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Interview: Oku Onuora in Kingston (Part 2)

Interview: Oku Onuora in Kingston (Part 2)

Interview: Oku Onuora in Kingston (Part 2)

By on - Photos by Veronique Skelsey - Comment

"I started to smuggle out my poems to my mother"


Read part 1 of this interview

In part 2 of our exclusive interview with Oku Onuora he explains how his poetry secured his release from prison, and performing with the Light Of Saba influenced him to try recording…

Oku Onuora

So how did your poems manage to escape from prison and get out to the people?

“Ruba my love”. After my first collection of poems was confiscated I rewrote some of them from memory. Because even now with my poems, the poem is normally finished or almost finished in my head before I put it on paper. Because I come from an oral tradition also. My poetry is more influenced by the music, by reggae, than literature. It is more informed by the music, by the early revolutionary protest music as opposed to Chaucer, Shakespeare, Louise Bennett. To be truthful, in my early days I saw Miss Lou as a folk poet. She was funny and I wasn't into laughing thing. It was in later years that I realised how this woman was using this medium to convey some serious messages. But I was mostly influenced by the music, by reggae.

I decided "Yo, these dudes ain't going to do this again. They ain't going to get my work". So I started to smuggle out my poems to my mother. My mother would send money and stuff to me in prison because she decided to do the sentence with me. So people would get paid, warders would get paid. There were one or two warders who were angels really. I would say that in every system force everywhere, you have angels. So in the prison system there were warders who were angels who are there to protect I and I. In the police force there are people that are there and who have saved a whole heap of lives.

So my poems were smuggled out to my mother. My mother would receive my poems and she would stash them. Eventually, my letters that I would write to correspond with people, I'd send them to my mother and my mother would take them and deliver them to wherever.

My poetry is more influenced by the music, by reggae, than literature

How did your poems get published?

My first poem that was publicly published was done so via the aid from a sister by the name of Barbara Gloudon. We call her Sister B. She is a noted journalist. She worked at the Gleaner. She was the first female editor of a major Jamaican paper. It was an evening paper, the Star. She was the first one who facilitated one of my poems being published. She had a column in the Saturday Star, the weekend Star, called Stella. Stella was written in the Jamaican language. Beautifully written and she dealt with social issues. So in her column, Stella, she would speak about different incidents. She was socially conscious.

I would read her column and I would look forward to getting her column. The paper came out on Saturday but sometimes I didn't get to read it until Monday or Tuesday. Most of the time when you actually got to get out a newspaper it would be days old. But I would always look out for that column. I wrote once commending her on her column, saying how beautiful the column was. How I loved what she wrote about and all that stuff. I sent it to her via my mum and I'm sure she just received this letter. My mum didn't deliver it to her personally but it was addressed to her and it was delivered to her.

Then a brother by the name of Alric Denham, who was very important in my history, assisted me, they were a part of the whole vibration. He is still alive. Alric was very involved in the Rastafari movement and the culture, the African culture. He was part of a movement out in Saint Thomas called Harambe. The Harambe drummers and they dealt with theatre. Harambe is a Swahili word by the way. I met him while I was in jail because he was arrested for ganja and then he got bailed. And then the next time I saw him was in Saint Catherine district prison where he was convicted for the possession of ganja. So that's how I got to know Alric and he came to visit.

Alric went to visit Barbara Gloudon because as I said she was very socially conscious. This was in the mid 70s. She said "You know, I got a letter from the brethren in prison. His name is Orlando Wong. I got a letter from this brother and it touched me.” Alric said "I know the brother". So the connection was made with my mother and from then on I had that connection with Barbara Gloudon. I sent her a few of my poems via my mum and she had one published in the newspaper. Then she passed on my works to Leonie Forbes because Leonie Forbes at the time was a known Jamaican actress and radio personality, broadcaster who has been in a number of early Jamaican films. Children of Babylon for one. She is a theatre person.

Leonie Forbes then passed them on to Mervyn Morris. Mervyn Morris is now Jamaica's Poet Laureate. The first Poet Laureate since Jamaica got independence. But back in the days Mervyn was a professor who taught in the English department of the University of the West Indies. Mervyn got the poems and he was like "Wow". He started to visit me while I was in prison to talk about my poetry and all of that stuff.

