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Interview: Oku Onuora in Kingston (Part 1)

Interview: Oku Onuora in Kingston (Part 1)

Interview: Oku Onuora in Kingston (Part 1)

By on - Photos by Veronique Skelsey - 1 comment

"I always referred to myself as a political prisoner"


Poet. Performer. Revolutionary. These epithets are often applied to Jamaican reggae artists – yet few embody them as completely as Oku Onuora. One of Jamaica’s earliest dub poets, his extraordinary story reads like fiction.

Born Orlando Wong, he grew up around East Kingston, in the care of his mother and grandmother. Inspired by Rastafari and the Black Power movement, his rebellious temperament soon brought him into conflict with the authorities.

He began writing poems in prison while serving a ten year sentence for robbery. These works gave him such notoriety inside and acclaim outside his place of detention that he was eventually freed in 1977.

Having performed his compositions behind bars with Cedric Im Brooks and the Light of Saba, Oku commenced recording them over music upon his release. First single Reflections in Red was an excoriating, hauntingly bleak view of the 1978 political peace treaty, released on Bob Marley’s 56 Hope Road label. His debut album Pressure Drop is counted among dub poetry’s essential recordings.

Onuora’s output encouraged Michael Smith’s and coincided with that of the England-based Linton Kwesi Johnson, with whom he toured extensively through the 1980s. Thereafter, Oku has recorded sporadically. He walked away from performing entirely in the 90s - but the new millennium saw a surge of fresh activity and material.

United Reggae met Oku Onuora on February 13th 2016 at Veggie Meals On Wheels restaurant at Cross Roads, where Kingston’s uptown meets downtown. Bob Marley and Peter Tosh rarely left the stereo – recalling Onuora’s infamous 1978 One Love Peace concert recital. Oku arrived, barefoot as usual, bringing a copy of his powerful new record, produced by King Alpha, Yesterday Today Tomorrow.

He delivers his memories in poetically sized portions, repeating key concepts for emphasis. At times his voice shakes as if rattled by the power of his own words.

During this three part interview Oku opened up about his early history in surprising depth. Part one recalls his upbringing and incarceration. “You caught me at a good time” he laughed when the two and a half hour talk was done “I am sounding off. I have so much things to say.”

Oku Onuora

You were born in 1952.

The year 1952. A year after the ‘51 storm that hit Jamaica. There is a song called 51 Storm Mi Never Born. But at the time I was safely tucked away in my mother's womb. So during the 51 storm my mother really sheltered me.

You grew up in East Kingston?

I was born at Jubilee Hospital “under the clock”. That's down by downtown, the Kingston public hospital, they call it “under the clock” because back in the days people would listen out for the chime of the clock to tell the time. And immediately upon leaving Jubilee my mother took me to the east Kingston. In Brown’s Town, Dunkirk, Kingston 16. So yes, me is an East man. Straight! (Laughter)

Your community was very affected by the political situation of the time.

All communities in Kingston, then and now are affected by the political happenings of the day. In fact, Michael Manley was the MP for that community that I grew up in. Of course, there were political divisions. The area I grew up in was a strong PNP area. But just across the road you had Rae Town. Rae Town was seen as a JLP, a Labourite stronghold. But the parties and politics really didn't affect me you know? I was never one that got caught up in the parties and politics at all.

I was never one that got caught up in the parties and politics at all

Your surname is Wong. You have some Chinese heritage?

Yeah, original Orlando Wong. My heritage is, like a number of Jamaicans, mixup mixup. So it's Chinese, is Jewish because of the name Myers. My mum always talked about that Jewish connection, the Myers. Also my grandmother didn't look like the average Jamaican. She had long straight hair and she had what I and a lot of other people at the time would consider an unusual practice of always covering her hair. I had the privilege of seeing her without her headscarf, or headwrap as we call it in Jamaica. She had straight long black hair down to her waist.

Her features were different. She didn't look like an East Indian. In Jamaica we call them “coolie” but I used the term saying “coolie” referring to East Indians living in Jamaica recently and my brother said "Yo, that is not politically correct". So here I would like to apologise and from now on I definitely won't be saying that. My grandmother didn't look like the East Indians that I knew. Her nose was flat, she was very small in stature and her skin tone was different, very dark brown. And as I said, she had this unusual practice of covering her hair at a time when women would be using straightening combs and burn up their ears and those things there.

