Oku Onuora - The 'I've Seen' Interview
02/23/2019 by Angus Taylor
Of all the many stories of triumph over adversity in Jamaican music, pioneering dub poet Oku Onuora’s is by far the most extraordinary. His more dramatic-than-fiction life, as a revolutionary insurgent whose poems penned in prison eventually led to his release, is the story of a man and ideas which simply refused to be contained.
On leaving jail, Oku began working on a notion that had arisen while performing a prison concert with Cedric Brooks and the Light Of Saba: the fusion of poetry with dub music. In 1979 he issued Reflections In Red via Bob Marley’s 56 Hope Road label. In 1984 he created his first album Pressure Drop, recorded at Tuff Gong.
After taking a self-imposed break from performance in the 90s and early 2000s, Oku is writing and recording again. On February 22nd he releases a new album, I've Seen, featuring new poems over rhythms played by Switzerland’s Najavibes band. It could be an early contender for best album of the year.
Angus Taylor met Oku at Edna Manley College in Kingston, Jamaica, where Oku practiced the dramatic arts on release from prison. They sat under a tamarind tree, another significant place for Oku, a vegan since he was a teenager, and conducted this interview about his remarkable life and music.
You were born in Jubilee hospital in downtown Kingston and grew up in an East Kingston in a community called Dunkirk. You were very affected by the political situation of the time. How did you become involved in counter cultural movements?
Yes, just down the road from here. I was infuriated and frustrated by what was happening. At the time you had laws like the Vagrancy Law. Under the Vagrancy Act one could be arrested for being “a suspected person”. This act came about after so called “emancipation” and was used to keep the people who were just freed, for want of a better term, in check. These laws were to protect landowners. This is what the whole thing was for.
And police brutality was rampant. One might believe the police brutality is a 21st century thing, but no. In the 1960s when I was growing up the police would treat the average citizen in a very disrespectful and callous way. Youths were beaten, arrested with no regard for human rights, civil rights.
At the time the whole Black Power movement was taking place in the western section coming into the Caribbean. In the US, you had the Black Panther Party. And in Africa - so called Africa, I prefer to call it the Dark Continent – there was the Pan-African movement, the whole world liberation movement for independence, just like what was taking place on this side of the world.
So my heroes, my mentors were Che Guevara and Samora Machel. Because of that frustration and being young and arrogant, this just led me to object. I grew up in a family where my mother was always giving. She was always helping the less fortunate. So I grew up being concerned for people who were less fortunate. Whenever I saw someone sleeping on the sidewalk or going through hard times it would infuriate me. I would be extremely upset.
You've talked about the international revolutionaries you looked up to. Who were the elders who influenced you in Jamaica?
A brethren by the name of Negus. Brother Negus was an extraordinary person. Brother Negus was very fiery. He was a Pan-Africanist. He was a Garveyite. And what I found remarkable was initially he couldn't read. But he would have brothers read from books for him and he had a photographic memory. When you heard Negus quoting from these books one would be like “Wow”.
And Negus wasn't just about talk. Negus talked the talk and walked the walk - in that Negus was instrumental in starting a school called Tafari. There was Negus, and a brethren by the name of Righteous Bobby. I would hang out with brothers who were much older than me, and because of my outlook I gravitated towards brothers that were conscious. They were always speaking about political issues - not necessarily Jamaican issues. Issues internationally. Especially struggles taking place in Africa.
In a previous interview with me you used the phrase: you “liberated some funds” from a Post Office.
(Laughs) Yes! I've often described that phase in my life as a revolutionary adventure. We were running the school and I felt: why not take from the rich to give to the poor? So I got involved in some activities, liberating funds from the establishment. Because we weren’t about robbing the little man on the street or breaking into a shop or something like that.
You did several robberies – it was some time before you were caught.
Yeah. It was over a period of time. But after one particular robbery I was arrested.
You were sentenced to four 15 year sentences and 12 lashes. But you appealed against your sentence and had it reduced.
