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Dub and the Evocative Power of the Spoken Word

Puja Basu

Person speaking passionately into a mic
Illustration by Sefi George

Identity in the postcolonial context can perhaps be described as a palimpsest – bearing traces of pre-colonial antiquity, colonial modernity and, of course, a certain postcolonial reality. Just as each era superimposes its historical and cultural imprint on the remnants of the centuries gone by, in colonies such as those in the Caribbean, this question of identity is complicated further by the fact that the colonized subject is not a monolithic figure. European arrival in the Caribbean can be traced all the way back to Columbus' voyage in 1492, followed by subsequent Spanish and Portuguese exploratory endeavours. Eventually by the 16th century, a number of colonies had set up permanent settlements in several of the islands. Consequently, large segments of the indigenous populations were entirely decimated. And thus, a second group of colonized subjects (of African descent) emerged in the Caribbean, owing to the institution of slavery facilitated by the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Another wave of migration happened following the abolition of slavery, wherein many people from colonies such as India, China (Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia) travelled in search of work to the other colonies in the Caribbean (Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, et al). Thus emerged the idea of identity in the Caribbean as a patchwork métissage - complex and intricate. The collective memories of migration and shared histories of trauma came to define Caribbean identities as culturally and linguistically hybrid. The linguistic hybridity, especially, has emerged as one of the most uniquely defining characteristics of Caribbean literary forms. The fact that most people living in Caribbean countries trace their ancestry back to multiple distinctive cultures (most commonly European, African, Asian) has also resulted in the prevalence of a multitude of languages (like different kinds of creole or pidgin) and dialects across the regions. As someone from a former British colony, and a student of English literature, it is particularly interesting for me to examine the ways in which the English language itself has evolved and lent itself to other linguistic forms in the British Caribbean, such as Jamaica and Trinidad.

What was also true of these communities and their distinctive cultures was the primacy of orality. In fact, the epistemic violence that accompanied the imperial project across the globe was predicated on a hierarchization which privileged the written over the oral, just as it privileged culture over nature, or the masculine over the feminine. While colonized subjects like the indigenous Americans or Africans, who had been enslaved and shipped off to the colonies, had predominantly oral cultures rooted in songs and folklore, these very cultural forms evolved into potent tools of protest.

Furthermore, the subsequent use of the English language by artists and writers from the Caribbean proved to be a powerful act of writing back to the colonizer in their own language, not unlike Caliban who employed the language of his master Prospero to curse him back.

Perhaps some of the most interesting uses of these linguistic forms can be found in the works of Caribbean poets, given the rhythm and musicality of poetic language, which creates ample room for artistic experimentation. This very idea finds expression in British poet Benjamin Zephaniah's Dis Poetry, wherein he says,

"Still dis poetry need ears fe hear an eyes de hav a look

Dis poetry is Verbal Riddim, no big words involved."

- Dis Poetry, Benjamin Zephaniah, 1992

Almost functioning as a manifesto for his poetic vision, these two lines encapsulate much of the spirit of this kind of poetic craft in the Caribbean, which stood in juxtaposition to the more canonical works of the likes of Derek Walcott or Edward Kamau Braithwaite. This very act of taking the colonizer's language and moulding it to the cultural specificities of a certain Caribbean context, constituted a kind of artistic resilience and resistance to the colonial enterprise of erasing the cultural identity of the colonized. However, it would not be wrong to state that the identity of the colonized Caribbean woman, just as that of the female colonized subject anywhere in the world, was all the more susceptible to erasure and violence, both of the epistemic and militaristic kinds.

Frances M. Beal's term of 'double jeopardy' holds particular relevance in the context of the colonized female subject, who is seen as a victim of both the native patriarchy as well as the imperial machinery – a victim par excellence, as Chandra Talpade Mohanty puts it. However, what numerous theorists have argued is that there is a need to go beyond the hostile binaries between anti-colonial politics and western feminism to locate the figure of the colonized woman, her voice, and agency. One of the most significant ways in which this voice articulates its presence is vis-à-vis the works of art.

Jamaica, for instance, has been home to artistes such as Louis Bennett, who have also used spoken word forms like dub poetry as a means of expressing a distinctive politics of culture and identity. Her iconic poem Colonization in Reverse encapsulates the "spirit of empire coming home" in the context of the British colonies.

"What a joyful news, Miss Mattie,

I feel like my heart gwine burs

Jamaica people colonizing

Englan in reverse."

- Colonization in Reverse, Louis Bennett, 1966

Herein, Bennett, also known as Miss Lou, is talking about the phenomenon of people from British colonies travelling to the U.K. owing to the promise of upward mobility - be it for work or for education. Interestingly, by speaking of this as a kind of reverse colonization, she attempts to attribute a certain sense of power and agency to this diasporic population which she herself was a part of. The form of dub poetry which Bennett was engaging in, emerged primarily out of Jamaica. It was a kind of spoken word poetry that was as much about performativity as it was about lyrical content. Soon enough, the form became hugely popular amongst artists across the U.K. and Canada, which were home to diasporic Caribbean communities. The form was particularly in common use amongst artistes who espoused a strongly polemical poetics, which was often directed at critiquing contemporary political dispensation. A prominent voice herein is again that of Benjamin Zephaniah, who wrote extensively against the imperial project, economic inequalities, and government corruption.

"The coconuts have got the jobs.

The race industry is a growth industry.

We despairing, they careering.

We want more peace they want more police.

The Uncle Toms are getting paid.

The race industry is a growth industry."

- The Race Industry, Benjamin Zephaniah,1991

A simple yet scathing indictment of how systemically racism functioned, even in the post-colonial United Kingdom, herein Zephaniah likens the institution of race to a business model which enables certain racial communities to remain economically empowered, while others remain stuck in a vicious circle of poverty and servitude.

The critique by women dub poets from the Caribbean and/or part of the diaspora, however, wasn't solely levelled at the white (former) colonizer or government corruption. The politics of their existence, and thus by extension their art, was intrinsically linked with the perilous institution of patriarchy.

"I'm a third world girl,

When you brought me to your world,

You said you educated me.

You said I brought no traditions,

No history, no culture, no religion,

No language with me.

You admitted I could sing and dance,

But without logic, so you couldn't

Take a chance, to empower me

With managing the money."

- Third World Girl, Jean Binta Breeze, 2011

As Leela Gandhi wrote in her Introduction to Postcolonial Theory, "For Europe to emerge as the site of civilizational plenitude, the colonized world had to be emptied of meaning." Jean Binta Breeze's Third World Girl comments on this erasure of history, which was a part of the epistemic violence that accompanied the imperial project, especially in justifying its garb of a civilizing mission. It is relevant that she focuses on the figure of the girl in the third world, for she is also victimized by the native patriarchy. Furthermore, as girls or women, being seen as custodians of communal honour, the colonized female was that much more likely to be subjected to sexual violence alongside violence of other kinds. Owing to the animosity between proponents of anti-colonial nationalist and western feminist discourses, the colonized woman then is constantly in a position of having to choose where her loyalty lies, while also often being let down by those on both sides. Binta Breeze's poem tries to arrest much of this tension. She also wrote scathing critiques of the British government, such as To The Labour Party. She writes--

"You promised us a government of vision

You promised you would hear our voice

It didn't take you long to stop listening

And taking away our choice"

- To The Labour Party, Jean Binta Breeze, 2015

The poem lays bare the hypocrisy underlying the premise of modern democratic governance, even within supposedly liberal political frameworks (the Labour Party was, after all, a liberal political faction). It addresses the stifling of dissent and indifference to economic inequalities. This holds true for many seemingly democratic nation-states today, wherein the right to elect one's government does not necessarily translate into actual government accountability and progressive changes. However, the beauty of her poetry, just as that of Bennett or even Zephaniah's, does not lie solely in the literary quality. Much of the essence of dub lies in the delivery, the performativity. As a spoken word form that entails direct communication with the audience/readership, it proves to be that much more politically potent a medium. Akin to speeches given at political rallies, dub enthuses its listeners with a sense of immediacy and an intimate connection. This, coupled with the politically charged content of most dub poetry establishes it a potent polemical tool in the sphere of politics and activism. Additionally, the spoken word form proved to be a lot more accessible to a larger demographic, beyond hierarchies of class and literacy.