It wasn't until I visited a Sundance ceremony in California on a Navajo reservation that I saw someone who looked like my grandmother. My grandmother had died years before while I was in prison. I saw this Navajo woman and I was staring at her because she reminded me of my grandmother. She got kind of scared. I realised that because she was like she was acting very afraid and she called to some young warriors and they came by and I explained to them that she looked like my grandmother. So then it dawned on me about my grandmother. After that I found out that there were Tainos who still exist in Jamaica. People of Taino descent. So the closest people that I could relate to how my grandmother looked were Navajo people. So I am Chinese, European, wherever, Taino I believe.

Some Jamaicans of Chinese descent, like I Kong, faced a struggle to break into the music industry. Were there any such barriers to being a performer for you?

I Kong looks more Chinese than I do. I did not encounter this. I encountered classism and slight racism in Jamaica, I must say. What I can remember distinctly is that when I was growing, in the mid to late 60s I was getting into my teenage years, so I was aware of what was taking place around me. And people of lighter hue would be the ones who you would find working in a bank, dealing with customers in a teller position. That was the reality. And being of a lighter colour was kind of a privilege, advantageous.

How did you become involved in countercultural movements as a youth? Did you, for example go on the Dr Rodney protests?

Yeah, I had met Dr Walter Rodney. We referred to him as Walter Rodney. I had met him long before the riots, long before he was declared persona non grata, because he actually frequented East Kingston. He actually he would have meetings at a place called Kensington Oval, that is in the east in Rollington Town. So I knew Dr Walter Rodney before the riots. Yes I did participate in demonstrations. I did participate at that particular time. But that was not what radicalised me.

What made you radical?

It was my upbringing really. My mother, for one. My mother was a beautiful soul. My mother was a beautiful woman and she was giving. She was very, very giving. My grandmother, one would probably describe her as antisocial because she never did really mingle up with and chat chat with people. She was a fierce little warrioress. She didn't talk much. But my mother was always offering help to people. My father passed on when I was young. I didn't even know my father to talk to. Anthony Wong. My mother was beloved, she was known, she was kind. I was the only child for her until I was like 15 or 16 when along came my sister, my one and only sister. I am her one and only brother. Because her father died very young also.

I consider myself privileged although I lived in a working class community. My mother was a factory worker until I left prison years after. But I felt privileged in that I always had proper clothes, didn't wear patch bottom pants, didn't wear lean shoes. I attended the private school for almost all of my school life. I went to Rollington Town elementary and primary school. I spent one or two terms at most at Rollington Town which was a government school and after I was sent to another private school. I went to Camperdown high school. So being in that position I was seeing my peers, knowing how my peers lived, seeing where they lived and how they were dressed and all of that.

Before I was teenage I had my own tiny little room and a single bed. We were the first ones in my little community that had a television. I would put out the television on the veranda and my friends would come by in the evening and we would watch television. Black-and-white at the time. I always had pocket money. I always had more than adequate lunch money because my mother and my grandmother would give me some money. Even at Christmas time my grandmother would give me some money. My grandmother would always want to rival my mother in terms of giving to me. I was spoilt.

A young child might not realise what is taking place in an environment that he is living in, whether right or wrong. But then, soon enough the child will realise the difference between himself and others. He will realise that difference and he will also start to wonder "Why do I always have food? Why am I always in clean clothes?" And he'd also experience the prejudice because although it was a ghetto you would actually experience all of that. Certain children being treated differently. At a very early age I became aware of people's situation. Although we were in the same area, there was a kind of social divide. A kind of class based upon income. So I became very aware of the differences of lifestyle and the conditions around me. And I didn't like them.

Can you give an example of how your mother would help people?

My mother was always helping people. For example, I came in one evening and headed for my room and my mother wasn't there. My grandmother was signalling to me frantically to stop but I wasn't paying her any mind because I just wanted to go into my room. When I was about to enter my room I saw this young lady with a young baby in her hands. This girl had gotten pregnant by someone she was working for. They wanted to get her out of the way because they were married and all of that stuff. This girl had nowhere to go and my mother decided to help and to keep this girl until she was able to find somewhere. That's the kind of person my mother was. So I had to sleep with my grandmother which I wasn't very pleased with. So at a very early age I became aware of that social class difference.

I can remember one Saturday evening going to the Chinese grocery store for to get groceries and there was a crowd outside. Normally there would be a few people milling about outside because that's where people would meet and greet and all of that. But when we approached there was a woman. We realised the woman, her house had got burnt down. Without asking questions my mother went into the shop. And I noticed that my mother was buying some extra stuff. I didn't realise what was happening but she kept enquiring if the woman was still outside. Anyway I didn't pay that any mind.

