Early Life and Education
Lillian Allen was born the fifth of ten children. She was raised and grew up in Spanish Town, a historic city about 17 kilometres west of Kingston, Jamaica. Allen’s father was a civil servant and a leader at the local church; her mother was also an active community member who played a large role in educating her children. In 1969, at the age of 17, Allen left Spanish Town to attend the University of Waterloo in Kitchener, Ontario. That same year, she moved to New York City, where she landed a job working at the Caribbean Daily. It was in the pages of this paper that she first published, “I Fight Back,” a dub poem that gained a considerable amount of recognition. While living in New York, she also studied communications and Black studies at City College of New York, as well as creative writing at New York University. During this time, she became heavily involved in the dub poetry scene.
Allen moved back to Jamaica in 1973, and the next year she returned to Canada and settled in Toronto, where she enrolled in the newly formed English and Creative Writing Program at York University. She was one of the first students to graduate from the program, with a BA, in 1978. While in school, Allen served as a community legal worker in Regent Park, a public housing estate in Toronto with a large population of Afro-Caribbean immigrants. She also worked as an education coordinator for the Immi-Can youth project,and contributed research and lyrics for the reggae band Truths and Rights.
Mid-career and Beyond
Lillian Allen published her first chapbook of poems, Rhythm an' Hardtimes, in 1982 and subsequently recorded Dub Poet: The Poetry of Lillian Allen (1983) as well as De Dub Poets (1984), the latter with fellow Toronto poets Clifton Joseph and Devon Haughton. She provided the text for Kristi Allik's 1984 composition Riddim,which was premiered by the Canadian Electronic Ensemble at the Winchester Street Theatre in Toronto on 23 November 1984. Collaborating with percussionist Billy Bryans and guitarist Dave Gray of the Parachute Club, bassist Terry Lewis, and others, she made Revolutionary Tea Party (1986) and Conditions Critical (1988), the former including such notable songs as "I Fight Back," "Riddim an' Hardtimes," and "Birth Poem." Both records were released and distributed by Allen's label, Verse to Vinyl, and received Juno Awards for best reggae/calypso album, in 1986 and 1989 respectively. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Allen wrote and published books of poetry, short fiction and plays. In 1993, Women’s Press published Women Do This Every Day, a selection of Allen’s written dub poetry.
In 1989, Allen’s poem “Unnatural Causes” was the subject of a National Film Board film. The short film features images of politicians basking in luxury and comfort interspersed with images of homeless women and archival footage of Canadian protest movements. In 1993, Allen co-produced and co-directed the documentary Blak Wi Blakk, about the life and work of the dub poet Mutabaruka. In 1999, she released her third album, Freedom and Dance. She was a driving force in the 2003 founding of the Dub Poets Collective, alongside Afua Cooper, Klyde Broox, Chet Singh, Clifton Joseph, di’b young and Sankofa Juba, and in 2004 she hosted Wordbeat, a CBC Radio program on poetry and spoken word.
Allen has been a consultant on diversity and culture for numerous government and community groups. She played a central role in initiatives such as Fresh Arts and the International Spoken Word Program at the Banff Centre. In 2006, Allen was the subject of an episode of Heart of a Poet,a television series produced by Canadian filmmaker Maureen Judge. Since 1992, Allen has been a professor with the Faculty of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the Ontario College of Art and Design University, where she teaches creative writing.
Allen is the recipient of the Margo Bindhardt Award, the City of Toronto Cultural Champion Award and the William P. Hubbard Award for Race Relations. In 2006, she was the first Canada Council Writer-in-Residence at Queen’s University.
- Rhythm an' Hardtimes (1982)
- The Teeth of the Whirlwind (with Dionne Brand, Clifton Joseph and Charles C. Smith, 1984)
- If You See Truth: Poems for Children and Young People (1990)
- Why Me? (1991)
- Women Do This Every Day: Selected Poems of Lillian Allen (1993)
- Psychic Unrest (1999)
- De Dub Poets (1984)
- Dub Poet: The Poetry of Lillian Allen (1983)
- Revolutionary Tea Party (1986)
- Let the Heart See (1987)
- Conditions Critical (1988)
- Nothing But a Hero (1992)
- Freedom and Dance (1999)
- ANXIETY (2012)