Yet another significant dub poet, who expresses her politics and poetics within a framework of feminist sensibility, is Lillian Allen. She is a Jamaican who eventually moved to Canada and then to the United States. Allen was not just a spoken word poet, but in fact set many of her works to music, such as Conditions Critical.

"People tek to the streets

It's no negotiation stance

When do you want freedom? Yesterday!

And how you propose you'll get it?

By the people's way."

- Conditions Critical, Lillian Allen,1986

There is almost a call and response pattern evident in this poem (which has been rendered musical) like the songs of Calypsonians, and whose power lies in the ability to enthuse people into being part of the performance. The act of performance is not restricted to the artiste alone. In this piece, Allen speaks of the ways in which little changed for formerly colonized and/or enslaved subjects even after decolonization-- something similar to the point that Zephaniah makes in The Race Industry.

"Conditions critical

Freedom has been mythical

Every few years a new deliverer come

Say: Better must come, let me lead the

way my people

Seems better get delayed and some

where hiding."

- Conditions Critical (contd)

Allen had lived in Jamaica, and had also been part of the Jamaican diaspora in North America. Thus, she had seen closely how the ramifications of colonization and racism continued to globally impact the lives of people of colour in the colonial aftermath. The promises of empowerment and a better quality of life rang hollow for the racially marginalized and economically disempowered-- in their home country, as well as elsewhere. This piece by her is really a call to arms, akin to calling for a people's revolution, that does not just choose to substitute the existing dispensation with a new one, but rejects the prevalent hierarchies of power altogether.

For Allen, just as for all other dub poets, the act of performance and that of resistance are closely interrelated. They conceptualize performance as a means of resistance, and resistance as performative – a performance that informs their everyday lived realities.

What adds to the complexities of the developmental trajectories of the dub as a spoken word form is the fact that this period was one of major political upheavals across the globe. In the aftermath of the second World War, decolonization movements were underway, all the world over. This meant that African-origin poets and playwrights like Syl Cheney-Coker from Sierra Leone and Maishe Maponya from South Africa were already writing in a way marked by Poetics of resistance. Additionally, the anti-Vietnam War protests and the zenith of the Civil Rights movement in the United States provided the backdrop for the growth of musical genres such as punk and hip-hop, which were also invested with overt politics. The development of dub therefore, did not occur in isolation but in fact was part of a global cultural network of artistically speaking truth to power, which signalled the ushering in of a new global dispensation.


  1. Palimpsest: something that bears traces of its earlier occupations or occupiers

  2. Métissage: cross breeding

Works Cited

Conway, D 1992, "Migration in the Caribbean", Conference of Latin American Geographists Yearbook, p 91-98. University of Texas Press : Austin

Gandhi, Leela, 1998, Postcolonial Theory: A Critical Introduction. Oxford University Press: New Delhi.

Lowe, Norman, 1982, Mastering World History. Macmillan: London.

Mohanty, Chandra Talpade, 1995, Under Western eyes: feminist scholarship and colonial discourse”, in B. Ashcroft, G. Griffiths, H. Tiffin (ed.) Postcolonial Studies Reader. Psychology Press, pp 278.

Teuton, Christopher B, 2014, "Indigenous Orality and Oral Literatures", in The Oxford Handbook of Indigenous American Literatures. Oxford University Press: Oxford.

Allen, Lillian, Conditions Critical

Bennett, Louise, Colonization in Reverse

Breeze, Jean Binta, Third World Girl

Breeze, Binta Jean, To The Labour Party

Zephaniah, Benjamin, Dis Poetry

Zephaniah, Benjamin, The Race Industry 7177209854125976562500

The author is a postgraduate student of English literature at Jadavpur University and interested in music, diasporic literatures, and media and cultural studies.


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