When we were leaving my mum approached the woman and she asked her if she had eaten since the morning. The woman said "No" and my mother said "So what really happened? Your house burned down?" The woman said "Yes" and he said that she had lost everything. My mother took her home and she made some tea. She made the mint tea. She made a sandwich. She did some sardines and bread. And I realised “Wow - that's why she bought some extra stuff!” She started to question the woman about her husband and her child. Asking how old was the child and what size. My mother started to take out some of my stepfather's clothes for the lady’s husband. She was taking out some of her clothes for the woman and taking out some of my stuff. So I grew up with someone that was always looking out the people and giving back. So that really, really influenced me in terms of wanting to help people.

Jamaicans are not known as docile people

How did you become influenced by Rastafari and Pan Africanism as a youth? You started to move with a teacher called Ras Negus. How did you meet him?

I always hung out with older youths. I was always the youngest hanging out in a crowd. They were always people much older than myself. At the time, you’d have to go to a Rastaman's place to get some herb or to smoke herb, chalice and all of that. My friends smoked herb. They used to congregate at a particular spot. And there was this Rastaman by the name of Negus. So that's how I met Negus because I started to smoke herb from an early age.

But the brethrens that I hung out with, they were conscious. People like Negus, Righteous Bobby. These brethrens were Pan Africanist minded. They were anti-colonial. From what I can remember the brothers were mostly educated brothers. They were working brothers but they were literate. They were brothers who, as I said before, weren’t down with the system, even at that time.

One must remember that in the late 60s the Black Power movement was at its height in the United States of America. The whole Pan African movement was on the rise, bubbling in Africa, in Angola, Mozambique, Tanzania. Just like now where we are affected by what takes place in North America - it is transferred or communicated. Also remember that Jamaicans on the whole are a very rebellious people. We are not known as docile people. We have led people in revolt. We have had people from Jamaica who have been to Haiti and Cuba and Bolivia. We have had people from Latin America coming to Jamaica. We had Garvey!

So it wasn't strange that you had people in Jamaica in the 50s and 60s who were very politicised. Who were very conscious. I happened to find myself in the company of people with these kinds of outlooks. I was very influenced by these people and especially by Negus. Negus was a fierce Pan Africanist and a fierce anti-colonial fighter. He was definitely opposed and Rasta at that time were conscious people. When I say conscious people I mean people who were inclined to support people of that anticolonial mentality. So I found myself amongst people who were of that kind of persuasion. And it was the time also.

How did you go from attending protests to deciding that you needed to steal some funds from a post office?

I have always been rebellious. Some people attributed to my size. I am feisty. I am fierce. My grandmother didn't stand up to foolishness so probably that is where I get my feistiness from. I was a child that was taught to speak up. Talk up and defend yourself. Not necessarily like fighting but to speak up, be truthful and that is my nature. At that age I was very impressionable. You had Che Guevara for example. We are talking about the late 60s when the Cuban revolution was fresh. The Black Power movement was taking place. It was bubbling. I read a lot and I was aware of what was taking place. That anticolonial movement which was spearheaded by the Rastafari movement, taking place in the Caribbean, in the US, that Black Panther movement, that black movement.

I have always been rebellious

So it was a case of “by any means necessary”?

Yeah, Malcolm X, Eldridge Cleaver, Stokely Carmichael and all of them. I read a lot. So I, being young and impressionable, with the armed struggle that was taking place in Africa, I was like "Wow. The system haffi mash down". At the time the most popular thing in that sphere was armed struggle. Because armed struggle was taking place all around. I being young and impressionable, wanting to topple Babylon, fight against Babylon, an angry young man, angry against the system, I saw it as "Yo, it is a liberation. It is toppling the system. Revolution" and all of that.

We were at a school called Tafari which Negus had started. But let me make it clear, I don't believe I've ever made this clear, Negus did not advocate what I was doing. In fact, when he found out I was involved in an armed robbery he was like "Whoa!” But then because of our outlook we didn't think of robbing people on the streets. We talked about liberating the funds from the system. Post office, bank, payroll.

Did you want to give the funds to the school?

Oku OnuoraWe would distribute, help people, we were always helping people. The whole idea was to actually liberate some funds and use the funds to help people. I have always helped people. Contributing to whatever we could contribute to. To finance a revolution. I never ever saw myself as a criminal.

Where you apprehended during the robbery or afterwards?