So these people started to get the word out to the wider public…

I actually entered the Jamaica Literary Competition which is conducted during our independence celebration period. I entered three poems one year and I won three awards. The next year I entered three other poems and I won three more awards also. This was not sanctioned by the prison authorities. The poems were smuggled out. But by this time people on the outside were hearing about me because of the poems that were published, because of Leonie Forbes reading my poems on the air. So people on the outside were hearing about me and the prison authorities were seeing that these big journalists were my friends.

Also at that particular time in the 70s the PNP government was in power. Michael Manley was championing what is known as democratic socialism. Michael Manley was a man of the people. Michael Manley championed the rights of working class people. For example the National Housing Trust was formed under Michael Manley's government to provide low income housing for working class people. Michael Manley said there were no more bastards, all children were equal. Education for all. So for the first time, children from Trench Town and children from Dunkirk would be able to go to JC and Munro colleges, high schools and colleges that prior to then were off-limits to people from these areas. So you had people now who were taking an interest in what was taking place in prison. So you had people like Sheila Carter, from the theatre, because the artists have always led struggles. Artists have always been at the forefront of most struggles wherever in the world. Because the artist, he or she has their hands on the pulse of the people. The artists reflect. Well some artists. You have some artists who will reflect on and paint glowing pictures of the oppressor.

Or provide escapism during difficult times.

Artists have always led struggles

Yes. But then, on the whole, the artists, the poets, the writers, the musicians, since time immemorial, the artists were people who were an echo. Or reflection. They would echo the people's voice. They would reflect the people's mood and the situation. Even in history, when historians write history books, they refer to literature and to art. Because the fine artist, the painter he would be painting pictures of the times. The poet, the musician, they are using the language of the people, depending on which social class they were representing because you always have people representing different interests.

So after a while my poems were broadcast, published and soon I was invited because of Mervyn Morris’ input to PEN Jamaica. Poets, Essayists And Novelists is an international organisation but this was the Jamaican chapter. They set up a reading so I could do a reading to the public at the Tom Redcam Avenue library. This was the headquarters of the Jamaica library service. To me those things are important. Certain things are important. Because even then and even now I am like "Wow, look at that. My first public reading". But I was escorted by two warders.

At the time there was no rehabilitation programme. So although you have people who were coming into prison and there was a movement that was taking place, the prison authorities were getting really uneasy and jittery. So much so that people like myself and other brothers who were in Hell - because I call it Hell - were considered dangerous and subversive and henceforth my cell was being raided, my works confiscated and all of that.

So there was a particular incident where there was a plot to kill some brothers in Hell, Spanish Town district prison. And I was included in the plot. Somehow, we found out on the grapevine what was happening. The people were supposed to have initiated an incident so that so that we could be killed by the other prisoners or by the warders. But we found out what was going on and we struck before. That led to riots in Saint Catherine district prison. Those riots spread to the institutions all over the island. This led to the Barnett Commission of Enquiry. Dr Lloyd Barnett, who was from the University of the West Indies.

I actually addressed the Barnett Commission of Enquiry. We formed a group to represent people in Hell and we addressed the Barnett commission of enquiry. I was responsible for speaking about education. Another brother was responsible for addressing sports. Another brother was for rehabilitation. So we presented from our angle.

A short while after, another upheaval took place. And that led to the Farquharson commission of enquiry. I also was able to address them. I was cast into a role, for want of a better description, talking about the conditions that were in Hell. So during my time in prison I actually stood before two enquiries in prison talking about conditions and what could be done.

Eventually, I was allowed out to do some readings. But I was always escorted by two warders. So I did the Tom Redcam Avenue library and I did several other public readings. I can remember doing a reading at the University of the West Indies at the student union. It was organised by the PNP youth organisation. And when I went to this reading, because it was a cultural event, because it was a cultural show, I declared to the crowd that this would be my last night. I wouldn't be coming out reading poetry because I felt as if I was being used. It was like a poppy show. I said "No more poppy show. This is my last reading". Because it was very painful going on the outside and then being taken back to prison.

In fact, I saw Muta for the first time in my audience when I did a reading at the Creative Arts Centre. I didn't even know his name but one of his daughters started to cry and people were like "Shhh - be quiet". I said "No, let the child cry, it was like music to my ear because when I leave here I am going into a space where I will be hearing the screams, the silent screams of those who are incarcerated". I can never forget that. It's kind of emotional. Wow. Sometimes I go back in time. It doesn't happen often.

My first audience was the brothers in Hell

You also performed with the Light of Saba while in prison.

