A Response to Linton Kwesi Johnson’s Call

By , and | 1 November 2019

How Do We Define Solidarity in the 21st Century?

It’s a great time to consider what solidarity means, and looks like, in the 21st Century. I’m honoured to submit one humble response, in the form of this text and as a recorded conversation set to dub. My hope is that you read it, listen to it and dance to it. You see, once I finished writing the text poem, I felt very uneasy about it: it is not a poem that I would prefer you to read before digesting this introduction, engaging with Linton Kwesi Johnson’s original poem and playing the dub sound poem that accompanies the text.

As the title of the text poem suggests, the text component borrows heavily from LKJ. For this reason, I have used red colour for my words and left his words in black. If you haven’t already heard the LKJ original, I would highly encourage you to find the poem online and have a listen. Please crank the volume and have a dance-listen-dance. It is a lovely way to warm up to reading my text response.

As I wrote my response to LKJ’s poem, I did so with the awareness that I was writing to the theme of contemporary solidarity, and yet the events which inspired LKJ occurred 40 years ago. I desperately wished to be privy to conversations about solidarity from that era. Would they be similar to the ones we are having now?

Yet, even if they were having similar conversations – since 1979 – all sorts of enduring external forces continue to impact upon social and political movements. The end of the Cold War and rapid developments in technology are just two significant events that shaped and changed the nature of protest and (international) solidarity. As I ƒwrote to the events of 1979, I constantly wondered about the relationship between technology, specifically social media, and contemporary acts of (international) solidarity and protest. How do we compare internet activism – the retweet, the share or the response to a contentious post – with Blair Peach’s direct action that turned violent and, ultimately, deadly?

We live in an era when South African students have internationalised a movement to decolonise education. The movement started with protests, sit-ins, teach-ins and demands to tear down statues and memorials that celebrate ‘old white men’ (read: colonisers or, perhaps, any white man?). In this era of ‘Rhodes Must Fall’, when we are still working out the scope of the terms of reference, what business do I have re/inscribing any white man into decolonial herstory in a poem that is supposed to express solidarity, no less? In other words, how does anyone navigate solidarity in a world filled with an ever-increasing number of social justice causes and movements?

At this point, I remembered Lilla Watson. She prefers that we credit this quote to her feminist collective:

If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time.
But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.

In pursuit of clarity and a response grounded in this context, I latched onto these words and approached my long-time collaborator, George Kanjere, to come on board. I specifically approached George for his music production skills, keen intellect and lived experience with protest. George is a former dubstep producer and current dub reggae producer. He releases music under the moniker Third Culture, and produces it at his studio, Black Jube Records, in Naarm. In 2016, George and I joined forces as a duo name, ‘ThirdZai’ (Third Culture and SistaZai). As ThirdZai, we released a dub poem called ‘God Is A Black Womban’ in solidarity with all Black women who have come into contact with the criminal justice system. This time, inspired by LKJ’s poem about Blair Peach, we decided that we would not release another dub poem, and we would not copy LKJ. We chose to release a dub sound poem instead.

George is a primary caregiver. We planned and recorded around and within family life. Over tea, lunch and snacks, in-between playing with his two daughters, checking on his garden and having chats with his partner, Anastasia. We work-shopped the poem and teased out some its ideas that are harder to articulate in text. We took those grand ideas and recorded a conversation about them. I had the honour of adding some dub effects. George then finalised the creation you hear.

A shout out to Ottie, his oldest daughter. She was playing with the equipment in his studio and, in the process, created an original version of the instrumental ThirdZai chosen for this poem. We grounded this collaborative effort in the Wurundjeri context, situating ourselves as displaced Black Africans living on stolen Black land.

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