I appealed against my sentence on conviction and the sentence was reduced to for 10 years and two lashes.
But then you absconded twice.
Yes, I escaped from custody twice. My first escape made the front page of the Star. “Daring escape of prisoner”. Because I was being escorted to the lock up by a police officer to be transferred over to the jail and I broke free and jumped through a three-storey window and took off.
And the second time you tried to escape you were shot by the police.
Yes, that was the second occasion. I was shot by the police and apprehended.
But you then decided that you were going to do your sentence.
I was really convinced by my mother. My mother loved me dearly. I call her “Ruba my love”. She came to visit me after I got shot up. I was taken out the hospital because I wasn't even well but then they claimed I tried to escape while I was in the hospital. So I went to GP [General Penitentiary] and I lost my appeal and I got two lashes. And she came to visit me one day with tears in her eyes and said “I can't take this. I can't take this any longer. It's killing me. Let's do it. I'll do it with you.” And she really kept her word. Every single visit my mom would come and visit me.
While you were in prison you enrolled in a creative writing course for a while…
Yeah. I did a creative writing course because I said to myself “I'm looking at continuing the struggle”. Because I never ever saw myself as a criminal. I always saw myself as a political prisoner. The word has always affected me. I've always been impacted by the word. Not necessarily poetry because growing up I didn't like poetry. I loved literature but not poetry. I loved to write. I saw the word as a powerful weapon to reach people. I fancied becoming an investigative journalist to investigate the wrongs and the evils of society and to expose them. To incite people to act. Henceforth I started a creative writing course - ICS International Correspondence School who were based in Miami. So I did that for a little while.
After it discontinued you still felt compelled to write.
My poetry was really a release valve because I’d look around and I see fellow brothers in Hell [prison] and many of them were repeaters where they'd be released and then two or three months after they’d be back. A lot were in my age group. I was angry not with the situation in prison but with the situation that led people into prison. Because if one should check my first collection of poems, Echo, there is no poem about prison. I spoke about the conditions outside.
I was encouraged by the brothers. I would get up in the morning and a man would say “Wh’appen dada? Wha’ yuh ‘ave?” The brothers in Hell were my first audience. I would read to them. And it dawned on me that this medium was a powerful medium. Because poetry transcended boundaries just like music. It's art. It appeals to the senses, the emotions. Hence I started to write poetry and to sharpen my writing skills also because most people know me as a poet but I'm a writer first and foremost.
Your poems were confiscated by the prison authorities. There was a very ironic statement from the superintendent where he asked why you weren't writing about happier subjects?
(Laughing) Yes, my poems were confiscated in a raid on my cell. My poems! My words! So I went before the superintendent and was questioned about my poems. I mean that wasn't any offensive weapon or drugs or anything. My poems! And this gentleman had the nerve to ask me why do I write so much about blood and oppression? We were in a two-storey building on the second floor and I looked through the window and there were razor sharp barbwire on the fence and some John Crows [turkey vultures] because you have enough John Crows in prison. And I looked at that and I was like “Wow!”
And so later on when I was back in my cell I wrote the poem - it just came like that. You know some of my best poems just come just like that. “You ask “Why you write so much about blood sweat and tears? Why don't you write about love, flowers, birds?” I write about trees. Trees with withered branches and severed roots. I write about flowers, flowers on graves. I write about birds struggling. I write of love for the destruction of oppression.”
It's almost as if the superintendent was asking why your words weren't more escapist? As if they’d have been happier to find you with drugs - something to stop you from keeping your mind active so you could quietly do your sentence.
Yes, but I wasn’t that person. During that period the prison library was non-existent. It was like a little space they said was a library. It was locked. It wasn't in use. So I and the brothers, we agitated and we got the library running. We advocated for a literacy class. So this wasn't to their liking. A book is a dangerous thing.
Did the confiscation of your poems and the superintendent's displeasure leave you walking away thinking “This is more powerful than I thought”?
Angus, immediately from memory I started to write down to recapture these poems on paper. And I'd smuggle them out as soon as I could. My mother was the one who would receive my poems. I smuggled them out because I was in fear that they would confiscate them again. Of course it spurred me. It was fuel for my fire. It was inspiration to write. I was like “This medium is really a powerful medium.”
And it was at this point as your poems liberated themselves from prison and started to capture the interest of media personalities and the intelligentsia. It's an extraordinary story. People are taught in school how art can change the world. Your story shows that it can.
Yes. I would smuggle my poems out. And by this time I was fully convinced I knew the power of the word. I saw the power of the word. And there was this woman by the name of Barbara Gloudon, who had a column called Stella in the Saturday Star. She was very humorous and she would deal with socio-political issues, issues that affected the working class, the unemployed people. I would look out for her column. Sometimes I wouldn't get a Saturday Star until Tuesday or Wednesday but I was always interested in reading her article.
I used to write a lot of letters too, so I wrote a letter to Barbara and it was smuggled out and I had it delivered to her but it didn't have any address to return. And destiny is something else. There was a brother by the name of Alric, a Rasta brother. Alric was involved in cultural affairs. That was a group, a movement out by Saint Thomas in the East called Harambe drummers. They used drumming and they used theatre. I met Alric when I was in jail several times when I went to Saint Catherine District Prison to serve time. Alric would pass through and every time it was for ganja. Back in those days a spliff was 18 months. And most of the people who were in prison for ganja were Rasta man.
Alric knew Barbara Gloudon from the Star. He went to visit her one time and she said to him “I received this letter from a brother in prison but I don't know how to communicate with him”. And she showed him the letter. Then my name was Orlando Wong and he said “Yeah I know this brother and I know his mother.” And so that link was made between Barbara and myself. Barbara got one of my poems in the Sunday Gleaner then she passed on my poems to Leonie Forbes, who at the time was working with JBC radio. Leonie eventually passed them onto Mervyn Morris and the rest is history.
While you were in prison the Light Of Saba came there and you performed together.
Yeah, the Light Of Saba came in to St Catherine District Prison one day during Christmas season when they had entertainment to entertain the captives. I can never forget that occasion. I was urged by the brothers to perform on stage and there was an impromptu jamming session. And I believe that was where the seed was laid for that fusion between the poetry and the music.
Because I read and listen to interviews, I hear brothers and sisters talk about their influences and they speak of Miss Lou. For me Miss Lou is one of our greatest poets. I appreciate Miss Lou’s work. Miss Lou brought me to realise the power of comedy. Because a comedian can say things and get away with things that an ordinary person, a poet for example, who is very serious and all political could not. But I was not influenced by Miss Lou. I was more influenced by people like Bob Marley, Burning Spear because of the kind of lyrics poetry that they were delivering. I was influenced by the poets who delivered work musically. I entered the literary competition twice while I was in Hell. And you have different categories: You had the standard English section and you had the patois section. I prefer to call it Jamaican language. I say to people “I am bilingual. I speak a little English and I speak Jamaican. I'm more fluent in Jamaican.” For two consecutive years I had poems in that section that were awarded. The judges commented on these poems. I can remember Dread Times they commented in either ’76 or ’77 that it signalled a new trend in Jamaican poetry in that it utilised the reggae rhythm.
Because the thing with my poems is from very early one could hear the rhythm in my poems. And it wasn't alliteration. It wasn't me talking to you in a manner where I made it sound like a rhythm. No. It was rhythm literally built into the poetry. So it wasn't any surprise when I fused musical poetry with musical rhythms.
At the same time there was something similar going on in England with Linton Kwesi Johnson.
At the time there was that whole political movement taking place in England and so Mervyn travelled to England for a Black Book festival. He saw Linton performing and he was introduced to Linton. And he was like “Yo there's a brother in Jamaica who does similar stuff to you.” So he introduced Linton to my work. And when he came back to Jamaica he was like “Yo meet this brother Linton Kwesi Johnson.”