No, no, no, I wasn't caught during the robbery. I was caught and sentenced for a particular robbery. For a particular incident I was eventually convicted.

So you did it more than once?

I was engaged in liberation of funds - let's just put it that way! I was convicted for robbing the Franklyn Town post office. At the time it was seen as a major robbery. This is what I was convicted for and sentenced to prison for.

Were there other people involved? Did everyone have the same revolutionary ideals as you - or were some of them just doing it for money?

Yeah, there were other people involved. No, they were radical. These brothers were brothers who were exposed. My little group, little brethrens, they were rebels. Rude boys. But they were willing, so I found allies.

How were you caught?

I was arrested a little while after. I was arrested by the police. They became aware that I was involved because someone had informed. The morning I was arrested there were some serious things going down, happening at the time. One of the people involved, this was one of the people who actually ratted on me. But they were not from Dunkirk. I was the only one who served time because I did not call anyone's name. Normally you get somebody who gets arrested and he will start the call other people's names. I was beaten by the police. I was questioned extensively. I did the time. I didn't call anyone's name so I alone was convicted for that robbery that four of us were involved in.

What was your sentence?

Initially I was sentenced to four 15 years and 12 lashes. Of course I appealed against my sentence and conviction. And it was later reduced to four 10 years to run concurrently and two lashes. So I received two lashes from the tamarind switch and I had to serve 10 years.

You then escaped twice…

I escaped twice from custody. The first time I escaped was when I was remanded to stand trial at the next session of the home circuit court. And that very day I escaped. I didn't allow them to take me back over to central lock up. Because I knew if I went over to central lock up I knew it would be very hard to escape. So I escaped that very day. The front page of the Star headline was "Daring escape of prisoner" because I jumped through a window and escaped. I was recaptured and then I escaped the second time.

The first time I escaped I was involved in a robbery. Warehouse break-in and larceny of a factory, out by Central Village. We went to remove a safe and… the place got burnt down. (laughs) I was charged along with another friend of mine, for warehouse break in and larceny and arson. That's a serious charge. So by then I had been sentenced and I was going to appeal against my sentence. I was going to court now leaving from General Penitentiary, in the remand section.

On the court date I had to be taken from GP to Spanish Town because the incident happened in the area. So I was taken to the Spanish Town courthouse and the person who was also arrested and charged with me, he was locked up in the Spanish Town jail.

So on one occasion when I was taken to Spanish Town Court, I was kept in the lock-up and my friend and I escaped from custody. The front page of the Star headline was "Mysterious escape of two prisoners" because we had actually tampered with the lock, we came out and other prisoners didn't even realise we had left. So that was the second time I escaped. After I escaped I was shot by the police and recaptured.

You were shot multiple times?

Yes, multiple times. After I was shot my mother was devastated. My mother said to me "This is killing me. This is killing your grandmother. Do it. Do the sentence. I'll be there for you". I love my mum dearly. I called her "Ruba my Love". I love my mum dearly and I was hurting my mum. And although my mum at one time had said to me "If you ever get into trouble, if you ever go to jail, I will never ever come and look for you. I will wash my hands", two days after I was arrested I got a communication from my mum. I got food. In that two day period was like "Wow" because I thought "My mum is keeping her word".

So I decided to do my sentence and my mother would visit me every single visiting day. I did not take visits from anyone else but my mother. If you wanted to see me or visit me you would have to come with my mother. And it would be a waste of time because I spent the time talking to my mum.

When you were in prison you started a correspondence course in writing…

Exactly. While I was in prison I started to do a correspondence course. ICS, the International Correspondence School which was based in Miami. And it was creative writing because I saw myself becoming a journalist, someone who would write and expose the ills of society. This was my newfound method of fighting against the system, using writing.

At the time, I must emphasise that there wasn't any rehabilitation programme taking place. It was the old penal institution. You were convicted of a crime, you were sentenced and you were sent to do hard labour. There was no emphasis on rehabilitation. The penal system was still governed by that same system from the time of slavery which was to punish. So for my doing a correspondence course, I had to fight. I mean, this was not something that was allowed. In fact, I cannot remember anyone at the time doing a correspondence course. At the time, you weren't allowed light in your cell. Because I was doing this correspondence course, after a while I was given a light.

My writing poetry was like a valve. Releasing that anger, that energy, from inside me

So how did the correspondence creative writing course turn into writing poetry?

