Sunday, August 24, 2014
Track of the Week: Linton Kwesi Johnson, "Sonny's Lettah (Anti-Sus Poem)"
The death of Michael Brown and the protests in Ferguson have got me thinking about songs that deal with police brutality and injustice. One of the more powerful comes from Linton Kwesi Johnson, a Jamaican-British poet and singer who more people ought to know. His song "Sonny's Lettah" takes the point of view of a young black man writing a letter to his mother from prison. He had seen his brother being beaten by the police in a random stop on "suspicion" of possessing marijuana, the British equivalent of "stop and frisk," which this song is condemning. Under the "sus law" the police could arrest anyone they felt might be possibly committing or about to commit a crime, and it was predictably applied in a racist fashion. Sonny steps in to help his brother and in attacking one of the cops, kills him.
The rhythm to the song is supremely groovy and insistent without burying the words. Johnson reads them off in the sad and world weary voice of a young person who has experienced too much life too soon. It is a harrowing song and avoids the maudlin preachiness of so much protest music in favor of bringing to life the story of someone trapped by an unjust system. It's not just an effective approach from an aesthetic viewpoint, since the sus law was repealed in 1981 in response to outcry against it. It gives me hope that despite all of the horrible miscarriages of justice we see on the streets year after year, that something can be done about it.