Mervyn Morris who also worked with the poet Mikey Smith.
Yes. I met Mikey at my first reading at the Tom Recam Avenue library just behind us. I was like “Wow my first reading was at the headquarters of the Jamaica Library Services.” My first reading was organised by PEN: Poets, Essayists and Novelists - the Jamaican chapter. It was as if I was destined to do what I'm doing.
You had to be brought from custody to give that reading and brought back to jail again.
Yes! At the time there wasn't parole. The penal institution was a colonial-style thing – there was no emphasis on rehabilitation. It was serving time, hard labour and all of that. So yes, I was let out. This was during the socialist era. In Jamaica that whole socialist movement was a spin-off of the Pan-African movement in the Caribbean. And you had a Justice Minister by the name of Carl Rattray who was very interested in penal reform. He saw me as someone who would he would be able to highlight, to use for the want of a better word, to champion this cause. I didn't mind and to this day I didn't feel used.
So I came out several times and I would read. One particular performance was at the Students Union which was organised by someone who was affiliated with the PNPYO. The sister's name was Louise Murphy. She has passed on. She was the organiser of the Jamaica Sound System Federation. She was a very progressive thinking person. A political activist. She was like a die-hard PNP person. And after reading I was like “I'm not doing any more reading” because this was really affecting me and I didn't want to be a showpiece anymore.
So ultimately Carl Rattray reformed the penal code and you were released.
Yes, he did. He was tabling the bill in Parliament to introduce the parole system. He used my name. He said “There's a young man by the name of Orlando Wong in prison”. In fact, one of the readings I did while I was incarcerated in Hell was in Ochi, down where Island Village is at that pier. He was the guest speaker and he arranged that I would read some poems there. He was a very progressive person and he meant it. It wasn't like lip service.
And in a quiet way I am proud that I was able to contribute to a system like that. Because a lot of brothers have benefited from the whole rehabilitation programme. I don't go about ringing my bell but I contributed in quiet ways. My thing is: I'm not here to save a multitude. If I am able to save one soul, if I am able to touch one being, then for me that's great. Because then that one being will go on and do something for another person and it's like a domino effect.
And I've seen it over the years. I have had youths in my community who have gone on to be the only member of that family who actually got an education. Because they had brothers who were murdered. I see them doing things for that community and that's a great feeling. When someone can say to me “Mr Oku. Thank you for inspiring me and encouraging me.”
I may not go out and contribute to charity events and make donations because I live a very simple life deliberately - it keeps me grounded. Because I've seen so many people who just spout liberation and slogans and it's just a word thing. And there's nothing wrong with making money from art - there's nothing wrong with that. But then too often I've seen people… I don't know if it's really lose their way because probably initially they were using this platform for being revolutionary as a means of having an audience. I don't want to accuse anyone but I've seen people get disconnected.
I still go downtown. I can't forget Manley Buchanan, Big Youth. One day we were in Emancipation Park and a particular individual was asking if I had moved uptown and Big Youth said “No man - you see the man here down at Coronation Market and upon Orange Street and all those kinds of things there”. I still trod small tracks through this concrete jungle. Still see youths and just approach them. I’m still involved in young people's lives. All my life I have championed the cause of youths. As a youth I championed the cause of youths and as a grown person, as an elder, I still champion the cause of youths.
You said already that your first audience was people in prison. You can't make art in an environment like that and talk down to people. Some poets and artists will start in a very rarefied atmosphere and need to make that connection with ordinary people. But for you it began with ordinary people and you went into some rarefied places.
Because as I said before, I live very simple. I don't fight against people who aspire to live lavishly. Not that I want to live in poverty but I still stay close to my roots. Some of my best performances are when I buck up on a group of youths where they're talking and: “Earth ablaze, man a rage!” I launch into a poem. And they be like “Wow”. Because most of the times in instances like that the youths would believe that I just wrote the poem.
