Mutabaruka: The Next Poems / The First Poems

Mutabaruka: the Next Poems / the First Poems, is a new double-volume of poetry which comprises his first major collection of poems of the 1970’s, Mutabaruka: the First Poems, and a new anthology of his best work written between 1980 and 2002, Mutabaruka: the Next Poems.

bar2.jpg (778 bytes)

The First Poems

by Mervyn Morris

Mutabaruka (formerly Allan Hope) was born in Rae Town, Kingston, on 26th December, 1952. After primary education he attended Kingston Technical High School, where he was a student for four years. Trained in electronics, he left his first job after about six months and took employment at the Jamaica Telephone Company Limited. During his time at the telephone company he began to examine Rastafarianism and to find it more meaningful than either the Roman Catholicism of his upbringing or the political radicalism into which he had drifted.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s there was an upsurge of Black Awareness in Jamaica, in the wake of a similar phenomenon in the United States. Muta, then in his late teens, was drawn into that movement. Illicitly, in school he read many “progressive books” including Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice and some that were then illegal in Jamaica, such as The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Muta saw himself as a young revolutionary. But when he deepened his investigation of Rastafarianism, which he once regarded as essentially passive, he came to find its thinking more radical than that of the non-Rastafarian group with which he had associated. While still employed at the telephone company, he stopped combing his hair, started growing locks, altered his diet, and declared himself Rastafarian. A number of his friends thought he was going mad.

After leaving the telephone company, Muta found life in Kingston increasingly unsatisfactory. He and his family left Kingston in 1974 in search of a more congenial environment. They settled in the hills of Potosi District, St. James, in the house that Muta built. Muta has had periods of close contact with the Negril Beach Village, where he explained to guests certain aspects of Jamaican culture. He has talked at great length with many foreigners, and found the experience broadening. To Muta now, Rastafarianism is part of a universal quest which may also be pursued by other routes, such as Hinduism or Buddhism or Christianity. He disapproves, however, of institutionalized religion: the priest “has used your mind/ to make love/ with the/ dead”. Of course the poems of Mutabaruka reflect the man and the specific contexts of his experience. Mostly in Part Two of this volume a number of poems express a search for spiritual understanding, spiritual peace, and are critical of whatever might impede that search:

the man spiritual is above all
the man thinkin is “me”
thinkin on the care of my body
of my worldly possessions
never stoppin to know
that all worldly

A number of the poems, mostly in Part One, insist on anger as a proper response to black suffering and deprivation. Some of the pieces dramatize the horrors of slavery, and exhort the Black man to proudly remember African origins, to break out of the prison of self-hatred. Many of the poems attack what they perceive as the cultural imperialism of Europe; Muta sees the need for a Jamaican originality of language, > form and attitude which might subvert the hegemony of the British “greats”:

still drenchin
the souls of black folks
tryin to integrate
in my life your life.

Muta’s was the first well-publicized voice in the new wave of poets growing since the early 1970s. They have developed a living relationship between a poet and a fairly wide audience such as, in Jamaica, only Louise Bennett has achieved before them. Early work by Muta regularly appeared in Swing, a monthly that gave fullest coverage to the pop music scene. Introducing Outcry (March 1973) John A.L. Golding Jr. wrote:

“In July 1971, SWING Magazine published for the first time a poem by Allan Mutabaruka. Our readers were ecstatic. Since then, and almost in consecutive issues, we have derived much pleasure in further publication of this brother’s works... They tell a story common to most black people born in the ghetto... And when Muta writes, it’s loud and clear.”

That his poems in Sun and Moon (1976), a volume shared with Faybiene, are quieter is one indication of Muta’s particular development.

Like Louise Bennett (and like many of the Black Americans of the sixties whose work they had sampled) the new and popular Jamaican poets write mainly in the unofficial language of the people, feel close to the Black musicians (to whom they sometimes allude), and make good use of opportunities to perform. I can still vividly recall the pleasure of hearing Muta read at the Creative Arts Centre at the University of the West Indies in the early 1970s. He more than holds his own in the company of other skilled performers such as Mikey Smith and Oku Onuora (formerly Orlando Wong) with whom he has recently shared programmes. But though, like the others, he is on intimate terms with reggae lyrics and he sometimes does angry poems, Muta resists the label of “dub poet” as much as “protest poet”: each, he feels, refers to only one aspect of his work.

Granted that many of Muta’s poems are fully realized only in performance, some of them seem to me far more successful than others. My own favourite is “Nursery Rhyme Lament” which, I am told, is now discussed in some of our schools. In “Dan is the Man in the Van”, the famous calypso by The Mighty Sparrow, British nursery rhymes taught in colonial schools are pilloried as absurdly irrelevant in that context; in Muta’s “Nursery Rhyme Lament” they are distorted into local meaning, they are reworked as history into the patterns of harsh reality – water rates, light bills, overpopulation, meat shortages and so on. The poem (especially when performed) is very funny; and deadly serious in the criticism it implies. Another special favourite of mine is “Revolutionary Poets” – “revolutionary poets/ ave become entertainers” – with its multiple ironies, including some that surely touch that poem itself. If few of the other pieces in this volume seem as fully achieved as these, this is, after all, a collection of “the first poems” in which the voice of the young Mutabaruka speaks to and for a host of troubled young people.

Mervyn Morris
Kingston, 1980

Mutabaruka the Next Poems / the First Poems, currently available at

The Next Poems

by Mervyn Morris

“My poems,” Mutabaruka has said, “are to show you the
problems that face us in the world and then motivate you to find solutions to these problems – I don’t think I could show people how to get out of their problems with poems, but at least I could motivate actions.”

I write a poem
And feel
That my poem can create
Can awaken

The central concern of Muta, a Rastafarian, is black history/ consciousness/ identity/ liberation. Though he has also written love poems, poems in defence of the environment, and some acknowledging the role reception plays (“dis poem is to be continued in your mind in your mind/ in your mind in your mind…”), the protest element predominates in Muta’s work: protest against poverty, inequality, racism, class prejudice (“i am de man/ you love to hate”), oppression, cowardice, political deceit and the wickedness of powerful nations. Most often he tackles the Caribbean and the USA but he will also identify the enemy in Africa, Latin America, Europe, anywhere – “the world needs rearrangin”.

Socio-economic deprivation is often seen to stem from imperialism, neocolonialism, and the mis-education of blacks (“everything we know is wrong”). He is on “the quest to know when where and why/ the quest to seperate truth from lie”; and,
ultimately, he is optimistic:

the mystery is there you can see
the truth lives within you and me

For Muta, who performs his poems with or without musical accompaniment, poetry is only one of several instruments for doing the work he has chosen. He is much more than a wellknown international recording artist. He owns and operates a sound system that plays black music from all over the world; he conducts a late-night radio talk show; and, in accepting invitations to talk and to read his poems, he seems equally at home in an ordinary classroom and on stage at a reggae concert. When he is on tour he may be addressing college audiences, or mesmerizing huge rock festivals, or playing in small nightclubs. He is an experienced communicator, with charisma and a range of skills.

In a typical performance he does not merely read or recite a set of poems. He talks towards the poems, around the poems, sometimes even instead of the poems. A Muta “reading” is often also a “reasoning”.

“I can never tell,” he says, “what going go in me mind.” And: “I find that sometimes when I’m speaking the audience gets so involved with the rapping that I continue it.” Normally, when poets appear on stage, their poems – introduced briefly or at greater length – are the central focus. Muta most often presents the philosophy and opinions of Mutabaruka; his poems are only part of the flow.

The poems, composed for oral delivery, usually rhyme and are rhythmically emphatic. They frequently employ rhetorical repetition, as in “Letter from a Friend” (“no martyrs are among you”), “Thievin Legacy” (“gimme mi dis/ gimme mi dat/ gimme back mi everyting yu got”), or “The Eyes of Liberty”:

u invade grenada
u invade nicaragua
u bomb hiroshima
u bomb philadelphia

The rap is usually laced with humour. The poems are presented more solemnly, though they include the occasional pun (as in “strawberry ice cream/ rasberry ice cream/ dem a bury wi/ u nuh si”) or laughter-inducing surprise (as at the end of “I Am De Man”). “Dis Poem”, playfully self-reflexive, “is watchin u/ tryin to make sense from dis poem”, but it also evokes black history, with allusions to ancient and modern achievement, oppression, slavery and heroic rebellion.

Paul Issa published a book by Muta nearly twenty-five years ago; and many of the Muta CDs since then have included texts. Although there is no substitute for Muta in performance, it is good to have this fuller collection of Mutabaruka poems.

Mervyn Morris
Kingston, 1980

MERVYN MORRIS, now Professor Emeritus, retired from the University of the West Indies in 2002. His Kingston, 2005 books of poetry include The Pond, Shadowboxing, Examination Centre (New Beacon Books) and On Holy Week (Dangaroo Press). He is the author of ‘Is English We Speaking’ and Other Essays (Ian Randle Publishers).

Mutabaruka the Next Poems / the First Poems, currently available at


Gleaner Article: Double Barrel Book Launch

Observer Article: Next/First Poems Launch

Web Site Designed and Maintained by IREGGAE