Afropop's David Katz and Saxon Baird interviewed Oku Onuora Feb. 10, 2015, in Jamaica, following Oku’s poetry reading at the University of the West Indies, Mona, as part of an event celebrating the life and work of noted poet and academic, Mervyn Morris.
Oku Onuora: My name is Oku Onuora, Jamaican poet, dub poet to be exact.
Tell us about the community you grew up in.
I was born in 1952 [and] I grew up in eastern Kingston, a place called Brown’s Town, in an area called Dunkirk, and it was a working-class community. There were very sharp lines between JLP and PNP, but during that time, there was a movement taking place, led by the Rastafarian movement, and it was anticolonial. And this came out of the whole environment that was taking place, the environment of the time where in the Caribbean, in the U.S., in Africa, there was anticolonial movement[s] taking place, there were former colonies [that] were striving for independence. So it was a very interesting period, where Jamaica, although a very small island, had influence because of the politics of the island. Rastafari added to that, the Black Power movement was at its peak at the time. So that’s how I grew up, that kind of climate, in the '60s. You had people like Walter Rodney, who had come to Jamaica at one time, and historically, the Jamaican people are very rebellious, and throughout the history of the Jamaican people we have seen this…like numerous rebellions and people even exporting the whole ideology of black consciousness, people like Marcus Garvey. We see Boukman [from Haiti], for example…even in Latin America, we see Simon Bolivar coming to Jamaica. So Jamaica has always been an influential place, and the struggle to topple apartheid in South Africa, Jamaica was there in charge, in the forefront, very vocal about the thing. So that’s the kind of climate I grew up in.
You said that in the area you grew up in, there was very strong division between JLP supports and PNP supporters. When were you aware of the division becoming so defined, and why do you think it was like that in your area?
Well, all right, one needs to remember that the mass[es], the people, working-class people are who really decide [who] the next party in power [will be]. They are the majority, and in order to secure votes, there’s a scramble to get as much votes as possible, so you find areas are divided along political lines, in terms of securing votes. And it was crucial. In fact, you had entire areas that were PNP or JLP. In fact, where I grew up in eastern Kingston, it was predominantly a PNP area. Michael Manley was the MP for the area that I grew up in, in east Kingston; in fact, it’s still a PNP stronghold, and on the border, down south, other areas like Rae Town and these places were strongly JLP, so there was a distinct[ion]. And that’s Kingston. Kingston’s a small place, it’s just like crossing the road [to enter another district], so there were sharp divisions.
So that was the case in the '60s, and still is the case now?
Yeah. That’s still the case, it has not changed. What has actually changed dramatically is that, prior to now, like in the 60s, the “Area Dons,” the strongmen, the enforcers, who were loyal to a particular political party, [they] were more controlled by the party. And after that, like the '80s, '90s, we saw a dramatic shift where these “Area Dons,” because of involvement in ganja, for example, in exportation of ganja, the migration to United States of America, in particular…because prior to that, you had migration mainly to the U.K., but then in the U.S., it took on a whole new different turn. But these people still kept their political alliance, because it gave them a secure base, but then they became more independent of the political representative of the area. So we see Tivoli Gardens, for example, we see other places, which are strongly aligned to a particular political party, but yet still, the people in control, the Dons, for example, don’t take talk from political representatives. They are more independent.
So there was a shift in the '80s, and part of that was because prominent enforcers had gone to America and gotten involved in the drug trade?
Most definitely. Not “because”—that is what took place. The enforcers, the trade, the illegal trade have managed to acquire wealth, and once they acquired wealth…there was a new breed also. They were savvy businessmen, and we see that, without calling any names, not any one particular name…from both sides, we see people who became wealthy businessmen who secured huge government contracts. So the whole landscape had changed, totally. It became more sophisticated, it became more international as opposed to being Jamaican, confined to Jamaica.
You say that the politicians no longer had the same control over the people they had built a relationship with, necessarily.
No, but, I mean, the people would still…because these strongmen, these Dons, still kept the alliance to the particular party, because of kickbacks and all them kind of thing there, loyalty. So therefore, they would ensure the vote for the politician, but then, they were more independent, in fact [on] a number of occasions, they became a threat to the political representative, on both sides. It has been rumored that some of these strongmen were murdered, were assassinated by whichever political side they were affiliated to.
Let me ask you about your own experience. You mentioned in your reading that you’d gone to prison at a young age, so I wonder if you can talk about the circumstances of you going to prison and what happened from there.
