Guided by the production expertise of guitarist Earl “Chinna” Smith, Jamaican poet Mutabaruka first set his unabashed rhymes to music on the 1983 album Check It. Decrying “The System Is A Fraud” and cautioning “it no good to stay inna witeman country too long,” Check It married sharpened word-weaponry and blistering reggae rhythms into a formidable union ordained to shake the wicked down. Possessing a leonine mane of dreadlocks graced with a natural white streak in the center and always defiantly barefoot, Muta performed bare-chested, wrapped in chains throughout his 1983 debut tour of the U.S., which was hailed (surprisingly) by People magazine as a “fascinating combination of politics and music.”
Fascinating indeed, but the more commonly used adjective for describing Mutabaruka’s various artistic endeavors over the past 20 years is controversial, his scathing narratives censuring everything from organized religion to the four basic food groups. While some poems succeed solely on the inspired theatrics of Muta’s readings, his writing, at its most powerful and provocative, deconstructs, in fact bulldozes preconceived perceptions of race, sex and politics, exposing many lies that have been handed down for centuries as “his-story.”
“I am Christopher Columbus,” Muta chanted in his poem “Columbus Ghost” from his 1994 Melanin Man CD. “I inspired Mussolini, Botha, Bush, I exterminated, perpetuated hatred/I attack Arawak, cut off their head/ wrote instead that the Caribs ate them like bread.”
Born Allen Hope in Kingston, Jamaica, Mutabaruka was briefly employed by the Jamaican phone company. He read a poem by Rwandan poet Mutabaruka (which means one who is always victorious) and promptly changed his name and quit his job. “The name Allen Hope does not reflect an African man,” says Muta, “and that poem just felt like my destiny.”
Mutabaruka began writing poetry in 1967, when African-American revolutionaries such as Malcolm X and Eldridge Cleaver were at the forefront of social change in the U.S. and Guyanese activist/writer Walter Rodney was raising the political consciousness of students at Jamaica’s University of the West Indies. In his earliest poems, Muta adapted their teachings along with tenets of the Rastafarian way of life, which extols the divinity of Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie I and urges identification with and repatriation to Africa.
“Rastafari wasn’t only dealing with a social consciousness but a spiritual awakening and that grabbed me,” Mutabaruka recalls. “Growing up in a Christian home we weren’t allowed to identify ourselves with ourselves; we used to have to identify with a white Jesus and I say the white Jesus has totally wreaked havoc in the mind of black people.”
Mutabaruka’s artistic direction was also profoundly influenced by Jamaican folklorist Louise “Miss Lou” Bennet, who wrote poetry in patois, the language of the average Jamaican, and spearheaded an appreciation of the dialect—long regarded by the society’s upper echelon as vulgar or corrupted English—as a language of immense vitality and cultural significance. Mutabaruka who writes and records all of his poetry in patois, paid tribute to Bennet in the poem “Miss Lou”: “dem used fi say wi mus speak an’ twang but yuh mek wi proud seh wi a Afrikan/wi love how yuh chat, (but) some nuh love dat.”
The term dub poetry, usually ascribed to Jamaican poets who set their rhymes to reggae music, was first coined in a 1975 pamphlet, Race And Music, written by Jamaican born, British raised activist/poet Linton Kwesi Johnson [see profile in this issue]. The phrase honors the Jamaican creation of dub music, which often strips a song to its core elements of d