In the 1980s, the city of Toronto was completing transformation from its old British self into the mix of immigrant cultures it is today.
Lillian Allen captured the energy. Her classic 1986 album, Revolutionary Tea Party, successfully combines urban and island influences to make a subversive new musical style.
“A whole generation was coming up that was comfortable with diversity and even welcoming it,” Allen told Metro over Skype from her Toronto home.
“They were leaving behind the divide of their parents and grandparents.”
This atmosphere helped Allen — who grew up in Jamaica and moved to New York in 1969 before settling in Canada — become an early leader in the dub poetry movement.
“There were quite a few people concentrated here (Toronto) from the Caribbean,” she said.
“We wanted change and we wanted a piece of the action.”
While Allen was first exposed to the language that informs her commanding vocals as a child, she solidified her sound after hearing the modern Jamaican poet Oku Onuora.
Later on she connected with producer Billy Bryans and they stirred up the potent blend of reggae rhythm, spoken word and Western pop found on Revolutionary Tea Party.
“I don’t think I could have gotten a better producer,” said Allen, adding that the late Bryans understood how to make the music revolve around her lyrics.
Revolutionary Tea Party as well as 1988’s Conditions Critical won Juno Awards in the reggae and calypso category. But the critical reception never translated into commercial success. Allen said radio stations and mainstream media weren’t interested in a “black woman who didn’t weigh 99 pounds.”
“Nobody threw anything behind me, promoted, which would have really made a difference,” she said.
A sense of injustice is apparent on songs from the era including I Fight Back and the almost sinister dancehall track, Rub A Dub Style Inna Regent Park.
Today Allen’s legacy lives on in contemporary hip-hop with such Toronto-based artists as Kardinal Offishall and Saukrates.
And she continues to push the dub poetry genre forward. On her 2012 release, Anxiety, she uses more experimental recording techniques and creates a fragmented backdrop for her powerful verses.
“I wanted to move dub poetry into a bit of avant-garde territory,” said Allen.
“Jamaica is the roots, but essentially what I practice is a Canadian art form and a cosmopolitan art form.”
Catch the show
Catch Lillian Allen during the Vertigo Series at the MacKenzie Art Gallery on March 6 for a workshop in the afternoon and a feature performance in the evening, and at the Research and Innovation Centre on the University of Regina campus March 7 and 8 as part of the Saskatchewan Writers’ Guild’s Talking Fresh festival.