"Bad Haircuts and Madness..." An Homage To My Father and Linton Kwesi Johnson

Written by Jason Reynolds.

My first haircut in a proper barbershop didn’t happen until the week before I entered high school. Before that, my father, a self-proclaimed DIY master, took pride in giving me the most unimpressive impressions of whatever the current trend was. My flat top was uneven but not enough to be a Gumby. My fades always ended up looking like bowl cuts. And there was the one time he tried a mo-hawk without me even asking him to.Needless to say…not cool.

But sitting in a rickety kitchen chair with a pilly bath towel thrown over my front, and the black Sweeney Todd eager to “try something new” wasn’t all bad. Besides being bent on using his children as tutoring tools for his desire to be a self-taught everything, my father was also a music maven.

As a self-trained guitarist (of course) my brother and I were forced — privileged — to hear everything sitting in that old wooden kitchen chair, while puffs of thick hair, along with our school-cool fell to the floor like clumped ash. Tracy Chapman. The Police. Nirvana (I swear he discovered them). Hendrix. The Chambers Brothers. War. Shuggie Otis. And the list goes on and on. But there was one guy, really one song by one guy, that always sent my father into a flailing fit, which when I think about it, could’ve been the reason for all the jacked up haircuts.

funny hair
                                         Linton Kwesi Johnson. (Photo credit unknown.)

The song began with an acapella voice, a patois’d accent: “Madness. Madness. Madness tight on di heads of di rebels.” Then, in came a rush of the drums and bass line, the all too familiar reggae groove that I had heard every morning when my father played Bob Marley in the car while dropping me off at school.
But this was different. Not Bob Marley at all. The voice, the style, so odd mainly because this man whose name I learned was Linton Kwesi Johnson, wasn’t singing at all. He was just…talking. To say that he recited poetry would be like saying my father played these songs simply because he liked them, which in turn would be an oversimplification of this entire set of memories.

Linton playing pool

Just as my dad was being intentional about using haircut time to musically infiltrate the minds and spirits of his children, Linton Kwesi Johnson was using poetry and reggae music — Dub Poetry — to ignite all in listening range who were oppressed, or had a heart for the oppressed. What my father was exposing me to at peanut-head age, was in some ways another example of responsibility. The responsibility to use what you have to help those who have not. The responsibility to say something. This was before I knew I wanted to be a writer. This was when fireman was my Plan B, taking a backseat to astronaut (or was it acrobat? I can’t remember.)

“Five nights of horror and of bleeding/broke glass cold blades as sharp as the eyes of hate.”

Now, I admit that back then, I didn’t have a clue as to what this guy was talking about. Not even a little bit. But ‘knew,the line;Madness. Madness. Madness tight on di heads of di rebels. as well as, the song being called, “Five Nights of Bleeding.”
and that, my father went nuts and got all passionate whenever it came on. But as I got older — old enough to understand and also old enough to go to a real barbershop — he explained to me that Johnson was a Jamaican living in London during the seventies at the height of racial turmoil and economic angst — a climate also shared by Americans during that time. My father, said that what Linton Kwesi Johnson was describing in “Five Nights of Bleeding,” was the anger in the youth, the undiscussed, misdirected fury of fire-bellied young folk who, in verse, smash each other five nights in a row at different parties.


Brixton Riots (copyright image: David Hoffman.)

But the parties are of minimal significance to the poem. What mattered, was the violence being described by Johnson’s. The exploding intensity coming from young, black England. And just a few short years after this song was made, this album, Dread Beat and Blood, produced, Madness. Madness. Madness tight on di heads of di rebels became prophetic, as madness tore through the streets of Brixton during the infamous riots where Bloody Saturday was dubbed. Where five-thousand people — mostly youth — took to the street just to profess that they were angry and tired of struggling, and that it was time to rebel. Three hundred police officers were hurt. Buildings damaged. Cars burned. Madness birthed from madness.

Babylonian tyrants descended/Bounced on the brothers who were bold/So with a flick of the wris’, a jab and a stab/The song of hatred was sounded/The pile of oppression was vomited/And two policemen wounded/Righteous, righteous war.

riot going on

Brixton Riots. Copyright picture. Kim Aldis.

Fate would have it that I grew up to be a writer — my Plan A. My only plan. Of course, my initial discipline was poetry and I chose to use Linton Kwesi Johnson as an example of intentional writing, of not just building a world with words which is what my academic setting asked of me, but instead exposing the world that already exists. To be responsible with it all. And though I could back-pat and list Johnson’s numerous accomplishments, including being the only black poet published under the prestigious Penguin Modern Classics, the truth is, idolizing him in college was like being at a football game and being the only person in the stadium.

See, Johnson never reached the level of notoriety that poets like Sonia Sanchez or reggae stars like Bob Marley reached. He was a name thrown around my household, fortunately, but he’s not really a household name. So in the vein of responsibility, I’m writing this piece with gratitude for my father, who offset the sound of cheap buzzing clippers that often led to jagged, choppy haircuts, with this mighty, mighty music. And also as an appetite whetter for all who read this and have never heard of Mr. Johnson.

This is an endorsement. An advertisement if you will. listen to his songs/poems. Hear what “fire” sounds like. See what it looks like when words grow legs. And be encouraged, as I was, to be like Linton Kwesi Johnson, a megaphone unafraid, even when it’s unpopular, to address the madness, madness, madness.

Jason Reynolds, is a contributing writer for By Such and Such, and as well as a soon to be published writer.. He resides in Brooklyn.

cover piece, Pen drawing by Adam Rogers, a contributing artist for by such and such.