Died: August 4, 2021.
JEAN ‘Binta’ Breeze, who has died aged 65 of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, was a poet and performer who became known as Jamaica’s first woman dub poet. Fusing reggae rhythms with powerful evocations of the black female experience, she published nine collections of her work and released five albums, while her live performances were spellbinding and intense affairs.
This was evident when a volume of selected works, Third World Girl (2011), was accompanied by a DVD of live performances. It was apparent, too, in 2016, when she appeared in Edinburgh at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery as part of an event organised by the city’s premiere spoken-word night, Neu! Reekie!
The night was programmed to reflect the connections between Scotland and Jamaica, as well as launch what turned out to be Breeze’s final collection, the Verandah Poems.
This wasn’t Breeze’s first visit to Scotland. In 1996, following her appearance at the CCA in Glasgow as part of performance poetry series, Motor Mouth, Alexander Linklater wrote in the Herald of Breeze as “a major, perhaps even a great voice” and described how Breeze’s poetry “shifts effortlessly through standard English to a native Jamaican which has no equal in its emotional depth”.
Jean Lumsden was born in Hanover, Jamaica, to a mixed-race couple, and grew up in the small rural village of Patty Hill. She was brought up for a time by her grandmother and great-aunt, while her mother trained to be a midwife and her father worked as a public health inspector.
She developed a love of spoken verse from her mother and grandmother reading poetry to her. She studied at Rusea’s High School in Lucea, where she met a Welsh teacher called Brian Breese.
They married in 1974 and she began teaching at the Little London High School, and worked for the Jamaican Cultural Development Commission, planning events for the Jamaican Festival
She and Breese separated in 1978, and, having adapted his surname for her own, moved to Kingston, where she studied for a year at the Jamaican School of Drama. While there, she met fellow poets Michael Smith and Oku Onuora. She then moved to the Clarendon Hills, west of Kingston, where she embraced the Rastafarian faith, and became involved with the socially driven Sistren Theatre Collective.
Breeze took her middle name after wanting to adopt an African name she could pronounce. Her comedian friend, Owen ‘Blakka’ Ellis, suggested she call herself Binta, telling her it meant ‘close to the heart’. When she moved to England, Irish friends told her a ‘bint’ in Ireland was a young girl or prostitute.
In South Africa, she discovered a binta was a travel bag, and in West Africa she learnt that it is a name derived from Arabic that means ‘daughter of’. Such layers of meaning seemed to chime with Breeze’s own sensibilities, so when anyone asked she called herself Jean, daughter of the breeze.
In 1981, she performed live with Rastafarian dub poet Allan Hope, aka Mutabaruka, who recorded her work. He later released her performances of Aid Travels with a Bomb, and To Plant or Not to Plant, on the compilation, Word Soun’ ‘Ave Power (1983).
Her first book, Answers, was published the same year, and two years later she was invited to London by fellow poet Linton Kwesi Johnson to perform at the International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books. She went on to study at Garnett College in London, and taught Theatre Studies at Brixton College of Theatre Education (now part of Lambeth College).
Her first album, Riddym Ravings (1987), preceded her second published collection, Riddym Ravings and Other Poems (1988). Her second record, Tracks, was released on Linton Kwesi Johnson’s LKJ label, with Breeze backed by Dennis Bovell’s Dub Band.
By this time, Breeze was writing and performing full time. She acted in theatre productions with Talawa Theatre and at Bristol Old Vic, the Young Vic and West Yorkshire Playhouse (now Leeds Playhouse). She also wrote the screenplay for Hallelujah Anyhow (1991), for the BBC’s Screen Two strand.
Other poetry collections include Spring Cleaning (1992), On the Edge of an Island (1997), Song Lines (1997), The Arrival of Brighteye and Other Poems (2000), The Fifth Figure (2006), and Verandah Poems (2016). There were three more albums; Hearsay (1994); Riding on de Riddym (1997); and Eena Me Corner (2010).
Breeze had suffered from schizophrenia since her twenties, and wrote candidly about it. In 2004, she featured in A Great Day in London, a photograph of 50 Black and Asian writers who have made major contributions to British literature.
Having moved to Leicester, she became an honorary creative writing fellow at the University of Leicester, who awarded her an honorary doctorate in 2018.
Breeze was awarded an MBE in 2012, and in 2018 was one of six poets to have work displayed on the London Underground as part of Windrush 70, a commemoration of the arrival in the UK of West Indian migrants on the ship, Empire Windrush. She was given 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, to Breese, and Imega and Caribe, from two other relationships.