started to talk and to give my opinion about Rasta, about politics, about anything, and it became a talk-show, rather than a music show. So it became the only show on that station that was not playing pure music, plus I introduced African music in the shwo, ’cause there was no programme in Jamaica that delved into African music. So I started to play African music, reggae music and poetry, and just talk.So eventually now the talking become the main thing because people started to respond to what I was saying.
I: So what are your objectives with this show ? What are you trying to do ? What is your ultimate goal?
M: My ultimate goal is to bring a certain perspective to the African mind inna Jamaica and the world, to recognise the African-centred perspective of themselves, to realise that Africa as we know it in school is not the Africa that is real, and we must be, like Marcus Garvey say, if you are more confident in yourself, you are twice more fitted in the race of life. What we try to do in all aspects of we life is through the art, through the daily living, through how we talk, through how we look, through how we perform, we try to bring that African-centred perspective to the people. So anywhere you go and you ask the people about Mutabaruka, they will tell you :”Bwai, dat bredren into African ting all right”. We no eat certain things, we no wear certain clothes, and we is Rasta. And this was never proclaimed and publicly even on the radio, like we’ve been doing over the past 16 years. We’re trying to show a perspective of Rastafari that is not necessarily heard on the radio in Jamaica. We bring a certain sensibility to Rastafari and a different kind of manifestation to Rastafari.So my intention is to really awaken the conscience and the consciousness of the people. What can I do to make people more aware of themselves and what dem supposed to do as African people inna Jamaica ?
I: So you see yourself as some kind of educator, or a teacher.
M: Well I see myself as a person who lives a certain way and, if it can bring about a certain change, we say give thanks. We live we life a certain way, you know. When we talk, when we walk, when we speak, when we eat, when people look at we, we don’t divert, we are not a artist and something else. What is my art is what is me; so I don’t separate what I say in my poetry and how I live my life, and people understand that. From tha radio programme people realised that Mutabaruka on the radio programme and Mutabaruka walking down the street is the same Muta, you know. We don’t change we language, change we wordsound fe suit the radio ear. The way we talk on the stage is the same we talk to people, so it’s not like we putting on one t’ing here and doing a next t’ing here, so we try to make people aware that we can live a certain way and be who you want to be, and still be successful, still be who you are. You don’t have to change to be somebody else to be who you is.
I: Over the last sixteen years you must have had quite a few hostile reactions to the show…
M: Yeah, because we come ‘pon the radio unapologetically and tell people “We no believe inna Jesus” and Jesus is really something embedded in the minds of the people inna Jamaica. So fe hear live upon the radio a man a-talk against this idea of Jesus is unheard of in Jamaica. So they invite we upon television programmes to defend weself and they invite theologians, scholars, but we still hold we own, so… People don’t like hear that. The youth-dem, it make di youth-dem t’ink, but if you are a old-time person, fe hear a man upon the radio a tell people “Bwai, right now, there never was a man named Jesus”, it’s a lot fe him fe consider that ! When dem tell you about Africa and dem tings deh, is lie dem a tell, you know. Cause Egypt inna Africa, cause when I was a youth I never know that Egypt was in Africa, and if you go around and ask ‘nough people, dem still no figure out seh … So if you come pon di radio and really say these things, people call the radio station ! In the early days, one Sunday morning, I was on the radio and I remember this ting kinda say “You cannot put a Bob Marley picture inna di houise and a Jesus picture” because he meant that Bob Marley was more important to him. Dem call the radio station and say “What kind of thing is that on a Sunday morning and you have somebody like that on the radio. But now people grow fe kind a respect the programme, ’cause, you know, it’s the most popular programme on the radio at that time of the night. After sixteen years of having this programme, we can see it helped a lotta youths, because youths when we started out used to go a school, and dem just come back now and dem say when dey was at school dey used to listen when dem a do the homework and it helped dem through dem time.
I: There’s another side of your career: after Muta the dub poet, Muta the radio show host, there is Muta the record producer. In the 1980s you were involved in two projects which consisted in recording dub poets and women poets: Woman Talk and Word Sound and Power.
M: Yes, that was Heartbeat Records. I was the first person that carried Jean Breeze to the studio. In those days I was with that company named Heartbeat and the poetry was more live at that time. The record company actually asked me to produce a album with poets. So they gave me the money to do it, so I did it. So it was the Word Sound and Power, and it was very good, so they came back again and I did this Woman Talk album that included Miss Lou on it. She did “Dutty Tough” and “Colour Bar”. And I tell her “You know, you are the first dub poet !” and she was really pleased tha ta youth like me could carry her to the studio and recognise her work Cause she had heard about Mutabaruka but to know that Mutabaruka could recognise her work and carry her to the studio with young musicians… and she ride the riddim wicked ! She ride the riddim wicked, man !
I: Yes, the late Mikey Smith said that Miss Lou was the godmother of dub poetry ! A few years ago, you were involved in another project which consisted in recording reggae artists this time, The Gathering of the Spirits.
M: Oh yeah, with Joseph Hill, Big Youth, [The Mighty] Diamonds, Hortense Ellis. The record company, Shanachie, asked me to do it, so I went to these different artists and I wanted them to do specifically certain songs. It turned out quite well you know, ’cause we got big top musicians.
And then the one I did was “What about the land ?” based up on Chief Seattle. Some of the words were from Chief Seattle. This was the Chief who said “How can you buy what is not yours ?” and if you decide that you will take the land, remember the trees, remember the rivers. So it was some of his words that I used on this poem.
I: One final question: what can we expect from Mutabaruka in the future ?
M: We’re doing a lot of touring. Since the year started we’ve been to Holland, we’ve been to London, we’re going to go to South Africa. So it’s alot of touring.
I: Any new record planned ?
M: Yes, we’re doing an album with South African musicians. It’s the first of my albums without Jamaican musicians, except for Dean Fraser. Dean Fraser is on that one. Its’ called Life and Lessons. It’s not released yet, but you can look out for it.