Back in the late 70s and early 80s, two genres of political music came together – punk and reggae. Starting out with punk in ’77, I was introduced to what I believe was the high tide of reggae through the likes of Don Letts, The Clash, Mikey Dread, John Lydon. At that time there was an overt racism in the UK; when seeing The Stranglers, the support act was the Birmingham reggae band Steel Pulse. When they took to the stage large groups of the crowd began singing, ‘Gimme a Banana’.
But despite this, artists such as Burning Spear, Culture, Gregory Isaacs, Black Uhuru, Prince Far I, Big Youth, raised the consciousness of many punks about black history. Linton Kwesi Johnson in particular spoke about the discrimination faced by black people in the UK and wrote a poem about Walter Rodney.
It was only later when I began to look at what lay beneath such musical history that I read such people as Franz Fanon (Wretched of the Earth), James Baldwin (The Fire Next Time), then when studying for an M.A. in African Studies at SOAS, Walter Rodney who did his PhD there. Rodney’s most renowned work concerned the way in which the West, through colonialism and thereafter, was responsible for the under-development of poor countries, predominantly in Africa. But Rodney, was unusual, for as an academic, he was hugely popular and as leader of The Working People’s Alliance, influential politically in his place of birth Guyana.
Malika Booker shows this in her elegiac, deeply moving poem, Lament for the Assassination of Comrade Walter Rodney: ‘Each time, they remember the car, burnt, charred/they know their father won the last debate’. The poem takes us through five stages (like grief) –
The News: ‘guts screwed with news that their father dead’,
Procession: ‘That day a donkey cart tote his coffin’,
Prayer: ‘Oh they father dead, leave them to their grief’,
Salute: ‘That day poets strangled words and the world wept’,
His Wife: ‘That day her bridge collapsed’.
It shows how his family and people of Guyana had ‘their Kingdom ruined, their world forever marred,/as knees are bent under this heavy weight’, when he was assassinated. It was most likely done by the political establishment of the time who were against the way in which he spoke up for the impoverished people of the country. I’m not sure how many academics one can reference who had such an impact, and Malika’s beautiful lament puts that into perspective.
Here is Malika speaking at the Mumbai Literature Festival in Oct/Nov 2014
Malika is the sole reason I began to read and write poetry back in 2012 when I took her module as part of my M.A. in Creative Writing at the University of Westminster.
Malika Booker is a British poet of Guyanese and Grenadian Parentage and the founder of Malika’s Poetry Kitchen. Her collection Pepper Seed was published by Peepal Tree Press (2013) and longlisted for the OCM Bocas 2014 prize. Pepper Seed was also shortlisted for the Seamus Heaney Centre 2014 prize for first full collection. She received her MA from Goldsmiths University and was recently awarded the Cultural Fellowship in Creative Writing/ Literary Art post at Leeds University. Malika was the first British poet to be a fellow at Cave Canem and the inaugural Poet in Residence at the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Lament for the Assassination of Comrade Walter Rodney
June 23rd 1980
1: The News
The home was cold;
a mother, brother, sister, sat empty,
guts screwed with news that their father dead.
They say he body parts scatter all across Bent street,
they say like Seth scatter Osiris across black tar.
That day a donkey cart tote his coffin
to the graveside. There was curfew,
but who hitched lift, who walked in hot sun,
who jumped into hire-taxi or old bus,
whipped donkey, or drove car,
through tears and sweat in backra sun?
They say how crows cover the place like plague,
when the bomb blow up that poor man car.
Oh they father dead, leave them to their grief,
their Kingdom ruined, their world forever marred,
as knees are bent under this heavy weight.
Oh they father dead, may he rest in peace.
Each time, they remember the car, burnt, charred,
they know their father won the last debate.
If you did see people! Police, guns cocked
and ready to fire, had to stand back
as swelling footsteps cracked the highroads.
That day poets strangled words and the world wept.
That night placards cuff down politicians,
Who will speak for us now?
Who will raise up the corrupt skirts of the rich
and show us their panties?
That night his bones tossed and turned in the coffin.
That night there was no moon. There was no moon.
5. His Wife
His wife became a cactus
that day she dragged her body
across the cut grass
It was the arch of the words
“husband, dead, bomb”.
That day her bridge collapsed,
wooden planks hurled
towards the violent water
churning in the drop below.