Because I'm not a very prolific writer, you know? I have to be really moved. I'm not a current writer. You have people who are current writers. They see an accident and immediately they write about it. They are good writers. But I have to be moved. I have to be moved.
And you can see that in the way that once you came out of prison you came here to what is now Edna Manley college. You turned down the chance to be a journalist which was your previous goal. Being a journalist you would have been beholden to all sorts of structural imperatives that meant that you would have been required to turn in something at a specific time whether you felt moved or not.
Yeah. I was actually offered a job with a newspaper [the Daily News]. It folded. I remember one writer from that paper his name was Fitzroy Nation. And he wrote an extensive article called Behind Those Bars. It was based upon letters I had written to Barbara Gloudon. Barbara had passed them on to him.
One of the reasons I decided “let me do drama” was that I saw not just poetry but theatre and film as a powerful weapon and a powerful tool also. Because you can take a play to the ends of the Earth to somewhere where people don't speak English. You could use mime, body language and you can communicate with these people. So I saw myself also becoming a screenwriter, a playwright, all of that stuff.
And as you rightly pointed out, [journalism has] that restriction. Because you'd have to be working for [an editor]. I'm too rebellious. This is why I don't even work. I've never ever really worked. Not because I'm lazy or don't want to work but I am too rebellious to be in a nine to five.
Did your rebelliousness lead you to into any struggles when working in the dramatic arts?
Yes. In some ways. There is a tree over there and you had some brethrens who would link by the tree. In orientation week before the school was open I was escorted by two warders. So during the break time I'd sit under that tree and it became a habit of mine. In the first week no one would come and sit under that tree but even then I would go there. But then gradually the brothers would come and sit there. In Jamaica we smoke ganja and so we would smoke herb there and the authorities didn't like it. Especially the head of the Art School who was the Dean of the Faculty. He threatened to send the police in on us and I was like “No! If police come to hold me for ganja I'm going to fight them!”
Then one time there were elections for President of the Student Union. I came in one morning and on the notice board was a sign about carnival. I know I was like “Hell, we have a lot of students coming in from the rural areas like Saint Thomas and Old Harbour who were struggling to come to school, who had difficulty finding places in Kingston to stay. And you're talking about carnival when we should be talking about facilities, dorms to house students?” Now they have dormitory areas at Edna Manley.
So I just took a marker and I just wrote it on it “Fuckry”. It was reported to the Head - Dennis Scott, a beautiful teacher, one of the best teachers I have ever encountered at Edna Manley. A beautiful actor and poet. The Head said I should apologise. So I'm like “Hell no, apologise for what?” So I was suspended and told not to come back until I apologised. I could have fought against it but I decided “No. Let me just cut”. And so then I produced my first single Reflections in Red. Recorded it at Harry J studio just up the road here.
It was released by Bob Marley's label.
It was on the 56 Hope Road label. I was introduced to Bob by Judy Mowatt. Judy became aware of me in prison. My first typewriter was an Underwood I got from Judy Mowatt. Judy would take my poems to Bob. And Bob said “I would like to meet this brother”. So when I came from prison she took me to meet Bob. Bob said to me “You know if you need some help and ting, check me”.
And the next time Bob saw me I had a single Reflections In Red wanting distribution for it. He called Sangie Davis and Tommy Cowan and said “This brethren here, I told the man if he wanted some help he should come give me a link and he come bring me a finished product!”
Being an independent artist it's like a show-and-tell thing. Because Marcus Garvey spoke about self-reliance, so you live by example. So my being an independent artist was showing that self-reliance was again not just words.
I think we should also say something about Steve Golding from the Fab Five who worked with you on your first music.