I have never considered myself a criminal. From a very young age I was extremely furious at what I saw around me, not just in Jamaica, [but] globally, [with] sufferation and all of that. And I, from a very young age, had the urge, this burning desire to see a system where people lived in poverty, where people were hungry, where people were literally homeless, was toppled, because I didn’t really see any need for that. And I still do believe that, like there’s enough to go around. When you look at the percentage of people who own the wealth of the world, it’s mind-boggling. When we look at people who live in areas that are rich in natural resources, yet they do not benefit from it, when we look at the deliberate destruction of cultures, because of the greed, because of economical greed, it gets me angry. So at a very early age, I really wanted to topple the system, and Rastafari was my beacon; through Rastafari I was able to channel my energy in a more positive way. But [I was] very, very, rebellious. And even now, I still don’t believe that words or poetry can really change a system. It can bring about consciousness, but what it takes is concrete political action.
And so from a very early age I realized that, and my mentor, a brethren by the name of Ras Negus, he spoke a lot about the pan-African movement, and liberation struggles in Africa, and that which was taking place in nearby Latin America. By then, Cuba had actually fought for their independence, so I was inspired by people like Che [Guevara], by people like Samora Machel, and I saw myself as a revolutionary person, wanting to topple the system. And I found myself in an environment where the people were very progressive in that they had a school—we had a school called Tafari in eastern Kingston, where we provided alternative education, because we realized that it was via education also that people were enslaved. So Negus was the one who actually was the pioneer of that. We started a school called Tafari and it was an alternative school, but what we did was to keep it after the regular school, because we did not want to be accused of taking children from out of school, so we had our school, like evening school and we change the alphabet, Africanized the alphabet so it would be A for Africa, B for Bongo, C for Congo, D for Dahomey and all that, and we taught African history and all that sort of thing. After that school session, we’d have discussions about what was taking place across the region, about what was taking place in Africa, and in America, ‘cause you remember at the time the Black Power movement was vibrant in America and we were heavily influenced by the black movement in America also.
And being the kind of person I am, very rebellious, I just wanted to topple Babylon physically. We had the school, we had a kind of first-aid thing, where we treat sores, we dress sores, we had young student doctors from the University of the West Indies [that] would come to Dunkirk, assist in diagnosing, giving assistance. We had brothers also who were not in the medical field, but who came and assisted us in our educational program and all of that. [But] that couldn’t hold me. And so at one stage I decided to liberate some funds, and so I was involved in the liberation of some funds from the post office. I was eventually arrested and charged for armed robbery, was found guilty, sent to prison.
While in prison I refused to become a part of that army of futureless youths, who were marching towards a futureless future—I refused to become a part of that. So I decided that I would educate myself to become a journalist and I actually started a correspondence course, ICS, International Correspondence course, which was based in Miami. I started to write poetry, because I needed a way to express myself, to release that anger, because by then I had escaped twice—I escaped from custody twice. Twice in my life I ended up as “Most Wanted in Jamaica.” The first time I escaped was when I was ordered to stand trial in the next session of the Home Circuit Court, and I escaped from custody; [on] the front page of the Star, the story was, “Daring escape of prisoner.” Then the second time I escaped was after I got sentenced and I appealed the conviction and sentence and I escaped a second time. I was shot and recaptured after that. On the second occasion, and I decided with my mother, because I realized I was hurting my mom a lot, and she stood by me…we made a deal that she said, “Yo, we’ll do the sentence,” and she kept her word, she looked after me, she came to visit me every time. In fact I didn’t take any visit from anyone except my mother.
When did the robbery take place?
The robbery took place like around 1970, ‘71.
How easy was it for you to get a gun at that time and where did you get it?
Guns, we would actually acquire guns from robbing people with guns, basically, and there were a few people who you could actually get a gun to buy from. It’s always been, not easy, but in the underworld these things are available. But guns were acquired from burglary, from disarming people like security guards, or even the police.
How long of a sentence did you get?
Originally I was sentenced to four-15 years in prison, and 10 lashes, and I appealed sentence and I was given four-10 years and two lashes, I eventually served seven years between jail, escaping and doing time, and it was in 1977 that I was reprieved by the governor general, my sentence went unfinished, because of my poetry in prison, and my work…about poetry. When I went to Spanish Town District Prison, there was no library, the library wasn’t functioning. We made the first…get the library up and running, there wasn’t any educational program as such, in the prison. The conditions were filthy. In fact, when I went to prison, the penal institution, the laws that govern it was from colonial days. In fact, when there was a reform in the penal institution, the person who introduced the bill for penal reform was Carl Rattray, he was then the minister of justice, and in introducing the bill in Parliament, he called my name; then my name was Orlando Wong, and he said, “There’s a young man in prison.”
