John Sinclair
Sinclair in 2008
Born (1941-10-02) October 2, 1941 (age 82)
Flint, Michigan, United States
Alma materUniversity of Michigan-Flint
  • Poet
  • writer
  • political activist

John Sinclair (born October 2, 1941) is an American poet, writer, and political activist from Flint, Michigan. Sinclair's defining style is jazz poetry, and he has released most of his works in audio formats. Most of his pieces include musical accompaniment, usually by a varying group of collaborators dubbed Blues Scholars.

As an emerging young poet in the mid-1960s, Sinclair took on the role of manager for the Detroit rock band MC5. The band's politically charged music and its Yippie core audience dovetailed with Sinclair's own radical development. In 1968, while still working with the band, he conspicuously served as a founding member of the White Panther Party, a militantly anti-racist socialist group and counterpart of the Black Panthers.

Arrested for possession of marijuana in 1969, Sinclair was given ten years in prison. The sentence was criticized by many as unduly harsh, and it galvanized a noisy protest movement led by prominent figures of the 1960s counterculture. Sinclair was freed in December 1971, but he remained in litigation – his case against the government for illegal domestic surveillance was successfully pleaded to the US Supreme Court in United States v. U.S. District Court (1972).

Sinclair eventually left the US and took up residency in Amsterdam. He continues to write and record and, since 2005, has hosted a regular radio program, The John Sinclair Radio Show, as well as produced a line-up of other shows on his own radio station, Radio Free Amsterdam.

Sinclair was among the first people to purchase recreational marijuana when it became legal in Michigan on December 1, 2019.[1]

Early life and education

Sinclair was a member of the Class of 1960 at Albion College in Albion, Michigan, but he dropped out after his first year.[2] Sinclair subsequently attended the Flint College of the University of Michigan, now the University of Michigan-Flint. During his time at UM-Flint he served on the university's Publications Board, school newspaper The Word, and was the president of the Cinema Guild. He graduated in 1964.[3]

1960s activism

Born in Flint, Michigan, Sinclair was involved in the reorganization of the Detroit underground newspaper, Fifth Estate, during the paper's growth in the late 1960s. Fifth Estate continues to publish to this day, making it one of the longest continuously published alternative periodicals in the United States.

Sinclair also contributed to the formation of Detroit Artists Workshop Press, which published five issues of Work Magazine. Sinclair worked as a jazz writer for Down Beat from 1964 to 1965, being an outspoken advocate for the newly emerging Free Jazz Avant Garde movement. Sinclair was one of the "New Poets" who read at the seminal Berkeley Poetry Conference in July 1965.

In April 1967 he founded the Ann Arbor Sun, a biweekly underground newspaper, with his wife Leni Sinclair and artist Gary Grimshaw.

Involvement with the MC5

Sinclair managed the proto-punk band MC5 from 1966 through 1969.[4][5] Under his guidance the band embraced the counter-culture revolutionary politics of the White Panther Party, founded in answer to the Black Panthers' call for white people to support their movement.[6][7]

During this period, Sinclair booked "The Five" as the regular house band at Detroit's famed Grande Ballroom in what came to be known as the "Kick out the Jams" shows. He was managing the MC5 at the time of their free concert outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The band was the only group to perform before police broke up the massive anti-Vietnam war rally as part of an organized police riot. Eventually, the MC5 came to find Sinclair's politics too heavy-handed. He and the band separated in 1969[8] In 2006, Sinclair joined MC5 bassist Michael Davis to launch the Music Is Revolution Foundation, serving as a general board member.[9]

Imprisonment and public support

After a series of convictions for possession of marijuana, Sinclair was sentenced to ten years in prison in 1969 after offering two joints to an undercover female narcotics officer.[10]

The severity of his sentence sparked high-profile protests, including an infamous incident at the 1969 Woodstock Festival wherein Yippie activist Abbie Hoffman jumped on the stage and seized a microphone during a performance by The Who. Hoffman managed to shout only a few words about Sinclair's plight before he was forcibly ejected from the stage by guitarist Pete Townshend.[11][12]

