PEN Pinter Prize 2020: Linton Kwesi Johnson

The PEN Pinter Prize was established in 2009 by the charity English PEN, which defends freedom of expression and celebrates literature. In memory of Nobel-Laureate playwright Harold Pinter, the prize is awarded annually to a writer of outstanding literary merit resident in the United Kingdom, the Republic of Ireland or the Commonwealth who, in the words of Harold Pinter’s Nobel Prize in Literature speech, casts an ‘unflinching, unswerving’ gaze upon the world and shows a ‘fierce intellectual determination... to define the real truth of our lives and our societies’.


Linton Kwesi Johnson was chosen by this year’s judges; The Guardian’s Associate Editor for Culture Claire Armitstead; Dialogue Books Publisher Sharmaine Lovegrove, and author Max Porter. The judges said of Johnson: ‘Linton Kwesi Johnson is a poet, reggae icon, academic and campaigner, whose impact on the cultural landscape over the last half century has been colossal and multi-generational. His political ferocity and his tireless scrutiny of history are truly Pinteresque, as is the humour with which he pursues them.’

This event was presented online on 12 October, 2020. Linton Kwesi Johnson received the PEN Pinter Prize from Lady Antonia Fraser and gave his acceptance speech. There were further contributions by Philippe Sands, President of English PEN, Paul Gilroy historian and writer and founding Director of the Centre for the Study of Race and Racism, poet Jay Bernard and English PEN Trustee Claire Armitstead

Linton Kwesi Johnson shared his award with an International Writer of Courage, Amanuel Asrat. A poet, critic and newspaper editor, he has been a prisoner of conscience in his native Eritrea since 2001. Asrat was represented by his brother Daniel Mebrahtu at this event.

Linton Kwesi Johnson was born on 24 August 1952 in Chapelton, Clarendon in rural Jamaica. He came to London in 1963, went to Tulse Hill Secondary School and studied Sociology at Goldsmiths’ College, University of London. Whilst at school he joined the Black Panthers, helped to organise a poetry workshop within the movement and developed his work with Rasta Love, a group of poets and drummers. In 1977 he was awarded a C Day Lewis Fellowship, becoming the writer-in-residence for the London Borough of Lambeth for that year. He went on to work as the Library Resources and Education Officer at the Keskidee Centre, the first home of black theatre and art.

In 1974 Race Today published his first poetry collection, Voices of the Living and the Dead. Dread Beat An’ Blood was published in 1975 by Bogle-L’Ouverture and was also the title of his first LP released by Virgin (1978). That year also saw the release of the film Dread Beat An’ Blood, a documentary on Johnson’s work. In 1980 Race Today published Inglan Is A Bitch and there were four more albums with Island: Forces of Victory (1979), Bass Culture (1980), LKJ in Dub (1981) and Making History (1983).


The PEN Pinter Prize is supported by the generosity of the Blavatnik Family Foundation and Ruth Maxted