Sonny’s Lettah

On the evening of 11th April, 1981, Brixton, south London, exploded in riots.

I think it’s probably difficult for young people to comprehend why the black community exploded with such rage over those three days, resulting in 279 injured police officers and 100 vehicles burned. The Sus Law gave police the power to arrest people on suspicion, with little or no justification for that suspicion.

In a couple of weeks time, it will be thirty years since the events. Expect there to be much coverage. I’m writing this now to give people younger than me a idea of why it was important. I’m not using my personal experience; east London was quiet and we were too young to be angry. I’m using someone else’s words here today.

Linton Kwesi Johnson was an Afro-Caribbean poet during the late 70s and early 80s. He was so unusual, and so good, that he became a television celebrity, but he was never mainstream, far from it.

In his classic, Sonny’s Lettah, he gives us an touching insight into the world of racism. The story is told through a letter that Sonny writes from his cell in Brixton prison, to his mother in Jamaica, where he gives her the news of the death of his brother at the hands of the police, and his own arrest for murder.

I think this poem says it all.

Linton Kwesi Johnson

Brixton Prison
Jeb Avenue
London, South West 2

Dear Ma Maa,

Good Day

I hope that when these few lines reach you
they may find you in the best of health

Ma Maa I really don’ know how to tell yu dis
’cause, I did meck a solemn promise
to teck care a likkle Jim and try
mi best fi look out fi ‘im

Ma Maa a really did try mi best
but none de less
mi sorry fi tell yu sey
poor likkle Jim get aress’
it was de middle a de rush ‘our
when everybody jus’ a hustle an a bustle
fi go ‘ome fi dem evenin’ shower

Me and Jim stand up waiting pon a bus
not causing no fuss
when all on a sudden a police man
pull up
out jump 3 police man
De ‘ole a dem carrying baton

Dem walk up to me and Jim
one a dem ‘ole on to Jim
sey ‘im teckin ‘im in
Jim tell him fi leggo a ‘im
fa ‘im no do nuttin
an ‘im naw tief, not even a button

Jim start to riggle
De police start to giggle

Ma Maa, meck a tell yu weh dem do to Jim
Ma Maa , meck a tell yu we dem do to him
Dem tump ‘im in ‘im belly
an’ it turn to jelly
Dem lick ‘im pon ‘im back
an ‘im rib get pop
Dem lick ‘im pon ‘im head
but it tuff like lead
Dem kick ‘im in ‘im seed
an it started to bleed

Ma Maa I just couldn’t just stan’ up
deh a no do nutten

So mi juck one ina ‘im eye
an ‘im started to cry
Mi tump one in ‘im mout
an ‘im started to shout
Mi kick one pon ‘im shin
an ‘im started to spin
Mi tump ‘im pon ‘im chin
an ‘im drop pon a bin
an crash an dead

Ma Maa more police man come down
an beat me to de ground

Dem charge Jim fi sus
Dem charge mi fi murder
Ma Ma! Don’t fret
don’t get depress an down ‘earted
be of good courage

Till I hear from yu

I remain your son



To mark the 30th anniversary of the 1981 Brixton Uprising there will be a special event held at Windrush Square and Brixton Tate library on Sunday 10 April 2011.

Starting at 12 noon in Windrush Square and then from 1pm inside Brixton Tate library, the event will hear first hand witness accounts from members of the public on the Uprising, performances from special guests including LINTON KWESI JOHNSON, moving images and sound clips from radio and news archives, photographic stills on display and an opportunity for the public to relate their own testimonies of the Uprising to be recorded and archived by the Black Cultural Archive.

Devon Thomas:
Alex Wheatle:

One Response to Sonny’s Lettah

  1. Thus Spake Zarathustra says:

    This is a timely topic which kicks up that this is not an old game and that we’re dictated by cliché. The cliché of class arrogance and white man’s burden. The cliché of managing decline. The clichés have clichés. I look in the mirror and declare myself a cliché. End stop.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: