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Interview: Oku Onuora in Kingston (Part 3)

Interview: Oku Onuora in Kingston (Part 3)

Interview: Oku Onuora in Kingston (Part 3)

By on - Photos by Veronique Skelsey - Comment

"I am a voice of the people"


Read part 2 of this interview

In the final part of our exclusive interview with Oku Onuora, he talks about his interactions with fellow poets Michael Smith and Linton Kwesi Johnson, his hiatus and return to performance and his political views…

Oku Onuora

How did you take your name, Oku Onuora?

I met a very feisty and forward young lady at the time by the English name of Phyllis Ranglin at the time. She was a student at the University of the West Indies. I met while I was in prison, Fort Augusta, because the theatre group that she was involved with was called Jamaica Playhouse and they were very famous. They had visited the prison and I met her back then. When I came out I would see her and we became involved. She was very fierce. Whatever she was doing she was extreme. Beautiful sister. She died a couple of years ago. The mother of my first set of my children.

I did a performance while I was at the Jamaica School of Drama and every year during the Christmas time they would have some concerts on the campuses like the Creative Arts Centre, Utech, at the time it was called CAST - College of Arts, Science and Technology. So the students’ body would have this concert at the Creative Arts Centre and I would perform. And when I came off stage this gentleman came up to me and he said "You are Oku Nagba Ozala Onuora" and I was like "What?" He said "You are Oku Nagba Ozala Onuora". He was from Nigeria. He is Igbo. He still teaches at the Jamaica School of Art. I was like "Wow! What does that mean?" He said "Oku Nagba Ozala" means "the fire that burns in the desert" and "Onuora" means "voice of the people" or "one who is immune from bad talk". I was like "Wow - that's cool".

This gentleman came up to me and said "You are Oku Nagba Ozala Onuora"

Phyllis and I, we were talking about changing names to shed off this identity, taking on new names that were meaningful that we could relate to. So when we decided to do that because she changed her name to Adugo. That was her first name. She didn't even take a last name because we were going to get married and she would take the Onuora. So I went back to this gentleman and he wrote out the name for me and I had it changed by deed poll. Hence Oku Nagba Ozala Onuora more known as Oku Onuora. (Laughs)

How did you get involved in the One Love Peace concert? Did you frequent the arts commune on Oxford Road?

No. I got a message from the organisers that they would like me to perform because by this time nothing like this was happening in Jamaica. I was known the length and breadth of Jamaica for reciting my poetry. I was very, very popular in the moment. My first collection of poems when it first came out it went through three or four editions in no time. The library couldn't keep a copy of the book. As soon as they got a few copies people would snatch them. In fact there was one report that appeared, I can't remember if it was Barbara Gloudon who had written about that particular incident, where a handcart man, a person pushing a handcart had a copy of Echo in his back pocket. And people were reciting my poems just like how they would be reciting Miss Lou’s poems.

I was known the length and breadth of Jamaica for reciting my poetry

Can you tell me a bit more about your relationship with Mikey Smith? I believe you performed together in Cuba?

Yes. You know what? You're asking me some questions that I have never been asked before. And I have never elaborated on it. So give thanks.

I met Mikey Smith when I did my first reading at the Tom Redcam Avenue library, the headquarters of the Jamaica library service. After I finished my performance Michael Smith approached me and said "I love the work". He told me that he had written poetry. At the time I was at the Fort Augusta prison and it was more liberal. I found myself in a more liberal situation because by this time people were demanding my release. I was well known. Rattray had talked about tabling the Bill for reformation of the penal institution so I was given additional visits. Not just the regular visits. So I said to Mikey Smith "You could visit me".