Ah! Yeah! My first experience of dubbing. I'd normally write my poems in the night, when we locked down. I get up in the morning and I'd say to my brethrens "Yo, mi have a poem! A poem named Pressure Drop!" And I'd read the poem. So the brothers knew and they would be like "Yo, Fyah! You have a new poem!" So I was known as a poet because my first audience was the brothers in Hell. I'd share with them.

The Light of Saba came to perform at Saint Catherine district prison. The brothers were like "Yo! You have to chant a poem! " I was eventually allowed to chant a few poems. That was when I met Cedric Im Brooks and some of the members of Light of Saba but Cedric stood out in my head. And I got up on stage and I started recite some of the poems. And being versatile musicians they would play and start the rhythm behind me because they were moved to get involved. And I started to chant and I did several poems.

Of course, the next day I was summoned to the superintendent office. Because there were visitors, there were journalists. They were saying "Boy, why you have to read about the Dread Times and all of that stuff!" But that was that. That was my first time working with music. Dread Times got a bronze medal in a literary competition. A poem I smuggled out. The judge's report, I have been trying to find it, from the JCDC… what do you call it?

The Jamaica Cultural Development Commission?

Yes! You know what goes on Angus! In recent times I have been to get the judges report and I cannot believe it. They do not have 1976 judges report. They do not have any report for me before 1977. And this organisation was set up to preserve the kind of work! Up until 1976 they don't have any record. But the judge then said "Echo signals the new trend in Jamaican poetry in that it introduces the reggae rhythm." When I recite my poetry without music there is the reggae rhythm in it. One hears rhythm in my poem. One can do a kind of affected speech like (puts on poetic voice) "Me ago talk to Angus now, me ago do an interview and mek it sound like..." No! "Earth ablaze, man a rage, man have fi live in a shanty, food and clothes scanty. Cost of living get so high, man have to shop with him eye, in these days when rain not even fall from sky. Man bruk, man want wuk, man fret, man don't know where the next meal come from yet". It's all on that one drop. So yes I had that experience with Light of Saba. That was my experience, my introduction to actually working with live music.

How did Light of Saba come to visit the prison?

During that period, like 1974 or ’75 there was a movement taking place in Jamaica. Michael Manley and the social consciousness. In terms of the culture, Michael Manley was making sweeping reforms. The government of the day were open to changes, so you had people who were coming into prison. We have all kinds of people, people from theatre, intellectuals, the University, young students from the University of the West Indies. It was that time. So they would have concerts in prison from time to time. Because to people in prison, you offer a little bit of relief from time to time, measured really.

But at that particular time in our history, the PNP government was in power, democratic socialism, there was a lot of culture. The cultural movement was at its heights. You had the WPJ, the Workers Party of Jamaica, there was a new wave of consciousness in the air. You had reggae music, Bob Marley, Third World, Burning Spear. The socio-political movement that was taking place. And Saba came in to perform for us. It wasn't a regular thing. Probably that was the first and only time for the year that it happened. Because it was during the holidays. During Christmas time.

You had people writing wall slogans "Free Orlando Wong"

Was there a recording of this performance?

Not that I know of. I have never come across any recording of that. This was like, what 1974 or ’75.

How did your sentence come to be reduced and you find yourself freed?

I was sentenced to four 15 years in 1970 or ’71. I appealed against conviction and sentence. My sentence was eventually reduced to four 10 years and two lashes because initially it was 15 years and 12 lashes. It was reduced when I appealed and the appeal court reduced my sentence to 10 years and two lashes. I was serving the time of 10 years. I had received my two lashes I was serving the time.

Then, because of what was happening in my poetry I became known outside. People started to request that I be freed. So you had people writing wall slogans "Free Orlando Wong". My poems were being read all over, on the air. In fact, I sent out some poems to a brother by the name of Jeremy Verity, he lives in France now. He was at JBC and I believe Mervyn Morris was one of the people who was instrumental in getting him to do a programme on JBC radio on a Sunday. It was a poetry show. I sent him my poems and he had a programme already lined up for that Sunday. But when he got my poems he scrapped that and he read my poems that Sunday evening.

Oku OnuoraIt created a wave. By this time I had entered the Festival Literary Competition, I had16 awards in two years, my poems had been read on the radio, they were published in the Gleaner, people were talking about me. So people from the socialist movement started saying "Free Orlando Wong! We need to free this person". At the time Carl Rattray was the Minister of Justice and he was the person who tabled the Bill in Parliament to bring about penal reform in Jamaica.