So during my time while my book…I had to smuggle out my poems. In fact I spoke early on about entering poems in a literary competition, these poems were smuggled out, but by that time I had the links with some people like Barbara Gloudon, Leone Forbes, so I become like a public figure in prison, so that they had to be very careful to what they were doing. In fact, I sat before two inquiries in prison, first the Barnett Commission of Inquiry, then the Farquharson Commission of Inquiry, and these inquiries came about after there were riots in the prison, because of the conditions in the prison. So the Barnett Commission of Inquiry came about because there was a riot that started in St. Catherine District Prison, and spread through the entire prison. I was one of the brothers who, we formed a committee; one person talked about sports, one talked about education, so forth and so on. We presented our case to the Barnett Commission of Inquiry and later on there was another inquiry, which was came about because of another prison riot, an all-island prison riot, and then there was the Farquharson Commission of Inquiry.
At some point, you gave a performance in the prison?
Yes, while I was in prison, my first presentation…while I was in prison, I did performances. Light of Saba [band] came there once, one year, and I performed. The brothers in prison, [were] like, “Yow! You’ve got to perform.” Because I’d write my poems and I’d read them to the brothers in hell—prison that is—so when Light of Saba came in for a concert, I was urged to recite some of my poems with Light of Saba playing, so that whole process of dubbing began from way back then. That was, like, in 1975, ‘76.
And you did that spontaneously?
Spontaneously. And then in 1977, through Mervyn Morris, Mervyn Morris organized my first public reading which took place at the Tom Redcam Avenue Library, this was the headquarters of the Jamaican Library Service and the reading was organized by Pen International, [the] Jamaican [branch of PEN]. And this was the first time that something like that had happened.
So had you been released by then?
No, I wasn’t released, in fact I did several readings while I was still in prison, although there was no parole, it had not changed. So what I was doing kind of helped, contributed to the changes that took place. When I say helped, in [the sense] that the lawmakers used me as an example to argue that changes was necessary in that sense.
Can we go back to when you were younger and you were talking about, you had this anger and you wanted to...is there a memory that sticks out in your head in those early years of when you first really saw the oppression that you were feeling, or the things that made you angry?
Most definitely. I learned a lot from my mother. My mother would give a lot; my mother was a very caring soul. So when I was walking with my mother, if my mother saw a homeless person, my mother would inquire of their state and she’d try to assist. And she was angry, my mother was angry in a very quiet way. So that’s how I became aware, through my mother, through the way my mother responded to the suffering that she saw. She was a factory worker, a hardworking woman, [and] I was the only child until I was 15 years old, before she got pregnant again. So I was privileged as opposed to my friends, because I was an only child. And my grandmother and my mother really were the ones who grew me and so I would consider myself to be extremely lucky. I didn’t wear like patch-bottom pants and old clothes and all those kinds of things there. So because of that also, I saw things, yes, because I was like, “Wow, you’re lucky.” So it made me even more aware of the suffering of others because I, myself, although from a working-class family and living in a working-class area, I would consider myself privileged. I was even saying to my sister the other day that we had television before a lot of people, and my friends would come and we’d put the television out on the veranda and we’d watch television. So I was aware of the disparity from a very early age, because of my situation.
I’ve read a lot about how prison, in a strange way sometimes, might act as a way for someone from the JLP side or neighborhood, and someone from the PNP side, they’d come together in prison because they both got arrested for something, and they’d realize, “Wait a minute, this is stupid...”
Most definitely. Although in prison, some people still maintained that strong partisan flavor, prison was a place where barriers were broken down. So you had a brother from a JLP and a PNP area being friends. In fact, I would have been considered a PNP supporter, and I have friends who are from Tivoli Gardens, a JLP stronghold, and all of that. But I’ve never really seen, I’ve never really taken a strong political stance, a partisan political stance, as such. But of course, prison did bring brothers together. In fact, after they were released they kept that bond. During the time of election campaigning, then lines were drawn, but outside of that, they’d meet and greet each other.
So after you were released and you begin to record, one song that’s something of a landmark, a poem and a song, is “Reflection in Red.” So I’d like to hear about how you began to record, who you were working with and what that particular poem or song is actually about.
