From Garvey to Mutabaruka


Centuries after the loudest and perhaps the most brazen initiatives were unleashed against the oppressor in a bid to conscientise the people of African descent to open their eyes and fight for their freedom. Through his abolutionist newspaper, The North Star (established 3rd December 1847) Fredrick Douglas used his oratorical   and journalistic skills to lecture in the northern states of the USA against slavery.  

The history and literary sophisication of blacks born and bred in the United States before and after their civil war (April 12 1861 to May 10th 1865) is replete with imminent individuals who left a lasting legacy in what the poet Thomas Bracken (1890 -1893) describes as ‘God’s Own Country – in reference to the United States.

The 19th century Back-to-Africa movement pioneered by Marcus Garvey was a follow-up to the continuous struggle African-Americans faced during the infamous civil war and the unfinished promise of better living conditions in ‘foreign’ lands. Indeed, the movement encouraged black Americans to return to the homelands of their ancestors in Africa. Every generation is usually armed with a clairvoyant, an inspirer, and a fighter, and if the African-Americans are now returning to their ancestral homes to pay homage to their forbearers, they owe a debt of gratitude to Garvey and others.  The words that coined his famous poems Africa for Africans may be ambiguous, however, Garvey spoke to his generation at a time the firewoods were burning and the embers were still alive. Using the power of poetry, Garvey acted as the ‘prophet’, a ‘whistleblower’ who knew time will come, his people will need to read widely to understand the world and try to change it. It was a movement that resonated around the world and inspired thousands of African-American intellectuals consciously and unconsciously. This poem, ‘Africa for Africans’ illustrates Garvey’s beliefs:



‘Say! Africa for the Africans,

Like America for Americans;

This the rallying cry for a nation,

Be it in peace or revolution.

Blacks are men, no longer cringing fools;

They demand a place, not like weak tools;

But among the world of nations great

They demand a free self-governing state.

Hurrah! Hurrah! Great Africa wakes;

She is calling her sons, and none forsakes…


At the climax of the epic poem, Garvey reminds Africa-Americans that have a homeland and that no matter what Africa is their sanctuary:


‘Europe cries to Europeans, ho!

Asiatics claim Asia, so

 Australia for Australians,

Africa for Africans’

Black consciousness and understanding that swept the Americas in the early 1950s to the 1960s spread like wildlife during the harmattan to far-flung places in Europe and the rest of the world. The Negritude movement pioneered by literary heavyweights such as Aimie Cesaire and Leopold Senghor hooked up several Africans in Europe. Like Garvey’s Back-to-Africa movement, the Negritude movement made a triumphal declaration to blacks to reassert themselves. Years after making ‘around the world trips’ to whip up black consciousness and to set a global agenda, Cesaire and company were taken aback when Nigeria’s Nobel laureate, Wole Soyinka, dropped a clanger and asked: ‘Does the tiger need to proclaim its tigritude’?  In other words, Soyinka tried to question the rationale behind the campaign to express solidarity with blacks, for the Nigerian intellectual, there was no need to make proclamation on something that was widely known and understood.

Garvey’s preaching and teachings had also influenced Jamaicans who needed someone to remind them about the need to go back to mama Africa. Christened as Allan Hope, it was not until 1974 that Hope decided to abandon that name and adopted Mutabaruka as his true name. Inspired by African languages, the name Mutabaruka in Rwanda means ‘One Who Is Always Victorious’.  In 1986, he wrote an epic poem that defined him and the message he wants Africans to understand:


Dis poem

Shall speak to the wretched sea

that washed ships to these shores

of mothers crying for their young

swallowed up by the sea

Dis poem shall say notin new

Dis poem shall speak of time…


The inspiration to read and digest African-American literature of the ’60s and ’70s enabled Mutabaruka to identify himself with the likes of Malcolm X and Elridge. As a Jamaican citizen, Mutabaruka tried to amass him with the tools and methods adopted by those conscientised Africans in the diaspora. Poetry was not his calling, as his vocation was predominantly electronics, however, Mutabaruka in the second stanza of his poem states that:


Dis poem is time only time will tell

Dis poem is still not written

Dis poem has no poet

Dis poem is just part of the story.


By coming to the country to take part in the International Roots Homecoming Festival, Mutabaruka’s consciousness about his artistic calling and here is his postulations on the dub poet: “For the dub poet, the poems he writes are not necessarily focused on rhythms, but on contents. It is not the music that’s pushing the poem, it’s what he’s saying.” 

Mutabaruka who has carved a niche for himself for several years being the voice of the voiceless says: “The dub poet is more focused on what is being said rather than what the rhythm is doing as opposed to the deejay who is also a poet, but the deejay is concerned with rhyming. The first move of the poet is the word – the first move of the deejay is the riddim.”


After Garvey, Mutabaruka is seen as an eminent African in the diaspora busy reminding people about the poem that is yet to be written, about the story yet to be told and finally about the words of literature yet  to be written.


By Ebrima Baldeh