It didn't really turn into writing poetry. My mum was paying for it and I did several lessons. After a while I just discontinued. I can't recall at this moment why but I discontinued for a while. My writing poetry was like a valve. It was like releasing that anger, that energy, from inside me. Because I was still angry. The system, the situation, the socio-political situation was made even clearer in prison. Because you are seeing young men from different communities, sufferers, people from the ghetto. So my poetry was really a valve. A sounding board. Like sounding out.

I would write about the conditions that led to prison. Like for example, Echo, my first collection of poems that was published. If one should read Echo one would find that there is no poem about prison, using the word prison, or being in prison, or the conditions in prison. There are about two poems where I talk about being in prison but not directly. There is a poem called Last Night.

That poem was written after I had not seen the moon for years and I was commenting on it. I was saying to the brethren's "Boy, a long time mi no see the moon". I was in a particular location at Spanish Town district prison where I was after I was sentenced. I was kept in a segment of the prison on a floor that where they kept escapees. On your door they would mark "Escapee" so that everyone will know you were an escapee. I was talking about not seeing the moon and one evening as it was getting to dusk towards dark a brother shouted me and said "Yo Fyah!" because that's what I was called - Fyah. A brother and said "Yo, Fyah! Look round the back here. You're going to love this!"

So I jumped up and there was a vent at the back of the cell. I jumped up and I looked. There was this moon. This full moon. Rising over the hills. A huge moon. That image still is fresh. It is vivid. I saw it and I was hanging up there until my fingers went numb. But when I came down I was glad to see the moon. I got a peek at the moon last night but normally when you think about the moon you think about romance. You think about love. I got a peek at the moon last night and saw a man with a load on his back - me. People around me. I got a peek at the moon last night and cried.

Then there's another poem called I Write About from when my first collection of poems were confiscated by the warders. They raided my cell. And I must interject here that myself and some other brothers cells were raided frequently. Sometimes you had the whole block being searched but then there were occasions when there were selected people who were searched. Because, I mean, we weren't ordinary prisoners. In fact, I didn't consider myself as a prisoner. Not just a criminal. I always referred to myself as a political prisoner.

The superintendent said "Why do you write so much about blood and tears and sufferation? Why do you not write about flowers?"

So on one of these raids of my cell and a few other brothers’, my poems were confiscated. All of my poems were confiscated. I was eventually summoned to the superintendent’s office. The superintendent had read my stuff and we were very radical in prison, we spoke about education, we didn't get involved in the regular prison runnings, we helped to revive the library. When I went to Saint Catherine district prison there was no library. The library wasn't being used. It was dilapidated shelves, old books, dust and all of that stuff. We contacted the Saint Catherine Parish library to get the library set up. We lobbied for having JAMAL, the Jamaica adults literacy programme which Michael Manley had started to eradicate illiteracy. We continued our education. There were brothers who couldn't read and write and we would help them, so the authorities didn't like that.

So, these poems were confiscated and I went before the superintendent. The superintendent said "Why do you write so much about blood and tears and sufferation? Why do you not write about flowers?" (Laughs)

In prison! (laughing)

So I looked, because his office was on the second floor. I looked and there was a prison wall, barbed wires and there were two John Crows sitting up there. I thought "Why is this guy asking about flowers? This guy can't be real!" But anyhow, I went back to my cell and that night I wrote a poem called I Write About.

"You ask why do you write so much about blood, sweat and tears? Don't you write about trees, flowers birds, love?" And my answer was "Yes, I write about trees with branches and severed roots. I write about flowers, flowers on graves. I write about birds, caged birds. I write about love. Love for the destruction of oppression."

I was echoing. I was reflecting

Now these poems, when you read them you wouldn't think about prison. Like Pressure Drop. "Hunger a twist man tripe”. Dread Times. These poems were written about the conditions of ones and ones. It was my sounding out. It was echo. Henceforth, my first collection of poems was called Echo. It was the voice. Because I would hear how the youths talk. "Fi I the ghetto youth, it's kind of cute, all day I trod earth, I look for work, til I shoe sole wear down, and I foot a touch the ground". I was echoing. I was reflecting. The conditions of the youths. The ones and ones around me. The conditions that they lived in. The conditions that created situations where they ended up in prison. A lot were innocent also. I met several brothers who because they didn't have the money to hire a lawyer, they were framed. Framed for robbery. A whole heap of people charged for ganja! (Laughs) In that time you got 18 months for the possession of ganja.

Read Part 2 of this interview here

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Posted by Guillaume Bougard on 10.20.2016
This person is fascinating. I would love to work with him and help him release new poems

Comments actually desactivated due to too much spams

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