New Internationalist

The NI Interview

Issue 310

new internationalist
issue 310 March 1999

The NI Interview
Jean 'Binta' Breeze

Henry Palmer chats with a Jamaican
'dub' poet who is intent on telling
stories with a political edge.

Despite her small stature and soft features ‘dub poet’ Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze is renowned for a powerful stage presence. The Black American writer Maya Angelou personally chose Breeze to perform at her 70th birthday last year, where Breeze’s spoken words were backed by the singing of a gospel choir. Angelou was so moved by the performance that as soon as it was over she stood up and walked straight into Breeze’s arms.

Born in 1956, Breeze was brought up by her grandparents, who were peasant farmers in rural Jamaica. She learned early that ‘there are simple pleasures in life that can help you get by’. For Breeze, these have always included poetry and performance.

When she was 30, Breeze travelled to Britain with Jamaican poet Linton Kwesi Johnson, who had already introduced European audiences to the words and rhythms of dub poetry – a fusion of reggae music and the spoken word. The rhythmic poetry first popped up in the 1970s when Jamaican DJs would chant over the instrumental B-sides of reggae records. Poets including Breeze, Linton Kwesi Johnson and the late Mikey Smith removed the music, allowing the words to speak for themselves. The product was a style of performance poetry known today as ‘dub’.

Dub poetry reflected the mood of the times. ‘It is a public voice, a political voice of social commentary that works to a rhythm,’ Breeze says, eyes smiling from under the brim of her trilby. ‘There’s a strong sense of rhythm which is the rhythm of reggae. It’s poetry which combines a love of language with a sense of rhythm and music while at the same time recording our stories and oral observations.’

Breeze is a master storyteller, writing in both standard English and Jamaican patois. But she draws her audience in as much by her physical presence and vocal range as by her words. The result is both entertainment and education, though she’s not afraid to take on important issues. Dub poetry, she stresses, has a role to play in bringing otherwise complex issues into the lives of ordinary people. She is not afraid to tackle the IMF or Third World debt. But most remarkable of all is the way Breeze brings the stories behind these issues to life.

She grapples not with academic concepts, but with the powerful emotions of real people’s lives. In her collection of poetry, Spring Cleaning, Breeze reworks the 23rd psalm to powerful effect: ‘De lord is my shepherd, I shall not want, an she scraping de las crumbs off de plate knowing ants will feed.’ Her words are also pointedly graphic, she is capable of inserting explosive imagery in the midst of a bleak word picture. In ‘Love Amidst the War’ on her recording Riding on de Riddym, Breeze refers to ‘the fresh lilies growing from a rotten corpse’, evoking emotions of eternal hope in the face of evil.

Although a sense of history is central to the work of dub poets, Breeze refuses to be restrained by the inflexible language of history books. When the word ‘colonialism’ came up in our conversation she raised a hand from her glass of rum, motioning me to stop.

‘Let’s not call it colonialism, that is an academic term. Let’s call it what it is – international theft of resources and robbery of people’s land. Colonialism doesn’t say that.’

According to Jean Breeze, clichéd media images and jargon help perpetuate the myth that the Third World is a hopeless case. Charity, she says with rising anger, is just a smoke-screen. ‘Nobody wants to talk about money, the distribution of wealth or how this thing was set up in the first place. Once you raise that you are faced with a lot of questions that are avoided all the time.’

One such question is the issue of Third World debt. ‘All our countries are in debt to the World Bank and the IMF,’ snorts Breeze. She tilts forward, partially lifting herself out of the chair. ‘We are in debt to the very ones who stole from us in the first place.’ Point made. She breaks into warm, loud laughter.

Dub poetry has been criticized for being too political. But Breeze shrugs off the criticism, noting that her art is rooted firmly in social and political conflict. She is more worried by the stereotype that Third World writers and thinkers are mired in the past and that the full range of art and social comment from the South goes unnoticed. ‘There is this suggestion that we are all there trying to deal with our colonial heritage, instead of actually being at the forefront of what is happening politically in the world today.’

As illustration she points to the work of her contemporary, Linton Kwesi Johnson, writing on his new album More Time about the need for a shorter working week. And if you look at the work of Breeze herself it’s clear that her vision extends way beyond the idea of herself as a post-colonial subject.

She deals with an enormous variety of themes. Her most recent published collection of poetry and prose, On the Edge of an Island, contains some beautiful writing about life and culture in her beloved Jamaica. In the prose piece, ‘Sunday Cricket’, Breeze begins: ‘Look man, is a hard ting wen is Easter Sunday, West Indies battin, an yuh wife decide dat de whole family have to go to church.’

Breeze considers these meditations on her island culture a kind of personal communion. ‘They come from my healing side,’ she says. ‘It’s this side that gives me the strength to make it to another day.’

Henry Palmer is a UK-based freelance writer.

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