With a more successful protest, John Lennon performed his new song "John Sinclair" on television[13] and recorded it for his next album, Some Time in New York City (1972),[14] though by that time Sinclair had been released.[15] With "directness and simplicity", said one critic,[13] the lyrics lament Sinclair's intended harsh punishment: "They gave him ten for two – what else can the bastards do?"[13]

Various public and private protests culminated in the "John Sinclair Freedom Rally" at Ann Arbor's Crisler Arena in December 1971. The event brought together celebrities including Lennon and Yoko Ono; musicians David Peel, Stevie Wonder, Phil Ochs and Bob Seger, Archie Shepp and Roswell Rudd; poets Allen Ginsberg and Ed Sanders; and countercultural speakers including Abbie Hoffman, Rennie Davis, David Dellinger, Jerry Rubin, and Bobby Seale.[16][17][18] Three days after the rally, Sinclair was released from prison when the Michigan Supreme Court ruled that the state's marijuana statutes were unconstitutional.[19] These events inspired the creation of Ann Arbor's annual pro-legalization Hash Bash rally.

In 1972, Leonard Weinglass took on the defense of Sinclair in Detroit, Michigan after he was charged with conspiracy to destroy government property along with Larry 'Pun' Plamondon and John Forrest. The case became United States v. U.S. District Court, 407 U.S. 297 (1972), on appeal to the United States Supreme Court. The Court rendered a landmark decision prohibiting the US government's use of domestic electronic surveillance without a warrant, freeing Sinclair and his co-defendants.[20][21]

Writing, performances, and poetry

Sinclair has been writing a newspaper column on cannabis, "Free the Weed," since the mid-1980s. The primary focus of Sinclair's column has been the social history of cannabis use in the US; however, he often touches upon the global campaign for its legalisation.

Since the mid-1990s Sinclair has performed and recorded his spoken word pieces with his band The Blues Scholars, which has included such musicians as Wayne Kramer, Brock Avery, Charles Moore, Doug Lunn, and Paul Ill, among many others. He also performed as a distinctive disc jockey for New Orleans' WWOZ Radio, the public jazz and heritage station.[22]

On March 22, 2006, Sinclair joined The Black Crowes on stage at the Paradiso in Amsterdam, and read his poem "Monk in Orbit" during the instrumental break in the song "Nonfiction".[23] Two days later, he went back onstage at the Black Crowes show in the Paradiso, reading his poem "Fat Boy" during the long instrumental jam following the Black Crowes' song, "How Much for Your Wings?".[24]

On January 20, 2009, to mark Barack Obama's inauguration as the 44th President of the United States, Sinclair performed a series of his poems accompanied by a live band, featuring Elliott Levin, Tony Bianco and Jair-Rohm Parker Wells at Cafe OTO in Dalston, East London.[25][26]

In 2011, Sinclair recorded spoken-word for the intro to the song “Best Lasts Forever” by Scottish band The View (band), produced by Youth (musician).

The John Sinclair Foundation

Logo for the John Sinclair Foundation

Created in 2004, The John Sinclair Foundation is a non-profit organization based out of Amsterdam, Netherlands.[27] Its mission is to ensure the preservation and proper presentation of the creative works via in poetry, music, performance, journalism, editing and publishing, broadcast and record production of John Sinclair. To date, the foundation has produced books, zines, records, and documentaries highlighting John Sinclair's contribution to the historic cannabis legalization effort, rock music in Detroit, and psychedelic communitarianism.


