Jean, you were here at the Reggae Geel festival in your capacity as a dub poet, but how much of your life revolves around dub poetry?
Jean 'Binta' Breeze: "My whole life revolves around dub poetry really. All I do is travel around the world reciting dub poems."
I asked, because I know you're also involved in a lot of other things.
Jean 'Binta' Breeze: "Yeah, I've written a couple of screen plays for movies that were produced by the BBC and I also choreograph for theatre and for film and occasionally, if there's a good role available and they need an actress with an authentic Jamaican accent, I do that as well. (laughs)"
When you started out, you were still the only female dub poet around. As it's the case with reggae, it's still a mostly male-dominated field. Why do you think that is?
Jean 'Binta' Breeze: "Probably because we have children and housework! (laughs) Personally I've been very lucky because the brothers in the field, people like Mutabaruka and Linton Kwesi Johnson have been really very good to me. They both recorded my poems and I've toured with both of them as well, so you could say the brothers were very keen on having a woman's voice there. Since I came on the scene, a lot of other women emerged as well; there's Cherry Natural in Jamaica, there's Lillian Allen in Canada and there's Queen Majeeda and so on."
You come from a small place in Jamaica called Patty Hill (Hanover Parish, red.).
Jean ‘Binta' Breeze: "Yes, it's in the mountains of western Jamaica and it's an amazing place. In Patty Hill there was one bus in the morning and one in the evening. If you missed it you just had to wait till the next day. If you stood on the right side of the road you could see all the way down to the coast, and if you positioned yourself on the left side you could see all the way across to the north side of the island. It's a fabulous, really beautiful place!"
When at one point you received an invitation from Linton Kwesi Johnson, you decided to move to London.
Jean ‘'Binta' Breeze: "Linton has been an amazing friend and ally. Politically, we're both very concerned about subjects like the third world and the working class and Linton has been a very strong force in my life and in my progress."
You've been diagnosed with schizophrenia. Does having that condition influence your work or the way in which you work?
Jean 'Binta' Breeze: "Well, strangely enough it helped me a lot, because people who suffer from schizophrenia hear voices in their heads and one of my most famous poems that brought me to international recognition was a poem about a woman who had a radio in her head and all her voices were a reggae deejay. That's what happened to me when I got ill. I kept on turning on the radio and anything the deejay said I would do it, so the poem was written from that experience. Now I'm ok; I haven't had a breakdown for about five years, but I have to keep taking anti-psychotic medication for the rest of my life."
Not too long ago you were requested to do a poem on the arrival of the Empire Windrush (The Empire Windrush was a ship that arrived at Tilbury on 22 June 1948, carrying 492 passengers from Jamaica wishing to start a new life in the United Kingdom. The passengers were the first large group of West Indian immigrants to the UK after the Second World War, red.) to England by the BBC. As a woman of Jamaican descent living in England, what did that occasion represent to you?
Jean 'Binta' Breeze: "What was amazing to me was that when I arrived in England in 1985 there was a Jamaican/West Indian community to welcome me. They've been the basis on how for example reggae got into England and out of that community came voices like Linton Kwesi Johnson. Fifty years after the arrival of the Empire Windrush I think I've become a voice telling the West Indian community in England what's going on back home and in Jamaica I'm a voice telling them what's going on with our people in England."
When those first Jamaicans arrived in England, they were still faced with a lot of racism and hostility. Has much changed over the past fifty years?
Jean 'Binta' Breeze: "A lot has changed, yes. The present generation of Caribbean people in Britain have much more opportunities than those first immigrants, but at the same time I think not that much has changed in terms of the police response to young black youths on the streets and you only have to listen to Linton to realize there are still people dying in our prison cells."
You were a special invitee to Maya Angelou's seventieth birthday party not too long ago. What does she represent to you as a writer and as a person?
Jean 'Binta' Breeze: "When Maya Angelou first performed in England, I was asked to open the performance. I got on stage and started chanting my poetry and suddenly there was this voice coming from the first row shouting: "Burn em baby, burn em!" and when I came off the stage there was Maya Angelou waiting with her arms wide open. She recommended my work to her publishers and as a result they published my second book ("Spring Cleaning", Virago, 1992, red.). Maya Angelou is a fabulous woman and it's been a pleasure knowing her. To be invited to write a poem for her seventieth birthday was a real honour."
When you were still living in Jamaica you spent some time in a Rastafarian community. What does Rastafarianism still represent to you now, so many years later?
Jean 'Binta' Breeze: "I think Rastafarianism did two things for me. It changed my lifestyle in terms of eating more healthily. In Jamaica at the time, the group that I was with believed in farming, in the ability of being able to sustain yourself by growing your own food, so I spent about five years with them planting and growing vegetables. My first poems were really all about those kinds of subjects. Rastafarianism also awakened my eyes to Africa and that has stayed with me all through the years. I'm still very concerned about what's going on in Africa."
The Jamaican government has recently been clamping down on what they regard as being songs that are too violent or sexually explicit in nature. You've kind of had a double moral in your work. In some of your poems you speak out against slackness, but in others, like "Dubwise" for example, you seem to go the other way.
Jean 'Binta' Breeze: "It's a difficult subject. I've chanted poems like "Get Back" in reaction to deejays like Yellowman, who were very slack in their lyrics at the time, but at the same time I understood that it was important for women to be able to display their sexuality. I think there's a line to draw though. Sensuality is not the same thing as slackness. You can be sensual without being slack and that's the difference I try to illustrate with my poems."
Your nickname is 'Binta'. What does that mean and how did you come by it?
Jean 'Binta' Breeze: "In the seventies in Jamaica when we were all beginning to chant in Kingston, we all chose African names. I told my friends: "I want one that I can spell and pronounce!" One day a friend of mine, who is a famous comedian now, called Blakka, came to me and told me he found a name suited for me: Binta. When I asked him what it meant, he replied: "Close to the heart" Now when I came to England I met some Irish people and they told me in Ireland bint means "young girl" or "prostitute". Then I went to South-Africa and one of the tribal people over there told me in their culture a binta was a kind of a bag to travel with. In West-Africa binta is a popular name derived from Arabic and meaning "daughter of", so these days I say I'm Jean, daughter of the breeze!"