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A Magazine for Sheffield
Live / stage review

Linton Kwesi Johnson & Danae Wellington at Off The Shelf 2022

A veteran of politically-charged British poetry plays to a packed house at Firth Hall for Off The Shelf. All truth – no dubs.

22 October 2022 at
Linton kwesi johnson

Linton Kwesi Johnson

Poetry is alchemy. In the academic setting of Firth Hall, as part of the city’s Off The Shelf Festival of Words, tonight’s support is Danae Wellington, Sheffield’s next Poet Laureate. Wellington’s poetry is magical and real, full of revelation in surprising places. In particular I was sent by the slow measure of the coolly repeated line, “A fat black girl walks,” which achieved a kind of transcendence.

Poetry is news. Linton Kwesi Johnson’s albums, created in collaboration with the producer Dennis Lovell, sound as fresh and direct today as they did when they were recorded almost half a century ago. His bulletin' poetry – the experience of young black people in the UK synthesised by Johnson’s British-Jamaican patois – expertly threaded through Lovell’s forensically-designed dub productions. The needle in the groove.

Danae wellington

Danae Wellington

Tonight is a spoken word performance by Johnson alone and I admit I was worried what power would be taken away without a band. But the poems function as documents, alternatives to the “gutter press” as Johnson describes it. They’re riveting records of what happened and they’re delivered with a voice that contains multitudes: the bass-like deep notes of his voice; the marching band rhythm of his rhymes, his command of pace, of knowing when to stop, when the poem says to go. He describes his voice as dodgy following a cold, but the words sing bright and he holds a packed venue in the palm of his hand.

Without the band the poetry plays out in more directions. ‘Sonny’s Lettah’ tonight pulls its horror from the nursery rhyme-like phrasing of its description of police violence: “Jim start to wriggle, the police start to giggle...” ‘Di Great Insohreckshan’ is preceded by a bitter, furious introduction, which, in breaking down the timeline of the New Cross house fire that saw Yvonne Ruddock and 14 other young black people die as a result of an incendiary attack by fascists, is as sharp as his hat’s brim.

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