Obituary of Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze | Poetry

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Jean “Binta” Breeze, who died at the age of 65 of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, appeared in the 1980s as the first female dub poet, merging rhythms and reggae music with speech.

Working in Jamaica and then in Britain, she gave new life, complexity and subtlety to a genre that until then was entirely masculine and often aggressively macho. She was also a powerful performer of her own material, so much so that it was often called “a festival for a woman”.

Through the use of a variety of female voices and contexts, Breeze’s work challenged the usual positions of the dub tradition and poetic performance. Whether on stage, on record or on page, she spoke for – and to – the experience of black women, encompassing a wide range of subjects, styles and tones – from the daringly humorous Bath woman speaking out. at Brixton Market in the voice of the woman who has lost five husbands and is ready to “welcome sixt one / when I choose to arrive” to the observations of an old woman in Simple Tings:

simple things in life, my dear
simple things in life

she rocked the rhythms in her chair
ran a hand through her hair
miles of travel in his eyes

simple things in life

ah hou mi maize
and the back pain disappeared
ah plant half peas
relieve arthritis
simple things in life

In all, Breeze has written nine books of poems and stories. The first of these, Answers, was released in 1983 in Jamaica, and the rest appeared in the UK, ending with The Verandah Poems, released in 2016 to mark its 60th anniversary.

While his work had a big impact on the page, it was also important to hear it and see it in the performance because, as British author and scholar Bernardine Evaristo pointed out in 2011: “Breeze has a warmth, humor and charisma in the performance that stand out. without equal. His poems are transformed by a rhapsodic, incantatory, hypnotic and always entertaining speech.

Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze reading his poem Simple Tings at the Y Theater, Leicester

She was born Jean Lumsden to a mixed-race couple in Patty Hill, a village not far from Montego Bay in the northwest corner of Jamaica, and was raised for a time by her grandmother and great aunt, while her mother studied to be a midwife and her father worked as a public health inspector. His mother and grandmother would recite poems to him in the evenings.

At Rusea High School in Lucea she took a BA in Spanish, Geography and English Literature, and soon after leaving school, in 1974, married a working Welsh teacher, Brian Breese, whom she then adapted the name to Breeze. She started teaching at the local Little London High School while working for the Jamaican Cultural Development Commission, planning local events for the Jamaican Festival which takes place in August each year.

When her marriage ended in 1978, Breeze moved to Kingston to enroll in the Jamaican School of Drama (now Edna Manley College of Visual and Performing Arts), where she met dub poets Michael Smith, Oku Onuora and Mutabaruka.

In 1979, she moved to Clarendon Hills, about 30 miles west of Kingston, where she became a member of a Rastafarian community for three and a half years. It was there that she became a member of the Sistren Theater Collective, which draws inspiration from oral and folk culture and uses Jamaican patois to explore the links between gender discrimination, racism and social class. Around this time, she also took “Binta” as an additional African name (meaning, she was told, “close to the heart”).

In 1985, at the invitation of fellow dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson, she came to Britain to perform at the Radical Black and Third World Books International Book Fair, and returned to London a few months later to trained as a teacher at Garnett College, he then taught theater at Brixton College of Further Education for two years.

At that point, she had so much performance work that she could give up her job to focus on her writing. Her second collection of poems, Ryddim Ravings and Other Poems (1988), included poems drawn from her experience with schizophrenia as a young woman. The title poem established its reputation in literary circles, while another in the collection, Aid Travel With a Bomb, engaged with a more populist audience and went on to become No.2 on the New York reggae charts. His poems Moonwise, Rising and Dreamer were featured in Transport for London’s Poems on the Underground project.

Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze performing at the RichMix arts center in London, 2013

A few years later, she was invited to read on the same stage as Wole Soyinka and other internationally renowned African-born writers, an experience that prompted her to think to herself that “by writing for Jamaica and rural Jamaica, I touched all the people of the third world ”. She was also influenced by what she described as “a strong and solid feminist movement coming out of Britain throughout the 1990s”, but was careful to say that “even though I was in England my writing was for the Caribbean and the Third World “.

In addition to writing and performing poetry over the next three decades, Breeze wrote screenplays for plays and films, including Hallelujah Anyhow (1991), co-produced by the British Film Institute and Channel 4. She has also released five albums in which she performed her poems to music, including Riddym Ravings (1987), Tracks (1991) and Eena Me Corner (2010), the latter two recorded with Dennis Bovell’s Dub Band.

Eventually she moved to Leicester and, from 2013, divided her time between there and a second home in Sandy Bay, near her birthplace. She was made an Honorary Fellow of Creative Writing at the University of Leicester in 2011 and has worked with several charities in the city. With Melanie Abrams of the Renaissance One art project, she has designed a series of mentoring workshops for mid-career poets in Leicester, Nottingham and Derby.

In 2012 she was appointed MBE, in 2017 received an Honorary Doctor of Letters from Leicester, and the following year a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Jamaican Poetry Festival and a Musgrave Silver Medal of the Institute of Jamaica.

She is survived by three children, Gareth, from her marriage to Brian, and Imega and Caribe, from two other relationships.

Jean “Binta” Breeze (Jean Lumsden), poet, born March 11, 1956; passed away on August 4, 2021

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