Because then, the penal reform was from the colonial government, we had things like the Vagrancy Law, these laws were framed immediately after slavery to protect the land owners. So you could be arrested for being a suspected person and all of that shit. So at that time Carl Rattray tabled a Bill to bring about rehabilitation, parole, and all of that. And in Parliament, when he was tabling that Bill, he called my name. He said "There is a young man by the name of Orlando Wong who is in prison" so he used me as an example of why prison reform and rehabilitation is needed. So people were protesting and the petition was written to the Governor General of Jamaica asking for me to be pardoned. It was the Governor General who eventually granted me a reprieve. And I was released.

What was the date of your release?

I am not sure. I believe it was like August 1. This was 1977 when the Two Sevens Clash. Historic year. Because, you know Culture talk about when the Two Sevens Clash and Garvey had talked about that and people were looking for upheaval. But there was an upheaval. I was free.

So when you left prison how did you come to record Reflections In Red?

When I left prison I went straight to the Jamaican School of Drama. Then it was called Creative Arts Centre - the CAC - before it got the name Edna Manley College. Because when the people, Barbara Gloudon and them, were petitioning the Governor General and it was showing signs of actually happening, people were saying to me "You've got to get a job or go into some institution". When I say that I mean an academic institution, back to school or to get a job.

There was a paper called the Daily News that was situated in Halfway Tree, by the end of Oxford Road. It was around for a short time. They offered me a job as a journalist. But I was like “No”. I didn't want to be restricted. Coming out of prison - to talk about getting a 9-to-5 job - no. So as opposed to this burning desire to become a journalist I saw poetry, theatre as a means, as this powerful means of communicating with people. Of using arts, performing arts, especially poetry and theatre as a weapon to bring about mental and spiritual liberation. So I decided to enter the Drama School.

By then, I had won the first prize in the playwriting competition. There was a programme called Wisdom. The target group were young people, teenagers. They had this playwriting competition for radio plays. I entered that with a play called Confrontation. Long before Bob Marley's Confrontation album I must say. I wrote this play by hand. It took me like two days. The main character was called Man Ganja. I submitted the play - of course you had to use a pseudonym so they wouldn't know who had written the play – and the play won first prize. One of the prizes was the play would be produced by the Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation Radio Play unit.

The play was produced and it was the first time in the history of JBC radio that they were recording a radio play outside of the JBC studios. It was recorded in Fort Augusta prison where we had people from the outside and people in Hell participating. Dennis Brown's father, who was a known actor at the time, was involved in that. So this was how I met people like Fae Ellington. Charles Hyatt who was a known comedian in Jamaica and a news broadcaster, directed the play. Unfortunately there is no record of it but this made news. It was the first radio play that JBC broadcast twice in one week. Normally if they broadcast a play and people liked it and requested it they would broadcast it two or three weeks down the line. But the request for the reply was so overwhelming that the following Sunday it was rebroadcast. Next question.

I believe in practising what you preach. I believe in self-reliance

We haven't finished this question! (laughing)

Yes! Reflections In Red. So I'm out on the streets and I'm going to attend the Jamaica School of Drama. This was like two years after I was out of prison and I decided to record a piece of work. Because by then I was working, there were a lot of stage shows taking place in Jamaica. There was one that took place every Christmas on Boxing Day at Carib Theatre. Concerts were kept in cinema places like Globe Theatre, Carib Theatre, Rialto Theatre, the Palladium Theatre in the country. You had people like Dennis Brown, Big Youth and all these people before me. I would get a spot on the shows so I would be performing with people like Dennis Brown and Peter Tosh. I would be performing on bills with these people as a poet.

There were no other poets doing that. None. Nobody. Then, after a while, Mikey Smith came along. I met Mikey at my first reading. My first reading at the Tom Redcam Avenue library. Mikey Smith came up to me and said "Yo!” I said to him "You can visit me" because at the time I was at Fort Augusta prison. I was removed from Saint Catherine district prison because I was considered a threat and they wanted to get me out of that environment.

So I decided to record a piece. I believe in practising what you preach. I believe in self-reliance. At the time, what I was doing, producers weren’t into that. So I decided I was going to produce it myself. Around the time I was making the decision to produce my first single, there was the One Love Peace concert. A truce was called – One Love (laughs) I performed at a Peace concert and I recited Reflections In Red! "There can be no peace" because Peter Tosh said "There can be no peace until there is equal rights and justice".