So Mikey Smith came to visit me in prison and he brought poems like Mi Cyaan Believe It and Goliath and some of his early work. I read them and I made some suggestions. Poems like Mi Cyaan Believe It, the version that people know that wasn't the version. But we talked about it. I didn't change it. We just spoke about it and I made some suggestions. That's how I met Mikey Smith. When I went to the Jamaica School of Drama Mikey Smith was also a student. By then Mikey Smith was a brilliant poet, an excellent poet, an excellent performer. Revolutionary. Warrior.

Mikey Smith was a brilliant poet. Revolutionary. Warrior

Capable of speaking in multiple voices.

Yes! Talented. Extremely talented. So after a while, when I was invited to do a performance, Mikey would be invited. At the time we were doing PNP YO and Workers Party of Jamaica which was headed by Trevor Munroe - and other organisations similar to that would be having a lot of concerts and events and we were invited. Especially the socialist influenced organisations who were having cultural events would invite people like me and Mikey Smith. So Mikey Smith and I would be performing on the same stage together after a while.

I would get something to do and I would be like "Yo, Mikey" and Mikey would come along. We would perform on the same bill whether he was billed for it or not. Mikey Smith was very fiery and he was very politically conscious. We performed in Cuba. We went to Cuba together. The event was the 11th World Festival Of Youth And Students. This started after World War II. That was where I met Lillian Allen also, the dub poet from Canada. She speaks of our encounter there. I must add here that I was in England. I met Linton.

Yes, that was the next question!

I met Linton Kwesi Johnson. I have never really spoken on this issue before so when you listen to the tape you will really know what was going on. I met Linton Kwesi Johnson through Mervyn Morris. I was in prison. Mervyn Morris attended a black book fair in London. He saw Linton performing and he approached Linton because Linton was involved in Race Today and another organisation, some publishers who had done a book fair in London. Mervyn Morris took some of my poems with him and he met Linton and he said "Yo, there is a brother by the name of Orlando Wong in prison and he reminds me of you. Here are some of his poems."

When Mervyn Morris came back to Jamaica he told me that he had met this person in London called Linton Kwesi Johnson and he was dealing with reggae poetry. I must hasten to say, it wasn't like I had heard Linton before I was doing my poetry. By then I was doing Dread Times and Pressure Drop and Echo in all of these poems before. So wasn't as if I'd heard Linton I have been writing. The poems in Echo were already written. I want to make this clear.

One can't coin the phrase "dub poetry"

I did not coin the phrase dub poetry. One can't coin the phrase dub poetry. Dubbed is an English word. In Jamaica reggae “give them dub”. You had “dub the music” you had “dubplate” back in those times there. Man dubbing. You had to dub it over. When you recorded you dubbed over. The dubplate. The dub-side or the version side. I wanted to distinguish myself just being a Jamaican poet. I wanted to describe what I was doing. So when I looked into it I was like "Wow" because I am influenced by this reggae music but it is not reggae poetry. So I said "dub poetry" because what I was doing was to with my poetry was making an effort to dub out some unconsciousness out of people’s heads and to dub in some consciousness. I dubbed the music into my poetry and I took the poetry further and dubbed it into music. I wasn't aware but Linton said he wrote an article and he referred to the deejays as dub poetry but I was in prison so I didn't know. I want that to be made clear I just described it that way because there was a whole movement of dub taking place in Jamaica. In fact when Linton’s three albums were described as reggae poetry not dub poetry.

Mikey Smith now, I was in London and Linton had some deal. I have never said this before. Because a whole heap of people they don't know and they just run up their mouths. Because you have some guys in Jamaica who take it upon themselves as self-appointed to write the history and say what they want to say. Because as I said before I don't need academia or any self-appointed guy whosoever to validate who I am and what I do. I said "dub poetry" and I will keep on dubbing. I was in London and Linton had a deal with Island records. He was supposed to hand Island records a project and probably, I don't know if he had to record an album of his own. But he approached me to do an album and I said "No". That is how Mikey Smith came about to do…

The LP Mi Cyaan Believe It.

