Listening to Linton Kwesi Johnson, the prime minister of dub-reggae poetry, ride waves of adoration from his audience, it's tempting to think of Johnson as a victor. And to hear Rachid Taha, the shaggy-maned lion of Parisian North Africans, on his joyful, downright radio-ready version of "Rock the Casbah," it's tempting to think of Taha as a fully self-realized modern rock artist. But what becomes of the rebellious pop music of an underclass when it reaches the stasis of acceptance?
Live in Paris celebrates the 25th anniversary of Linton Kwesi Johnson. In the strife-filled London of the late '70s and early '80s, Johnson joined a wide Jamaican patois and heavy dub rhythms with radical poetry to reprimand his adopted home. Johnson's poems became anthems for those scrambling to fight off a truly burgeoning British fascist movement. It's dangerous to call Johnson's verses, such as the gut-wrenching ballads "Sonny's Lettah" and "Reggae Fi Peach," historical documents. After all, the same London police department that murdered anti-racism activist Blair Peach was just last week declared by the British government, "institutionally racist." But the conditions that created Johnson -- Thatcher, poverty and race riots, the rise of the racist right -- are as much history as the once-biting dub he employs. (The true modern descendents of Johnson are British-raised South Asian political artists such as Asian Dub Foundation or M.I.A.: "Got brown-skin, I'm a West Londoner / educated but a refugee still-ah.")
Still, it's difficult not to raise a fist to Johnson's biting, inciting verses such as "Di Great Insohreckshan" and "Dread Beat An Blood." The Dennis Bovell Dub Band tries its best at times to chill our affections -- the band is tighter than even seems possible, but the digital-synth harmonicas and horns are laughable, and actually detract from LKJ's deeply warm voice.
Johnson claims as his audience "the children of immigrants, brought to England to do the work that the white working class didn't want to do," and LKJ fan Rachid Taha might make the same claim about his Algerian-born French followers. (It's ironic that the city that provided LKJ with a ravenous audience for Live In Paris still found fit to ban Taha's punk take on Charles Trenet's "Douce France.") He himself began his music career while a factory worker in Lyons, where he and likeminded friends formed immigrant-punk band Carte de Sejours (Residency Permit).
Carte's success led to the inevitable solo career, where Taha began to truly meld "world" sounds (traditional Algerian instruments, the Bollywood soundtrack sounds he grew up listening to, etc.) with the rock that was his bread and butter. Tékitoi is the culmination of 10 years of those solo records. Taha's latest is musically singular and confident, while still genuinely asking its reflexive titular question ("Who Are You?"). Songs like the title track and "Lli Fat Mat!," even the Arabic cover of "Rock the Casbah" -- which could've easily been a chunk of global-radio pandering -- never bow to either their "world-music" or commercial-rock instincts. Rather, Taha finds a middle ground that is neither; that is purely Rachid Taha.