Steve Golding is a beautiful person. I'm still encountering beautiful people. It doesn't matter the hue. I don't watch hue, I watch you. But Steve is a beautiful person. I wanted to do the single Reflections In Red and I'd approached a couple of musicians and they were like “What?” It was a strange reggae rhythm and an original rhythm too. Because people wanted to do like a Studio One and I was like “No”. And I approached Steve and Steve said “Yeah man”.
Steve arranged Reflections In Red - in fact he lent me his tape! It got destroyed years down the line but then the man gave me a 2-inch tape to record on. And he got the musicians together like Bedasse on bass. He put it together and we recorded it at Harry J studio.
And it wasn't a money thing. I didn't pay Steve. Steve insisted on the other musicians getting paid and he arranged it for them because he knew that I didn't have any money like that at the time. But if it wasn't for Steve Golding and that single? For years I tore it down just off one single Reflections In Red because it was years after before I did another single. I did Dread Times and then What's The Situation. There were a few singles before I did Pressure Drop.
Your independent approach was very ahead of its time. Because today the lack of physical sales means everyone's having to do it this way.
I turned down big producers. I turned down an opportunity with Island for example. Linton approached me and said he had a contract with Island and he had to turn in something to Island so why not produce my album? I said no and this is how Mikey got the opportunity to do Mi Caan Believe It.
Even when I just came out of prison several producers approached me and I was like “No”. Because I was trying to avoid being told what to do and my music being directed in a certain kind of way. And if you listen to my music it's left-field more times. I know the rhythm, the concept I want. And there is no limitation to dub.
You released your critically acclaimed album Pressure Drop in 1984. But after a few more album releases you took some time out from poetry.
I took some time out. For over a decade. Because I didn't like what was happening. A whole heap of changes were taking place. I'm a very sensitive person and I observe a lot. A millennium was coming to an end and there was so much happening with the internet. This was in the nineties and the music and the attitude of the people involved in the music - the whole trend of the music, not just Jamaica, I was like “Nah”.
I'd go backstage and I would see the behaviour of people that turned me off. Because when I first got involved in music I would go backstage and there was Dennis Brown, Gregory Isaacs, Third World and it was like laughter. It was like love. There was no competition whatsoever. If there was any competition it was more like a friendly kind of rivalry. Then I’d go backstage and someone would pass and almost bounce me over. I'd see the behaviour of artists - especially from the dancehall. I'm not fighting dancehall. Reggae gave them dancehall and reggae gave them dub. It's Jamaican music. It serves positive purposes but certain elements I'd be like “No”.
Everybody was a badman and I couldn't deal with that because we have been there and done that. Prior to my escaping from jail several people were held and beaten trying to escape and killed. You could be held by a mob and beaten to death. I went to prison and I was not bullied. I stood my ground. I wasn't afraid to speak my mind. And then every man turns a badman with a whole string of man behind him as a badman.
So I just eased off. I was having children too but more than anything else I just didn't like what was happening. Not just with the artists themselves but managers, promoters, distributors and disc jocks so I was like “Nah”. But then at the same time I hadn't folded my wings. I didn't become passive. I was still active in doing what I was doing: speaking to youths, helping who I could help on a one-on-one basis.
But then after a while things were getting a way in society as a whole worldwide - that shit with the New World Order. I'm not being a conspiracy theorist or anything like that but the whole oppression, deception, control - it took on a new working order. The internet came into being and we can see what the internet has morphed into now. It is a powerful tool and I'm seeing this. From dial-up, I was one of the first back in the days. Unless you were an artist signed to a major label you wouldn't have a website. Back then I had a website. I was into the internet. And then Perry Henzell said something to me once “Satellite is poor people, revolutionaries’ tool. This is an awesome weapon because it reaches people.” Perry Henzell said that and I was like “Wow! This is real!”
So I stepped back for a while from the music scene observing what was going on and then after a while I was like “Okay wow, now I am grumbling, literally grumbling.” I was like “Yo, why sit on the fence and grumble? What do you do best? What's your most awesome weapon? What's your weapon of choice? In this struggle? The word. Poetry. Music.”
