Jean “Binta” Breeze, who has died aged 65 of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, emerged in the 1980s as the first female dub poet, fusing reggae rhythms and music with the spoken word.
Working in Jamaica and then in Britain, she brought new life, complexity and subtlety to a genre that up to that point had been all male and often aggressively macho. In addition, she was a powerful performer of her own material, so much so that she was often referred to as “a one-woman festival”.
Through the use of a variety of women’s voices and contexts, Breeze’s work challenged the usual stances of the dub and performance poetry tradition. Whether on stage, record or page, she spoke for – and to – black female experience, encompassing a wide range of subjects, styles and tonalities – from the boldly humorous Wife of Bath Speaking in Brixton Market in the voice of the woman who has lost five husbands and is ready to “welcome de sixt one/ wenever im choose to arrive” to the observations of an old woman in Simple Tings:
de simple tings of life, mi dear
de simple tings of life
she rocked the rhythms in her chair
brushed a hand across her hair
miles of travel in her stare
de simple tings of life
ah hoe mi corn
and de backache gone
ah plant mi peas
de simple tings of life
In all, Breeze wrote nine books of poems and stories. The first, Answers, was published in 1983 in Jamaica; the rest appeared in the UK, ending with The Verandah Poems, brought out in 2016 to mark her 60th birthday.
Although her work had great impact on the page, it was important also to hear and see it in performance for, as the British author and academic Bernardine Evaristo pointed out in 2011: “Breeze has a warmth, humour, and charisma in performance that stands unrivalled. Her poems are transformed by a delivery that is rhapsodic, incantatory, hypnotic and always entertaining.”
She was born Jean Lumsden to a mixed-race couple in Patty Hill, a village near Montego Bay in north-west Jamaica, and for a time was raised by her grandmother and great-aunt, while her mother studied midwifery and her father worked as a public health inspector. Both her mother and grandmother recited poems to her.
At Rusea’s high school in Lucea she took A-levels in Spanish, geography and English literature, and shortly after leaving the school, in 1974, married a Welsh teacher who worked there, Brian Breese, whose name she later adapted to Breeze. She began teaching at the local Little London high school while also working for the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission, planning local events for the Jamaican festival, held in August each year.
When her marriage ended in 1978, Breeze relocated to Kingston to enrol at the Jamaican School of Drama (now the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts), where she met the dub poets Michael Smith, Oku Onuora and Mutabaruka.
In 1979 she moved to the Clarendon Hills, about 30 miles west of Kingston, where she became part of a Rastafarian community for three and a half years. It was there that she became a member of the Sistren Theatre Collective, which draws on oral and folk culture and employs Jamaican patois to explore the connections between gender discrimination, racism and social class. At that time she also took on “Binta” as an extra, African name (meaning, she was told, “close to the heart”).
In 1985, at the invitation of her fellow dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson, she came to Britain to perform at the International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books, and returned to London a few months later to do teacher training at Garnett College, going on to teach theatre studies at Brixton College of Further Education (now Lambeth College) for two years.
By then her performance work meant she could give up her job to concentrate on writing. Her second book of poetry, Riddym Ravings and Other Poems (1988), included poems that drew on her experience of dealing with schizophrenia as a young woman. The title poem established her literary reputation, while another in the collection, Aid Travels With a Bomb, engaged with a more populist audience and set to music went to No 2 in the New York reggae charts. Her poems Moonwise, Rising and Dreamer featured in Transport for London’s Poems on the Underground project.
Within a few years she was being invited to read on the same stage as Wole Soyinka and other internationally known writers of African descent, prompting her to reflect that “in writing for Jamaica, and rural Jamaica, I was touching on all the people in the third world”. She was also influenced by “a strong, solid feminist movement coming from Britain right through the 90s”, but was careful to say that “though I was in England, my writing was for the Caribbean and the third world”.
In addition to poetry, Breeze wrote scripts for plays and films, including Hallelujah Anyhow (1991), co-produced by the British Film Institute and Channel 4. She released five albums in which she performed her poems to music, including Riddym Ravings (1987), Tracks (1991) and Eena Me Corner (2010), the last two recorded with Dennis Bovell’s Dub Band.
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 creative writing fellow at the University of Leicester in 2011 and worked with several charities in the city. With Melanie Abrahams of the Renaissance One arts project she devised 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 degree from Leicester, and the following year a lifetime achievement award from the Jamaican Poetry festival and a silver Musgrave medal from 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 11 March 1956; died 4 August 2021