John Sinclair has recorded several of his poems and essays. On these albums blues and jazz musicians provide psychedelic soundscapes to accompany his delivery:

John Sinclair

John Sinclair & His Blues Scholars

John Sinclair & Ed Moss with The Society Jazz Orchestra

John Sinclair & His Boston Blues Scholars

John Sinclair & Monster Island

John Sinclair & Mark Ritsema

John Sinclair & Pinkeye

John Sinclair & His Motor City Blues Scholars

John Sinclair & Planet D Nonet

John Sinclair & His International Blues Scholars

John Sinclair & Hollow Bones


  1. ^ "Activist and poet John Sinclair among first to purchase legal recreational marijuana in Michigan, 50 years after his historic arrest". mlive. December 1, 2019.
  2. ^ Albion College Yearbook 1960; Albion College Yearbook 1961
  3. ^ University of Michigan-Flint Yearbook 1964
  4. ^ O'Hagan, Sean (March 3, 2014). "John Sinclair: 'We wanted to kick ass – and raise consciousness'". The Guardian. Retrieved March 3, 2014.
  5. ^ Tracey, Patrick (March 31, 2000). "Yippie Yi Yay". Washington City Paper.
  6. ^ Julie Burchill, Tony Parsons, "The Boy Looked at Johnny": The Obituary of Rock and Roll, p.19-20, Pluto Press, London. 1978
  7. ^ Burgess, Kaya (January 21, 2009). "Obama's inauguration hailed by White Panther founder John Sinclair". The Times. London. Retrieved January 21, 2009.
  8. ^ "MC5 Timeline". Retrieved November 7, 2012.
  9. ^ "Meet the Board". Music Is Revolution Foundation. Archived from the original on May 27, 2011. Retrieved February 10, 2011.
  10. ^ Cadogan, Patrick (2008). The Revolutionary Artist: John Lennon's Radical Years. Lulu. ISBN 978-1-4357-1863-0.
  11. ^ Wilkerson, Mark (2006). Amazing Journey: The Life of Pete Townshend. Louisville, KY: Bad News Press. pp. 132–133. ISBN 9781411677005.
  12. ^ Carson, David A. (2006) [2005]. Grit, Noise, and Revolution: The Birth of Detroit Rock 'n' Roll. Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan Press. p. 213. ISBN 9780472031900.
  13. ^ a b c Urish, Ben (2007). The Words and Music of John Lennon. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group. pp. 41–42. ISBN 9780275991807.
  14. ^ "John Sinclair" at AllMusic
  15. ^ The Beatles Bible, "John Sinclair". Retrieved July 30, 2019.
  16. ^ Agis Salpukas, "15,000 Attend Michigan U. Rally to Protest Jailing of Radical Poet," New York Times, December 12, 1971, p. 76.
  17. ^ Twenty to Life: The Life & Times of John Sinclair at IMDb
  18. ^ A. Yippie. "A Brief History of the NYC Cannabis Parade". Archived from the original on October 10, 2017. Retrieved October 21, 2017.
  19. ^ Meyer, Stephen. "The John and Leni Sinclair Papers, 1957–1999 at the Bentley Historical Library". Bentley Historical Library. Archived from the original on May 19, 2011. Retrieved May 4, 2011.
  20. ^ "John Sinclair from "Growing Up in America" part 1". Archived from the original on December 12, 2021 – via
  21. ^ "John Sinclair from "Growing Up in America" part 2". Archived from the original on December 12, 2021 – via YouTube.
  22. ^ Sinclair, John (February 5, 2006). "WWOZ and the Sound of New Orleans". Archived from the original on November 24, 2010.
  23. ^ " :22 Mar 2006 @ Amsterdam, Holland". Archived from the original on July 23, 2012. Retrieved July 31, 2009.
  24. ^ " :24 Mar 2006 @ Amsterdam, Holland". Archived from the original on January 20, 2013. Retrieved July 31, 2009.
  25. ^ "". Archived from the original on February 20, 2009.
  26. ^ "". Archived from the original on February 15, 2015. Retrieved February 22, 2011.
  27. ^ "John and Leni Sinclair papers: 1957-2003". University of Michigan Bentley Library. Retrieved September 30, 2019.