So I armed myself. Once again I emerged from my bunker, from my foxhole and in 2013 I released an album called A Movement. And the tracks on A Movement were recorded like 15 years before. Courtney Panton, the bass player on Pressure Drop album, he was living in New York. He has a studio, I lived nearby and I would just get bored. I don't hang out on corners. I don't do that now. Drink beer and those kinds of things. I don't use alcohol. So I'd go by Courtney's studio and I'd hear a rhythm and I'd say “Yo, I could do this”. Not with the intention of really doing an album. Just to lay some tracks.
Bob Marley for me is one of the greatest poets and I love several of Bob's pieces. I love Running Away and I decided to do Running Away. We laid some tracks and then around 2011 or 2012 I was in discussion with one of my daughters and she said “But Daddy you love poetry and things, why don't you use it to say all the things you are seeing now? You have works, why don't you put it out?”
So I went digging and came up with A Movement. I released A Movement in 2013 which signalled my re-emergence on the scene again. After that I released Yesterday Today Tomorrow, that single on Akashic Records. Then the year after there was a reissue of Reflections In Red. In 2016-17 Iroko approached me. I wanted to do something and I got that answer call. I got the link and I A Tell Dubwise & Otherwise came about.
Then in late November 2017 I got another answer call. This time from a brethren by the name of Thomas, Doctor T from Switzerland. He sent me a message via Messenger asking for my email. Two weeks passed and then by the third week I got an epistle from Thomas saying who he was. He talked about how the first time he was introduced to reggae and dub he heard Scratch, Linton and me. And from the early days he said he promised himself that he would do an album with Scratch and with me. He did an album with Scratch. He played for Scratch as a musician. He worked with Scratch as an engineer. And so he reached out to me and I was like “Wow”.
This was after A Movement. A Movement was not my ideal album. It was great because we had Monty Alexander but it was more like a compilation. Normally I have a concept when doing an album like Pressure Drop, Bus Out. A Movement had a theme and it was movements and movement. Linking one generation with the next. There is a poet by the name of Jawara. I included him on the album because he had sampled a poem of mine called Sketches. For me that was a great honour for young poet to sample my work.
So Thomas and I talked and at the time I was thinking about doing a new studio album. For like 5 years I had been wanting to do an album. I was exploring ways and means of putting the funds together to go through the routes that I normally use as an independent artist. We discussed it and I’ve Seen came about. That was the answer call for I’ve Seen.
You know my music, you know jazz, I work in different patterns and stuff. And I listened to the Scratch album. If you’re a person who works with Lee Scratch Perry and gets an album done with Lee Scratch Perry then there must be something about you! Because for me Scratch is the alchemist of dub.
We spoke about the whole thing because it wasn't like a rush thing. He sent me a couple of tracks. One of the tracks that he sent, I was like “Wow.” Fuel For Fire was the track. I said to him “Yo brethren those horns bad - who played those horns?” He said “Rico Rodriguez.” I said “A joke you make” because Rico and I did a tour back in the days when he was living in England. I know I know Rico very well. A beautiful brethren.
And very rebellious. He nearly burned down Alpha Boys School!
Quietly rebellious. Rico might appear to be very docile and quiet but Rico is very rebellious and he is strong in a quiet way. I knew a lot of people like that. Nambo Robinson was one of those people like that. So Fuel For Fire I heard it and that was the first poem I actually voiced for Doctor T. Behind the scenes he was working with this brethren from a group called Najavibes.
Mathias. And Anton the drummer and some other people but I had not met them or interacted with them at all. The first time I met them was when I went to Switzerland last year in May and we did a show. That was crazy. I'll never ever do anything like that again. Flew from Jamaica to Switzerland, rested for a couple of hours then did one rehearsal and then the next day we did the show. I mean I couldn't even remember half of the poems! But it was fun. I have not performed in Europe for almost 20 years.