Mi Cyaan Believe It. Because Linton said to I "Mek we do an album" and I said no. And I am glad I didn't do it at that moment because then it would be Linton producing it and Dennis Bovell and his band. I don't do anything in nobody’s shadow… Yeah, I am just stating a thing.

It gave Mikey the chance to do a fantastic album and then you did your own Pressure Drop LP.

Linton offered to produce my debut album and I said no

Yeah. Linton offered to produce my debut album and I said no. Because my debut album is significant. I believe in practising what I preach. In self-reliance. Talking about self-reliance and teaching people to be self-reliant and to do it yourself. So Pressure Drop, as a new artist as a new style or genre, I produced the album as an independent artist.

I wasn't earning a lot of money. In fact, I borrowed the money from the bank. I went to the bank and a brethren called Makonnen, he assisted me in getting money from Scotia Bank, the bank down by Crossroads. We are sitting in a historical area right now. Damion Crawford who in recent times was the Junior Minister of Culture, long before he talked about bank assisted artists we borrowed money from the bank to do Pressure Drop. I mortgaged a little house I had to do the album Pressure Drop. It was an independent album. The photographer that took the picture was a Jamaican, the art work was done by a Jamaican. I produced it.

I mortgaged my house to do the album Pressure Drop

Who played on it?

The musicians were all young musicians. Some of them had never played on an album before. We had people like Simon Rochester, we had people like Ras Bonitto, we had people like Courtney Panton who went on to play on several of Shaggy's hit albums including his diamond album. He toured with Monty Alexander in recent years. He played on Monty's album Love Notes. And when he played on my album he was just a young musician. Owen Blacka Ellis played percussion and did backing vocals. He is a known comedian in Jamaica and a known educator.

They had never done any recording like that before. People who years after became noted and known musicians. And the album is awesome. Pressure Drop is an awesome album. All original rhythms. Except for the Nyahbinghi piece Beat Yuh Drums. Cedric Brooks was the only seasoned musician who played on Pressure Drop.

How has your time spent in the theatre informed your music?

Oku OnuoraThe reason why went to the Drama School was, as I said before, because I couldn't deal with a 9-to-5 in the workplace situation. And theatre was a powerful means of communication. I was thinking of writing plays then with my poetry. Plays I had written like that radio play that had won the first prize on JBC radio. I wanted to write plays. I wanted to write film scripts and do movies. And I thought that studying theatre art would make me a better writer, a better screenwriter, playwright.

I appeared in one play called the Youth Against The Crown. It was a piece written about Michael Barnard who was in prison and was arrested but eventually freed up. But I have never ever taken to theatre. I have utilised my theatre training, the knowledge that I gained then, in my performance. You've probably seen me perform and know my kind of style. I utilised that kind of knowledge. It strengthens my stage performance, my presentation. It served in that way.

So when, in the 1980s, the music started to go digital and lyrical content changed - did it have any effect on your creative output as an independent artist?

It didn't really affect me you know? Because you must remember it was 1983 that my debut album Pressure Drop came out. After that I toured Europe. I was performing overseas extensively. I did Sunsplash. The first time that Jamaica saw a poet with the band behind him was 1980. The first time Sunsplash was held in Kingston during that election period. I went on to do another Sunsplash after that. I was performing outside of Jamaica by then. I toured with AK7, my band. We did things like Angolan Jazz Festival. We performed all over Europe. I as a solo, performing without my band, performing with Linton Kwesi Johnson. Linton and I did several rounds of Europe. So it didn't really affect me as such.

So you weren’t really that affected by what was being played on sound systems…

Yes because my because my stuff wasn't really sound system based. The first time I heard my stuff played on a sound system, I actually walked into a place in London and heard my music, Reflections in Red. I was like "What?" King Shaka was playing Reflections in Red! I was like "Wow!" But in the Jamaican dancehall my music has never ever been played. In fact, up until recently I have only released about three or four singles in Jamaica in my entire career. Pressure Drop was released in Jamaica years after it was released overseas. It was released because my brother Worrell King who does Western Consciousness said to me "Yo, what are you dealing with Pressure Drop not being released in Jamaica?" I was like "Me can't deal with that" and I gave him the rights to release in Jamaica. He took it to Tuff Gong.

