Dub Poetry as a Postmodern Art Form

Self-conscious of Critical Reception

Authored by: Michael A. Bucknor

The Routledge Companion to Anglophone Caribbean Literature

Print publication date:  June  2011
Online publication date:  June  2011

Print ISBN: 9780415485777
eBook ISBN: 9780203830352
Adobe ISBN: 9781136821745


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Dub poetry is Jamaica’s gift of a new art-form to the literary world. Yet this gift has sparked critical contention among dub practitioners and Caribbean cultural critics regarding the genre’s classification, definition and reception. What is debated in these clashes is the genre’s poetic legitimacy, political potency, artistic source and its inherent dynamism. Dub poetry developed during the 1970s through the work of Jamaican poets living in Jamaica and the Caribbean diaspora in Britain and Canada, with what might be its earliest publication in the ground-breaking, but controversial Savacou 3/4 Special Issue of 1970/1971. Jonathan Morley (2007) claims the 1968 street protests (against the Jamaican government’s ban of Guyanese academic and activist, Walter Rodney, from Jamaica) provided the crucible for dub poetry’s explosion onto the literary scene (2007: 134). Corroborated by Anne Walmsley’s 1992 account of the Caribbean Artist’s Movement, this claim of an activist frame, would certainly be an appropriate point of origin for dub poetry, since it attempts to bring art and activism into a close and mutually-informing relationship (Walmsley 1992: 191–200) Others, however, have claimed musical, performance, linguistic and other literary sources for the burgeoning of this art form (Dawes 1999; Brathwaite 1984; Allen 1993; Pearn 1985 in Habekost 1993). No doubt, all these factors – the impact of reggae music and its emerging technologies, the championing of creole as a ‘serious’ poetic tool by Louise Bennett and the celebration of a strong oral/performance tradition – have influenced the aesthetics of dub. Consequently, dub poetry is characterized by its reliance on musical support and sound techniques, its use of a demotic language – creole speech, dread talk, ‘nation language’ – its exploitation of speech rituals and resources of the oral tradition – warning, prophesy, name-calling, cursing, call and response – and by allusiveness, proverbial wisdom and verbal wit. It has also embraced textualizing practices as Bucknor (1998), Casas (2004) and Gingell (2005) have shown. Dub’s aesthetic experimentation was driven as well by various ideological, counter-discursive pressure points from black consciousness, decolonization, Garveyism, Rastafarianism, Marxism/socialism to anti-colonial nationalism. Not surprisingly, issues of oppression, injustice, inequality, discrimination and the various hegemonic discourses of imperialism, capitalism, racism and patriarchy are challenged as dub poets seek to raise people’s consciousness about the perniciousness of these hegemonies. In the ‘radical atmosphere of the 1970s’, Christian Habekost claims this artistic revolution as the main reason academia accepted dub since ‘the new art form [provided] an inspiring and rejuvenating force within modern literature’ (1993: 16).

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