I voiced the album there because Doctor T insisted. Because I said “No man, we have studios in Jamaica. If you're thinking about quality I mean we have Tuff Gong, we have Mixing Lab, we have Anchor studio”. He said “No Oku. Come to Switzerland”. I double checked Google and it's almost a thousand US return fare. But he insisted. He said “Oku, the energy with us and you in the studio voicing the stuff.” And I wrote two poems while in Switzerland: If Not Now - mad poem! And Dubword Warrior.
Because for me as much as I am an independent artist it's good when you work with people that have other influences, so I didn't resist it. I thought it would be a great opportunity to work with someone who is a beautiful person and we were talking the same language. Dub. Dubbing. So I would voice a poem. My thing was: “You don't fuck with my voice, you don't fuck with my poem and you don't take out nothing. Musically is you that.” And I trusted him. That's the great thing. I trusted Dr T and he stepped up to the plate. So we have I’ve Seen.
One track that really jumped out at me is Don't Like It. It's pretty clear to me what it's about but you tell me what it's about.
Yeah man! Don't Like It was written in Switzerland. I don't like it. I don't like what is happening. You know when something will haunt you? I started to write that poem a couple of years ago believe it or not. In recent times a lot of things have been happening in Jamaica that I don't like.
There's a sample of a news item about the state of emergency.
The whole state of emergency. The brutal murders that have been taking place in the island. Children being murdered. Women being murdered. Don't like it. The indifference of the people in high places. The literal hypocrisy. It has never been this blatant. Don't like it. And if you listen to the poem you'll hear that anguish. I'm agonising over the whole thing. Seriously brethren I don't like it. Then you hear about how a man is smoking embalming fluid. There was a case this dude shot a schoolboy. Road rage. He opened fire in a taxi cab. A public passenger vehicle without knowing who was in the vehicle and he got away.
I've told you one of my favourites - you tell me one of yours.
Wow. We have If Not Now. For me it's powerful because If Not Now addresses the whole international thing. If not now - when? When will it end? Roof knocking, forced migration. Child labour which is something that really tears up my soul. Because If Not Now addresses a global issue. And I’ve Seen because I have seen so much. I love I’ve Seen. And If Not Now.
What inspired I’ve Seen?
The full moon.
So there’s a symmetry because of the moon imagery in your early poem Last Night that you wrote in prison…
Yeah. I had a brethren by the name of Jeremy Verity. He used to have a radio programme in Jamaica and I'd smuggle out some poems to him and he had read a couple of them on his radio programme. And then Mervyn Morris got in touch with me and said “Yo, Jeremy Verity would like to return the manuscript.” So when I got the package I was amazed! This was from 40 years ago and the poems, the letters were crisp as if they were written yesterday. He took care of it. But guess what? I saw my first moon poem. I never even remembered anything about that poem. Never ever.
I am fascinated by the moon. So I got the inspiration on a blood moon night. A full blood moon and I started to write the poem but didn't finish it. So the following month that was another blood moon – two, one after the other. I was adamant that I was going to finish the poem! I'm I sat down until about 2 or 3 in the morning while the moon was high. That blood moon was hanging over my house and I finished the poem. I read the poem and its entirety and when I finished I was like “Wowow”. And funnily enough I posted the poem and what's his name, the brethren from Grafton studio?
Mikey! Now Mikey is not a social media person. Mikey is very quiet and serious. When Mikey walks he won't crush the grass. I posted the poem and a lot of people liked the poem and commented on the poem. Mikey’s comment was the exact comment I made when I finished the poem. Mikey’s comment was “Wowow”. And I said “Yes!” There are some pieces of work where you complete them and you are like “Wow! Great poem.” I say this to young writers. I was reasoning with Jawara and I said to him “When you put down something make sure it's your best. That is not to say that this will be your standard forever. You try each time you do your best.” There is no point for me where I reach the stage where I say “Boy this is my best work ever.” No. This is my best when I did it. I’ve Seen.