Freedom Verse
The Walrus|November 2021
Once relegated to the literary fringes, dub poet Lillian Allen has inspired countless Canadian writers. A new book shows why
KAIE KELLOUGH

THERE IS a certain sound a raised voice can make, a raw and elemental tone that, at its most refined, exceeds the artist. I call it the sufferation tone. Well delivered, it is intense without being histrionic. Approached with insincerity, it rings hollow, and listeners immediately detect the artifice. But, if expressed from a place of genuine anguish, it can give voice to both joy and tragedy.

Great singers can produce the sufferation tone, but it is dub poets who locate it at the heart of their work. Dub evolved out of Jamaica’s reggae culture roughly fifty years ago. To dub is a recording term that roughly means to transfer audio from one medium to another, and in the case of dub poetry, the term describes a popular art form where poems are performed using words that feel like they have been imprinted on, or stamped into, an instrumental background. Incorporating reggae’s rhythms (or “ riddims”) and drawn from the Jamaican language, dub poetry grapples with the legacies of enslavement while exploring the injustice and inequality of everyday life. Oku Onuora, who grew up in Kingston, is credited with being among the first to experiment with combining music and protest lyrics, which he did while in prison for armed robbery between 1970 and 1977. (According to legend, he had attempted to redistribute funds from a post office to an impoverished youth center.) Onuora could deliver poems as a growl of fury or a howl that doubled as a battle cry. Among the poets he inspired was someone also able to shift effortlessly from lamentation to threat to celebration: Lillian Allen.

Allen became a fixture in Toronto during the 1980s when she headlined events for antiracist and women’s movements. Now seventy, her voice is still versatile in terms of the sounds it produces. But, beyond sounds, Allen is capable of great emotional range by drawing on Black historical experience to shape her inflections. We hear this in “I Fight Back,” one of her first and most celebrated poems: “They label me / Immigrant, lawbreaker, illegal, minimum wage worker/refugee / Ah no, not mother, not worker, not a fighter.” When performing her poetry, Allen can produce a soaring wail that traces the contours of her Jamaican accent, a rhythmic speech that pushes along with the reggae bass line. As it pushes, it insists, decries, and confronts. “Instead of being the doormat,” she writes in another early poem, “get up and be the door.”

Continue reading your story on the app

Continue reading your story in the magazine

MORE STORIES FROM THE WALRUSView All

For the Love of Peat

Preserving Canada’s wetlands may be our best defence against floods, wildf ires, and a changing climate

7 mins read
The Walrus
November 2021

Ask a Hockey Expert

Will a Canadian team ever win the Stanley Cup again?

3 mins read
The Walrus
November 2021

Freedom Verse

Once relegated to the literary fringes, dub poet Lillian Allen has inspired countless Canadian writers. A new book shows why

7 mins read
The Walrus
November 2021

Listening to Learn

While much of the business world is just starting to wake up to the social injustices that surround us, Desjardins CEO Guy Cormier started paying attention years ago.

5 mins read
The Walrus
November 2021

Standing on Guard for Canada

When disaster strikes—from wildfires to floods to public health emergencies—the partners from Team Rubicon Canada and the LabattDisaster Relief Program are ready to serve communities in crisis

3 mins read
The Walrus
November 2021

Citizen of Nowhere

Deepan Budlakoti was Canadian one day, stateless the next. Who is responsible for someone no country wants to claim?

10+ mins read
The Walrus
November 2021

Redefining Artistic Ability

With its mandate to support opportunities for artists with disabilities, Tangled Art + Disability centres d/Deaf and disability-identified perspectives, and makes the experience of consuming art more accessible to a diverse public

3 mins read
The Walrus
November 2021

Three Stories to Make Your Head Feel Different

GENDER REVEAL PARTY

10+ mins read
The Walrus
November 2021

The Maximalist Home

In a time of fearful self-restraint, more is more

9 mins read
The Walrus
September/October 2021

SALMON SICKNESS

For years, Fisheries and Oceans Canada has minimized the risk of a virus some of its own scientists believe is threatening wild salmon

10+ mins read
The Walrus
September/October 2021