I’ve always wanted to record my works. Upon my release, I wanted to record something, and I choose “Reflection in Red,” because “Reflection in Red” is not from Echo, the collection I read from extensively this evening. “Reflection in Red” was written at the time when there was a peace truce in Jamaica, when the rival political factions decided to have a truce and they had a concert, and I wrote the poem “Reflection in Red” because I didn’t really see any real peace until there was equal rights and justice, and so I wrote “Reflection in Red.” In fact, I read “Reflection in Red” on the One Love Peace Concert that was held at the national stadium and in fact I got a little flack for that quietly, because here on a peace concert I am saying, “There can be no peace, no peace, until there’s equal rights and justice.”
I decided against the wishes and advice of others. people were saying, “Recall ‘Dread Times,’” people knew “Dread Times” from Echo and from the early days, people knew poems like “Pressure Drop,” people knew poems like “Echo.” But I wanted to make a statement, because to me, it’s not the popularity of the poem, to me it’s what needs to be said at the time. So that statement was needed to be made. I’ve always been an independent artist, from my debut single to my debut album. Being an independent artist is not because I don’t want to be produced by anyone else, or to control my own work, which is a reflection of my belief. I believe in self-reliance and I preach self-reliance and I’m, like, Yow! What better example than to do?
So my being an independent producer, producing my music independently is a reflection of what I believe in. In the past, what I do when I have a particular project to work on, I look around and I select musicians, I choose the musicians I wish to work with. “Reflection in Red,” I approached Steve Golding, and Steve Golding is a musician, a guitarist extraordinaire, he worked with Bob Marley for a while, and for “Reflection in Red.” But by and large my works are independently produced. I use strictly original rhythms, [and] I deviate from that on that album that came out in 2013 called A Movement, where I did Bob Marley’s “Running Away” with Monty Alexander, that album is a kind of experimental album because I revisited some poems that I had recorded without music before an audience, and I can [do] anything because it’s my thing. It shows the versatility of the work. It was done in a period when I didn’t have anything doing and I just recorded it when I had time. It sat there for about 13 years before it was released, A Movement.
Getting back to “Reflection in Red,” there’s a line in there, “It’s written on the wall, free Michael Bernard.” Can you talk the listeners through, what was that about?
Back in the day, wall slogans were used extensively to voice the displeasure of the people. So there was a brother by the name of Michael Bernard who was doing a life sentence and there were wall slogans, “Free Michael Bernard.” So it added color to the piece, henceforth, “It’s written on the wall, free Michael Bernard, down with capitalism.” These are wall slogans.
What was he serving time for? Was he ever released?
Murder. And he was released. He was given a governer general’s pardon eventually. The murder happened when he was very young and I can’t remember details of it right now. But it was a big issue and it spawned an outcry and a demand for his release, and he was eventually released.
And what about the song on the other side of that first single?
You’re talking about the 12-inch, “I A Tell.” “I A Tell” is a poem, “I a tell/I a tell/I a tell no tale.” Because “Reflection in Red” first came out as a 45 on the 56 Hope Road label and 56 Hope Road is the address of Tuff Gong studios at the time, [where] the [Bob Marley] Museum [is] now. Then in England I released a 12-inch, “Reflection in Red” and “I A Tell,” and “I A Tell” is simply saying that what I’m saying is no tale, is no fairy tale, it no talk bout Hansel and Gretel, it’s reality. “I A Tell” is simply saying, “Listen well to what I have to tell because what I’m telling is no tale, I’m telling of reality.”
After your release, were you able to just concentrate on your poetry and on recording or did you also have to find ordinary work?
You know, I’ve never really found ordinary work. I’m not an ordinary person, I’ve never found ordinary work. Yet, I do not rely totally on my poetry and entertainment because in recent times, for 10 years I took a leave from performing and doing interviews. You catch me at a good time. For 10 years I did not do any interviews. I would refuse interviews, no care where you came from—BBC, BET—and I seldom do interviews because I hate to do interviews…I am more comfortable in the streets. I’m still in the streets, and I’m in the streets because I don’t need no credentials. I don’t need to be verified, I mean, by academia or by whosoever. It’s the people, when I’m in the streets, and I’m in the streets daily. When I’m not in my bunker, when I am not in Area 798 and I’m out there and in the streets, my greatest thing is to reason with youths in the community where I live. My thing is to talk to youth about getting an education and getting a skill, assisting them in any which way. That’s my passion. My thing is not to go on stage. I’m really serious. It’s like, I’m very shy.
In this program we try to look at the relation between music and politics in Jamaica and to understand better these partisan divisions, and the violence, and how all these things relate to each other. We’ve had different testimony and a lot of different views, and some people have talked about politicians misusing songs that were recorded, appropriating them for their own purposes.
