07/10/21 – David Bousquet: “‘Word Sound Have Power’: Poetics and Politics in Afro-Caribbean Poetry and Popular Music.”

David Bousquet’s objects of study are literature and popular culture in the Caribbean isles: he is interested in tradition, music, reggae and dub poetry. His presentation explored how the interconnected use of music and words engages with the African-Caribbean identity and questions political discourses in a postcolonial approach. 

David Bousquet evoked two periods in Caribbean history as foundational landmarks that shaped the origins of dub poetry: slavery and the twentieth century. Firstly, the African roots played a role in defining the identity of the African-Caribbean population and yet, they were lost during slavery (this erasing is referred to by Edouard Glissant as a “sense of dispossession”). Consequently, the Caribbean culture is a hybrid form based on European cultures of masters and the recreation of the African world.

Slavery also rooted the centrality of music. The historian Paul Gilroy explains that slave music concentrated a lot of discursive functions that are dissociated in “western cultures”. Songs could contain philosophy, sociology and even news to inform slaves in other plantations. What is more, music alleviated the hardships of slaves’ lives and enabled both physical and spiritual relief. Already, poetry suggested the power of words to heal and redeem those who practised it. 

The twentieth century introduced the emergence of artistic expressions in the Caribbean. David Bousquet underlined that African-American poetry is consubstantial to European literature. Prominent Caribbean actors took part in the Harlem Renaissance movement (in New York City in the 1920s and 1930s) such as Marcus Garvey, a Jamaican Black nationalist and leader of the Pan-Africanism movement and other artists such as the poets Claude McKay (Songs of Jamaica, 1912) and Langston Hughes (The Negro Mother and Other Dramatic Recitations, 1931). Novelists also came on the scene: the Jamaican writer Andrew Salkey (A Quality of Violence, 1959), the Trinidad-born writer Sam Selvon (The Lonely Londoners, 1956) and the Bajan novelist George Lamming (In the Castle of My Skin, 1953). Yet, this first generation moved in exile in London during the independence struggles. In the early 1960s, a new generation of poets decided to stay to assert their nationalist commitment. They were influenced by technical innovations that changed the recording of voice and music with major devices such as the “sound system”[1], the practice of “dub”[2] thanks to sampling (isolating the sound) and remixing (recreating the sound) techniques. These technologies strengthened the porous limits between music and poetry and liberated space for vocal expression. David Bousquet developed more precisely on dub poetry, the art of composing and publishing literary writings associated with live performances and/or recorded in a studio with music or simply a capella. Louise Bennett was a pioneer of this movement, recording in the 1950s the oral tradition of the Jamaican rural folk who speak creole (Jamaican Folk Songs, 1954). By doing so she legitimised creole as “nation language” – an expression coined by Kamau Brathwaite who recognised the language of people as a medium for literary expression. Dub poets are globally settled: in Jamaica with the cultural animator Mutabaruka (title Live at Reggae Sunsplash, 1982) and the poet and performer Oku Onuora (record New Jerusalem Dub, 1991); in Canada with the female artist Lilian Allen (Revolutionary Tea Party, 1986) but also in South Africa or France. 

In the United Kingdom, Linton Kwesi Johnson and Benjamin Zephaniah express their stance in public debate. Dub poetry functions as archiving, documenting and representing the struggles of African-Caribbean people. For both artists, art articulates a sense of identity, witnesses historical events related to the black community and makes silenced voices heard. Johnson’s collection Mi Revalueshanary Fren (2006) presents a chronicle of fights and struggles of the Black community in the United Kingdom: the language conveys a historiographical dimension, the influence of Rastafarianism but also the Marxist tradition of making poetry accessible to this community. 

David Bousquet stresses these artists’ position “on the frontline” – a characteristic that nourishes and bolsters their artistic gestures. Don Letts (the eminence grise of The Clash) was presented as one of these figures who put their carrier and sometimes their lives in danger to defend their political views – for instance during the 1986 Nottingham Carnival when a picture of him confronting the British police force was taken and became later the cover album of The Clash.  These artists had or have a specific status of organic intellectual or griot: they emanate from the community and speak on behalf of its interests. The lyrics of “Naked” written by Zephaniah illustrates how the limits between art and line, politic and literature are blurred: once against, African-Caribbean poetry intensifies the political agency of words and music. 

The last part of David Bousquet’s presentation focused more on the politics of language. Through a linguistic approach, he demonstrates how creole languages (a European lexical basis and the Africanisation of pronunciation and syntax) are creations or re-creations. They are constantly deconstructed and reconstructed through linguistic operations. Therefore, creoles are intrinsically poetic because of their creative potential. The power of language is also displayed in its ability to combine poetical and political meaning in words as manifests the sociolect or Rastafarian talk. This form of poiesis produces new morphologies (for instance, substituting the prefix “op-pression” with “down-pression”) to reflect Rastafarian ideology with sounds. Language is performative and its creative potential becomes a possibility to create a new world. 

During the Q&A session, there was a question about the possible political statement behind the use of patois in the poems of the corpus. David Bousquet explains that Linton Kwesi Johnson voluntarily uses creole to assert his identity and destabilizes readers who only speak standard English. By using this particular spelling system, the poet also blurs the poetic message and lets space for interpretation. Benjamin Zephaniah writes in standard English and favours a creole-sounded effect. Then, another scholar who is specialised in postcolonial studies asked David Bousquet if concepts such as “colonial wound” and “decolonial healing” were part of a relevant theoretical frame to analyse the Afro-Caribbean poetry he presented. He responded that his vision of research is more about analysing the complexity of his subject than associates it to schools of thought. David Bousquet is interested in deconstructing the text with literary, linguistic or sociological tools and can use theoretical concepts if appropriate to his object of study. What is more, David Bousquet discussed the relation between African-Caribbean authors and the process of literary canonisation. He highlighted that the 1960s generation launched a literary activist movement of self-publication (publishing houses refused to subsidize creole-written publications) and printed their writings. This movement asserted their will to reject colonial cultural means of production and to create their own culture. Finally, a scholar asked how the mix of voices and technological innovations was established for recorded or performed dub poetry. David Bousquet answered that there were variations: Johnson has a sober style of performance with few effects for the voice and remixed music. He also performed a capella because the voice is central to his poetry. On the contrary, Mutabaruka uses various vocally effects such as reverberation (for instance in “Dis Poem”, 1986) to play on literary meanings and sounds. This poetry places sampling and remixing at the heart of the creation process. 


[1] Loud speakers enable to play record live outside.

[2] An instrumental version of songs on the B-side of a 45 RPM record