16 January 2023
Recording of the week: ‘Reggae Fi May Ayim’ by Linton Kwesi Johnson
This week’s post comes from Daisy Chamberlain, Preservation Assistant for Unlocking Our Sound Heritage.
Linton Kwesi Johnson was born in Chapelton, Jamaica in 1952. His mother, Sylvena, migrated to Britain just before Jamaica gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1962, and Linton followed three years later, aged 11. His first home in the UK was in Brixton, South London, an area he described as ‘an oasis of resistance and rebellion’.
In the following recording, Linton Kwesi Johnson recites his poem, ‘Reggae Fi May Ayim’ (British Library reference: C1532/14), written in memory of the Black German activist and poet, and his personal friend, May Ayim, at his birthday reception at Homerton College, Cambridge in 2012. May Ayim was the child of a German mother and a Ghanaian father, but was adopted by a white German family at a young age. She died on August 9, 1996, when she was only 36 years old.
Though Linton Kwesi Johnson often works with a live band or backing track, this recitation of ‘Reggae Fi Ayim’ is performed without any music. His words have a rhythm and a musicality of their own, though, and the absence of any backing adds to the solemnity of his elegy.
From hamburg via bremen / den finally / Berlin
Ayim moved to Berlin in 1984, where the self-described ‘black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet’ Audre Lorde was working as a visiting professor in North American Studies at the Freie Universität Berlin. Ayim attended Lorde’s seminars while working on her thesis on the cultural and social history of Afro-Germans. Lorde soon became a close personal friend and mentor to Ayim, and the following year the pair co-founded the West Berlin Chapter of the Initiative Schwarze Deutsche (ISD), an organisation of Black Germans campaigning against racial injustice in Germany to facilitate bonds between Afro-Germans and create new cultural practices.
Photo credit: Dagmar Schults / CC BY-SA 4.0
Afro-german warrior woman
The relationship between Johnson and Ayim was personal – the poem reveals that the pair met at a black radical book fair. It was also political – both Johnson and Ayim used poetry as a tool for inciting political change, and as a core component of their activism. Ayim’s own poetry dealt with the themes of classism, racism and feminism, and emphasised the potential of writing to build coalitions between Black Europeans and transform their social lives. As well as this elegy for May Ayim, Johnson has written poems for Blair Peach (‘Reggae Fi Peach’), a white teacher from New Zealand killed at a protest against the National Front in Southall in 1979, and George Lindo (‘It Dread Inna Inglan’), a Black man from Bradford who was wrongfully convicted of robbery despite a lack of evidence and a strong alibi. You can browse individual recordings of these poems in the Sound and Moving Image Catalogue.
Fallin screamin / Terteen stanzahs down
The opening stanza of ‘Reggae fi May Ayim’ sets the tone of the poem as a pained and emotional elegy for a close friend by highlighting the conspiracy between life and death to ‘shattah di awts most fragile diziah’ (shatter the heart’s most fragile desire). The lines ‘Fallin screamin / Terteen stanzahs down’ are a reference to Ayim’s tragic suicide in 1996. The poet jumped from the thirteenth floor of an apartment building after battling depression and a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis.
Before Ayim died, she received invitations from across the world to attend and speak at conferences about feminism, anti-racism and human rights. It was through her global activism and her commitment to Afro-diasporic coalition that Ayim connected with individuals like Linton Kwesi Johnson. ‘Reggae Fi May Ayim’ is just one of many tributes sent by her friends and colleagues following her death.