Most definitely, it has happened. I mean, like, Michael Manley, for example, using that song about Joshua, with the rod—he even carried a rod. Musicians in the past have aligned themselves to political parties because they come from a particular political area. So this isn’t anything new. And you also have politicians using songs in whichever way they so choose and literally putting the safety of the artist in jeopardy. Because if a political party choose to use a particular song in their political campaign, then that artist is seen as aligned to that political party.
Where it concerned social behavior and all them kind of thing there, music as a whole influence…I mean, people say, “Oh, music don’t influence people,” but it does. Especially reggae music… especially reggae music whe them call “dancehall.” It carries some weight in our society. Music, poetry, art in general informs the people, it reflects the mood of the people. Artists are oftentimes the heartbeat and the pulse of the people, they carry the message of the people. And the influence…because music, poetry, art, appeal to emotional senses, and when something appeals to the emotional senses, it can incite. So it’s only natural. And then we have a culture where music informs us, where we take cues from our music, henceforth it plays an important role in politics in our sociopolitical landscape. It does, it does. Even without one consciously, as an artist, doing that, it influences, it informs the whole thing.
In your work, you’ve used different forms of music to set your poetry to, and you’ve done various experimental things with dub itself, not only in dub poetry, but actually just with dub itself. So I wondered if there’s anything you’re working on now, whether in recording or in writings, that we need to be alerted to.
Yeah, I just recorded “Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow,” that poem I read when I opened up. Wicked dub rhythm, wicked, wicked, dub rhythm. Normally I create rhythm and do my thing on my original rhythms, but in recent years, people have approached me with rhythms and music is music, and if it catches my attention, I will record on it. So I recorded “Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow.” That will be coming out on vinyl in a short while. In fact, there’s two vinyl projects: “Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow,” which is a poem that was written almost 40 years ago, and a piece called “Fuel For Fire.”
I’m not normally a current writer, like an instant happen and people jump on the bandwagon, but what took place in the U.S. recently with the verdict of the grand jury in the Michael Brown case and the Garner case, and everybody was talking about the whole thing, and I have a poem called “Fuel For Fire,” in fact I have a collection of poems called Fuel For Fire, but I don’t have a poem called “Fuel For Fire,” so I decided to call this piece “Fuel For Fire,” another piece that will be available on vinyl, hardcore dub style. So that’s what ones and ones seem to be looking for. And this year, shortly I will start to work on my next studio album; I haven’t done that for a while, so I’ll be working on my next studio album, starting to work on it shortly. People should look out for “Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow.” I believe the label is called Akashic, from out of the U.S.
Akashic is a book publisher?
Yeah, but they are into music too, a guy called Michael. They are doing some vinyl stuff, in fact, in recent [times] they have been involved in some vinyl release. And you know, the whole thing with the vinyl is taking a new life, as you see. I have to mention it here, because them talk ‘bout generation gap, but we a talk ‘bout generation link. At the moment, we are talking about generation link, the whole upsurge in dub is offering an alternative to what is actually taking place. Like right now, it’s phenomenal what is taking place with that whole scene that is happening at the moment in Kingston with the Dub Club, Inner City Dub, Vinyl Thursdays and Jukebox [Fridays], Inna Di Yard. The music, it’s uplifting, it’s conscious, it’s entertaining, but at the same time it’s not degrading, demeaning, it’s not negative.
It’s positive and it’s a whole cultural movement, it’s not just the music. 'Cause when you go to these events, you will see things that are related to the exponents of the music, you know. You find artwork, you find arts and crafts, you find books, you find food. So what is happening now is a whole movement that is taking place and I love it. And as I said before, a generation link we a talk ‘bout, cause most of my brethren, I have brethren my age group, but most of the people that I roll with are some young people. My dudes are people like Exile the Brave, Micah Shemaiah, Protoje, Jawara Ellis. So what is happening now is a movement. As I said from the poem “A Movement”: It’s a movement underground/quiet like flow of currents below/Old Man River/turning rocks to pebbles/pebbles to sand,/sounds floating/whisper of silence/deafening. There’s a movement underground/ancient as Creation/pulsing with a beam/beating with a rhythm on the foot/stepping in time/freedom bound. And so that groundswell, we’re seeing it in the Kingston Dub Club and we’re seeing it in the Vinyl Thursdays, and we’re seeing it in the Inner City Dub. We’re seeing it that whole, in the young rebel lions them, rebellion. At the moment, people like Chronixx, with “Capture Land” We are seeing…yes...bless.