In the Jamaican dancehall my music has never ever been played

Your last album A Movement, was a tribute to your wife Adugo, who passed away in 2011.

A movement was a tribute and a memory to Adugo. In fact, this week, there is the first annual Jamaica African Dance Arts And Crafts Fest in Ochi. And they will be paying homage and honouring her name. Adugo. Because, wow, she was fierce. She was involved in in the early movement with Pressure Drop. In fact, when you hear this "Lord, what me ago do?" in Pressure Drop that is her. That's Adugo. Together we had formed Progressive Artists Movement, PAM, that had reproduced my early works like Reflections in Red and Dread Times and the album Pressure Drop.

Another person who you lost was Mikey Smith in 1983.

Who was stoned. That was like, wow, wow. I love Mikey Smith. Mikey Smith is a great brother. You know, he had his ways and I understand what was happening to Mikey at one stage.

He struggled with mental illness?

Mikey was going through a period in his life. I am not a psychiatrist but Mikey was going through a period in his life…

I guess we'll never know.

We'll never know. It also reflects the viciousness of the Jamaican politics because Mikey had confronted a known politician. The day before Mikey was stoned there was a political meeting in Golden Spring and Mikey just shouted out some sound because Mikey was a very vociferous vocal person. Some followers, some misguided followers, some misguided people who supported the JLP party saw Mikey Smith and they stoned him to death in Stony Hill. Ironically on Marcus Garvey's birthday. Yes.

Tell me about the new material you've been working on. You just showed me your new single Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow.

I deliberately chose Yesterday Today Tomorrow. Although about 15 years ago I had recorded it on an album that was produced by some brethrens from New York. Different kinds of ambient dubs. Different stuff rhythm. When I was introduced to this rhythm the first thing I heard was Yesterday Today Tomorrow. And it is more relevant than when I did it 15 or 16 or 17 years ago. And when I did it before that - because it's from my first collection of poems which came out in 1977.

The poem basically speaks of my position - that I have not changed my position. “Yesterday you said Bongo man Congo man I.” Yesterday I spoke about these things saying Rastaman, conscious, I spoke about Ghana, Garvey, Nkrumah, Nyerere, Castro, Cuba, liberation, struggle. And yesterday some people said they think these are foolishness, no big thing. Today I am saying what I said yesterday and today I saying "Bongo man Congo man, dread I Rastafari, roots, Garvey the greatest, Pan Africanism". Tomorrow I'll be saying what I said today and what I said yesterday. So tomorrow, what will you be saying? I will still be saying the same thing.

And I have seen it manifested. I see people who in the 70s were socialist - not even democratic socialist - but were Socialists, who were communists. We see people who were Rasta, we see people who were conscious. Today I see they have changed and I laugh. So today they go on that thing and then tomorrow they say different things. I man solid as a rock. Some will change but I will never. The same thing. The struggle continues.

When I release an album, which is few, it is a complete work, it is a body of work. So the title is important. The title is a reflection of the collection of work. A Movement is signalling, saying that the movement still continues. Because a whole heap of people get buyout, get co-opted. I am serious. A whole heap of people have become comfortable. Rasta are doctors now, Rasta are lawyers, Rasta own business places and Rasta live up beside Matalon up on Beverly Hills. A whole heap of ones, they have become gentrified.

So there is a movement on the ground, quiet like flow, of current below, Old Man River, turning rocks to pebble, pebbles to sand. Yeah man, there is a movement on the ground. So the movement continues. And on A Movement I have done stuff that I have never done before. Like I did over someone's poem. I did Bob Marley’s Running Away. Monty Alexander and I did Running Away. Monty Alexander also plays on the title track, A Movement. I didn't know Monty so I found someone who knew him and we made that link up.