(Laughs because Tosh is playing in the background)

So I performed that poem at the One Love concert and people were upset! The organisers, the man them from Tivoli and the other man them! This little poet coming on – apart from Peter Tosh doing his thing – and saying "There can be no peace until there is equal rights and justice and the beat well red and the scene well dread and man them a loot and shoot and man them from Rema, Jungle a bungle a dance and prance to some heavy reggae rhythm".

So when I decided to record I said "I am going to record this poem". People were like "No man! Record Dread Times" because people had known Dread Times and it won an award in the Literary Competition. Dread Times was in my first collection of poems Echo, that was published while I was in prison. That was on the bestsellers list in Jamaica for five weeks at number one, in the Sunday Gleaner literary section. People knew the poem and I was reciting the poem all over Jamaica before I came from prison. People knew Pressure Drop, Dread Times, Echo, and I chose to do a poem that people didn’t know. But I didn’t struggle about it. I recorded Reflections In Red. Steve Golding assisted me. I didn't even have a tape. Steve Golding loaned me a tape so I recorded Reflections In Red.

At the time, what I was doing, producers weren’t into that

How did you link with Steve Golding?

During that time I was performing all over Jamaica. I was performing on the stage where people like Steve Golding were playing. I met Steve Golding and we became friends. I became friends with a number of musicians during that time. Howard Bedasse, played bass, Steve Golding played guitar. Steve Golding was instrumental there. That was my production. I paid musicians, I paid for studio.

How did it get put out by Bob Marley?

I had met Bob shortly after I came from prison. I didn't know Bob from Trench Town. I met Bob via sister Judy Mowatt. While I was in Fort Augusta prison sister Judy Mowatt donated a typewriter to me. When my book of poems came out she got a copy. Bob was in Miami at the time and she took my poems to Bob. Bob read them and Bob said "Wow - I'd like to meet this brother". So by the time I was released, Bob was in Jamaica. Bob requested to see me and I went to check Bob. He was living nearby Kingshouse at the time. Not at Tuff Gong or 56 Hope Road label. I went and was introduced to Bob by Judy Mowatt. Bob and I we talked and Bob said "If you need any helping you should check me".

And the next time I saw Bob I had a finished product. I had artwork, it was mixed, the stamper was done. Bob laughed. Bob said "Wow, I tell the man if he needs helping and the man comes with a finished product". Bob was not used to something like that. People would come to Bob and they want to studio to record because Tuff Gong was up and running. And he called Diane Jobson who was the lawyer and Tommy Cowan and Sangie Davies and he was like "Yo!" It really blew his mind that somebody had finished product, artwork, everything.

It came out on the 56 Hope Road label. One of the few records on the 56 Hope Road label. Alan Magnus had a morning show and he was playing Reflections in Red. One morning he came on the air and said - because it was like a signature tune - “Mi ago play Reflections in Red because they say “Boy, they don't want hear those things in the early morning". So when people talk about their music being stopped from being played on the radio, I experienced that first hand in more than one way.

So that's how we had Reflections in Red. It was my first production. In fact, when I produced Reflections in Red I was still attending the Jamaica School of Drama. There was a dispute between myself and the student council at the time. It was about the time when the student council was electing the president of the campus. I walked in one morning and there was this noticeboard talking about carnival and all of that shit. There was a real issue with accommodation for students who were coming in from the rural area. Not just from the drama school because you had the arts school, the music school and the dance school.

There were students who are facing some real struggles and issues and they were talking about carnival. So I wrote something on it to that effect saying "rubbish". The newly appointed president of the student union was upset with that. I was asked to apologise and I refused. I was told that I shouldn't come back to attend classes unless I apologised and I didn't do that. I said "Fuck you all" - pardon my Jamaican. But fuck is an English word, it is not obscene. I said "Get away from me".

So when my fellow students were graduating, getting a diploma from the Jamaica School of Drama I had produced my first single, my first poster, my first t-shirt, my first play of poetry-theatre-presentation. So that was my graduation and I feel proud. That makes me feel strong because I wasn't certified or validated by the system. I was producing my first single which is a critically acclaimed international single. I don't like to ring my own bell but that happened. Back then I did a stage production called Echo which is the name of my first collection of poems. Echo was a stage presentation where I used recorded music, live music, backdrop, set and a dancer to present my work. Back then they called it reggae theatre. Not how the English spell theatre but “teartah” in the Jamaican language.

Read Part 3 of this interview here

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