Prior to the 1930s, literature of the Caribbean was the diversion of a ruling class elite. Englishmen of the “Sugar Isles” recorded their impressions and the romance of British imperialism in an idealized tropical paradise. The rise of anti-colonial consciousness in the 1930s-1940s marked the emergence of authentic Caribbean voices that found their first expression in calypso.
Calypso originated in West Africa and developed in the islands. It incorporated elements of work songs and calinda dance, shango and shouter revival songs of worship and insurrection. Calypso represented a fusion of rhythm and oral traditions, the music of the illiterate working class. The calypso musician and singer was a public performer and speaker, empowering and galvanizing black impoverished communities.
The evolution of reggae and Rastafarianism from these roots brought poetry back to the people. The works of Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Jimmy Cliff, Soca lyricists Lord Kitchener and The Mighty Sparrow are now considered powerful influences upon the literary movements of the islands and form important sections of anthologies of Caribbean verse.
Dub poetry grew out of previous calypso, reggae and folk traditions in the 1980s. Derek Walcott, a leading practitioner, won the 1992 Nobel Prize for Literature, a dub landmark. Dub poetry’s uncompromising stance is as riveting as it is intoxicating, a marriage of political rhetoric and stripped-down reggae. Jamaican wordsmiths Miss Lou, Mikey Smith and Oku Onuora created resistance poetry that distinguished itself as much by the vernacular as it did by what was being said.
When dub moves from its legitimate place on the stage to print, the effectiveness of lyrics, expression, timing and pitch is frequently diminished, a problem for those collecting and compiling anthologies of this genre. Words must hit the page like palms of hands striking a drum, preserving the dynamics of a live concert. The advantage of performance for the dub poet is the opportunity to interact and flow within music and lyrical structure. The poet literally becomes the poem.
Many dub poets work with printed formats in order to give their verse additional reach. However, since many people prefer the aural experience of music and lyrics melded together, dub poetry’s place on stage continues to grow stronger and attract an international audience!