Some will change but I will never

He came in the studio to play on A Movement. He came in the studio and we were playing Running Away and when he finished playing on A Movement he said "Let me hear Running Away" and he started to play. That is how he ended up playing on that. A Movement is more of a work revisiting some works - because when I released A Movement in 2013 those tracks were probably recorded about 15 years ago in New York. I didn't have anything to do and Courtney Panton had a studio down from I, so I would go down there and do some tracks. Now I am working on some new projects, apart from Yesterday Today Tomorrow.

Tell me about these new projects.

The new album, I'm not giving a release date yet, but definitely the new album will be titled I Have Seen. Because I have seen a lot. I am in the studio working on a new single called Up. Because we're giving thanks and I have seen a lot. I have straddled two centuries, the 20th and the 21st century. I have seen my debut album come out on vinyl and cassette and then it was available on CD, now it is the age of download and it is available on download also. It is still selling. So I have seen a lot and there is a movement.

How will this new single and this new album be distributed to the public?

I am actually talking to some people about vinyl and download. Because vinyl is happening at the moment. More than likely Akashic Records might be putting out. Because I have a beautiful relationship with Michael, Mikey B from Akashic records. And this project is a beautiful project. In fact this project spearheaded his recent releases. The rhythm was actually created by a brethren, King Alpha from out of London. So, Up, more than likely… then we'll see with the album. And in between up we'll have one or two other projects coming out. I don't want to talk too much about them. A thing with Caveman on a rhythm that Fred Locks did a while ago.

At one point you didn't like doing interviews. What changed?

Well, I have done a lot of interviews Angus. I have done a whole heap of interviews and after a while I'd spend a long time and be asked these same questions and when the interviews were published I was like "Really? Did this person interview me?" I am serious. They were telling their thing. I was like "Really?" So after a while I was being asked the same kinds of questions.

I find this interview to be very refreshing and revealing. Because I said things in this interview that I have never ever said and I've been doing interviews since - wow! - since 1977 with magazines from all over. And then after a while I really didn't have anything to really say. Because I was being asked the same questions on a situation that has not really changed.

There was a time also when I stopped performing. I stopped. I was recording but I wasn't performing and I wasn't doing any interviews. And this came about because of what was taking place musically. What was taking place in the Jamaican music industry as a whole. I had taken a hiatus. I didn't like what was happening.

I can remember in the days before when I had just come out of prison in 1977, ’78, ’79. I was performing on stage with Dennis Brown, Gregory Isaacs, people like Third World. Backstage there was a great vibe, a great vibes backstage. There was a lot of love backstage. And then after a while I saw things change drastically. People were like screwing up their face and rude and the whole vibes changed. People would be like pushing you out of the way. There was a different element in the industry. And I was like "No, I am not a part of this. I am not a part of this".

We talked about Linton Kwesi Johnson and we talked about Mikey Smith. Linton might describe himself as a socialist. He told me in an interview that Mikey was closer to an anarchist in his views. How would you describe your own perspective?

I am a voice of the people. I have this burning desire, always had this burning desire, to see meaningful changes take place in Jamaica and the world re. working class people, re. general living conditions of the mass of the Jamaican people. I have this burning desire - as always I have had this burning desire - to fight against oppression where it concerns people being oppressed because of race, because of religion.

But first and foremost I have that ever-burning desire to topple the system where people are dying, where there are homeless people, people struggling to survive. People being victimised and oppressed because of the colour of their skin. I don't check you. I don't check hue. H u e. It is spiritual. Spirit I a deal with. I fight against spiritual wickedness in high and low places. I fight against black and white downpressors or oppressors. For want of a better word, I consider myself a revolutionary. A person who wants to bring about social and political change for the betterment of the majority of people in this country, in Jamaica, and other parts of the world.

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