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Jean Breeze, first woman of dub poetry, dies at 65
The Fifth Figure by Jean 'Binta' Breeze.

by Katharine Q. Seelye

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Jean Breeze, a passionate Jamaican poet who reveled in the performance of dub poetry, a half-spoken, half-chanted style of storytelling often backed by the rhythms of reggae, died Aug. 4 at a hospital in Kingston. She was 65.

Her death was announced on social media by her British agency, Renaissance One Writers and Events. No cause was given, but she had a chronic lung disease for years.

Breeze, known as Binta, was widely acknowledged to be the first woman to make a name for herself in the male-dominated genre of dub poetry. (Dub is a recording term that refers to the process of adding or removing sounds.) The genre originated in Kingston in the 1970s and was amplified in London and Toronto, both cities with large populations of Caribbean immigrants, and it was in England that Breeze rose to fame.

She stood out for the passion of her performances, the raw honesty of her personal stories and her use of Jamaica’s lyrical vernacular. In the late 1990s, poet Maya Angelou asked Breeze to perform at her 70th birthday party, where Breeze recited, accompanied by a gospel choir, so movingly that Angelou immediately walked across the stage and embraced her.

In her poem “The Garden Path” (2000), Breeze described her poetic vision. “I want to make words music, move beyond language into sound,” she wrote. She was credited with blending Jamaican patois with standard English to create innovative poetic forms and rhythms.

“For me, a key feature of her legacy as a Caribbean poet is in how she beautifully embodied the intersection between literary rigor and performance power,” Owen Blakka Ellis, a longtime friend, told the Global Voices website.

One of Breeze’s most vivid childhood memories was of her grandmother sitting in her bedroom and reciting poetry by heart to her every night.

“So it came from a voice not a page,” she told Marxism Today in 1988. “The voice is as important as the poem because it brings life to the word,” she said. This, she added, was the reason she placed such an emphasis on performance.

“It’s hard to tell in advance what a reading is going to be like,” Breeze said. “Sometimes it’s very painful, and sometimes it’s very freeing. But it is always a communication.”

Her work drew on diverse influences, what Marxism Today called “the reluctant melting pot that is London, her rural Jamaican childhood and the urban angst of Kingston.” Her major themes included the struggles and exploitation of women, political oppression and mental illness.

Breeze was diagnosed with schizophrenia in her early 20s, and her work was replete with references to what she called “madness.” In “Riddym Ravings and Other Poems” (1988), one of her early works, the “ravings” of the title are those of a homeless woman sitting on a park bench. It was also known as “The Mad Woman’s Poem.”

At the same time, much of her work was joyful. Other collections included: “On the Edge of An Island” (1997); “The Arrival of Brighteye and Other Poems” (2000), which included a version of Chaucer’s Wife of Bath tale; “The Fifth Figure” (2006), about five generations of Black British women; and “Third World Girl: Selected Poems” (2011). She also made several recordings, including “Riding on de Riddym” (1996), and collaborated with African American a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock.

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Breeze divided her time between Jamaica and England and performed regularly at literary festivals. She also was a theater director, choreographer, actor and teacher, and she wrote for television and film. She settled for a time in the Midlands town of Leicester, where she taught creative writing as an honorary fellow at Leicester University’s School of English.

She was born Jean Lumsden on March 11, 1956, in rural Jamaica. Her father was a public health inspector and her mother studied to be a midwife. Jean was raised chiefly by her grandparents, who were farmers, in Patty Hill, a small village in the hills of Hanover.

She emerged as a dub poet by happenstance.

After high school, she taught and practiced Rastafarianism. One day, she heard on the radio — from which she often took guidance — the Otis Redding song “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay.” It inspired her to catch a bus to Montego Bay, about 15 miles away, and sit on a pier there while waiting to see who might come along.

Eventually, a Rasta man saw her writing and asked if she were a poet. She said she was. He told her that there was a party that night in honor of Haile Selassie, the last emperor of Ethiopia, who is revered by Rastafarians. The man asked her if she wanted to read a poem there and invited her to a rehearsal with a band.

When she showed up, Mutabaruka, a renowned Jamaican dub poet, was at the rehearsal, and told the band to back her with a particular rhythm. She then recited her poem “Slip, ya fool.” Muta, as he was called, loved her performance and took her to a studio to record the work.

“And in a month,” she said in a 2018 interview with the journal Contemporary Women’s Writing, “I had the first recording played on radio in Jamaica as the first female dub poet.”

She then enrolled in the Jamaica School of Drama in Kingston.

By then, a brief marriage to Brian Breese, one of her former teachers, had ended. (She changed her surname to Breeze.) Her survivors include a son, Gareth Breese, a noted West Indies cricketer, and two daughters, Imega and Caribe.

A turning point came when she met Linton Kwesi Johnson, a prominent Jamaican dub poet who invited her to perform at the International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books in 1985. She was soon touring and performing around the world.

Breeze was especially popular in England and was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire in 2012 by Queen Elizabeth II for her services to literature. She had thought earlier that if she ever won such an honor, she would reject it because she opposed the notion of empire and colonization. But when the time came, she was delighted to accept.

“I have always had a kind of soft spot for the queen because I see her as a mother figure in a big family trying her best to keep the kids in line,” Breeze told The Jamaica Observer in 2012. “And I said to myself, ‘There goes my mother.’”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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