Mole Valley Poets, 27th February 2012
Tony Earnshaw: Benjamin Zephaniah

Dr Benjamin Obadiah Iqbal Zephaniah was born and raised in Birmingham, England. He cannot remember a time when he was not creating poetry but this had nothing to do with school where poetry meant very little to him, in fact he had finished full time education at the age of 13. His poetry is strongly influenced by the music and poetry of Jamaica and what he calls 'street politics'.

His first real public performance was in church when he was 10 years old, by the time he was 15 he had developed a strong following in his home town of Handsworth where he had gained a reputation as a young poet who was capable of speaking on local and international issues. He loved Handsworth, he called it the Jamaican capital of Europe but although his work had become popular within the African-Caribbean and Asian community he thought the town was too small, he was not satisfied preaching about the sufferings of Black people to Black people, so he sought a wider mainstream audience.

At the age of 22 he headed south to London where his first book Pen Rhythm was published by Page One Books. This was a small, East London based publishing co-operative that were keen on publishing poets who were rooted in their communities. They published Zephaniah when others failed to tune into the new poetry that was about to emerge. The book sold well going into 3 editions but it was in performance that the Dub (Reggae) Poet would cause a revolution, a revolution that injected new life into the British poetry scene and attracted the interest of many mainstream publishers, many of whom had sent refusal letters to him only 12 months earlier.

In the early Eighties when Punks and Rastas were on the streets protesting about SUS Laws, high unemployment, homelessness and the National Front, Zephaniah's poetry could be heard on the demonstrations, at youth gatherings, outside police stations, and on the dance floor. It was once said of him that he was Britain's most filmed, photographed, and identifiable poet, this was because of his ability to perform on stage, but most of all on television, bringing Dub Poetry straight into British living rooms. The mission was to take poetry everywhere, he hated the dead image that academia and the establishment had given poetry and proclaimed that he was out to popularise poetry by reaching people who did not read books, those that were keen on books could now witness a book coming to life on the stage. This poetry was political, musical, radical, relevant and on TV.

In the nineties his book publications, record releases and television appearances increased in Britain, although he has concentrated on performing outside Europe. He feels at home anywhere the oral tradition is still strong and lists South Africa, Zimbabwe, India, Pakistan and Colombia as some of his most memorable tours. In fact life has been one long tour but this is the only way the oral tradition can live. Over a 22-day period in 1991 he performed on every continent on this planet. Periodically The Benjamin Zephaniah Band takes to the road, the nature of the modern music business means recordings reach places around the globe a lot quicker than the poet does, and this means that many people around the world are more familiar with the poet's music than his performances, plays or books. His only official fan club developed in Malawi in Central Africa and his only Number One Hit Record was in the former Yugoslavia where the Rasta LP was released on the Helidon label. He was the first person to record with the Wailers after the death of Bob Marley in a musical tribute to Nelson Mandela. Free South Africa by Benjamin Zephaniah and the Wailers was recorded at Marley's Tuff Gong Studio in Kingston, Jamaica. Mandela heard the tribute whilst in prison on Robben Island and soon after his release he requested an introductory meeting with Zephaniah, they have now built a relationship which has led to Zephaniah working with children in South African townships and hosting the President's Two Nation's Concert at the Royal Albert Hall in July 1996.

Most of his own musical recordings fall into the Reggae or Dub Poetry category, but his latest album 'Naked' defies categorisation. It is produced by the legendary drummer Trevor Morais and features artists as diverse as Howard Jones, Aref Durvesh, Rupert Heaven, Mike Cahen, Jamie West-Oram, Jean Alain Rousell, and Dennis Bovell. It is a mixture of Jazz, Reggae, Hip Hop, Rock and house music. In order to compliment the music the graffiti artist Banksy gave exclusive permission for his artwork to feature in the 36 page booklet that comes with the CD. The album was critically acclaimed and received substantial radio airplay worldwide. On hearing the album Rodney P, Britain's' foremost Hip Hop artist and BBC radio DJ decided that was not content with just playing the album, he wanted to contribute to it, so he asked for permission to re-mixed four of the tracks, this put the album firmly on the dance floor. Other musical collaborations include 'Illegal' with Swayzak, 'Theatricks' With Kinobe and the classic 'Empire' with Sinead O'Connor.

Then there is Benjamin Zephaniah the children's poet. His first book of poetry for children called Talking Turkeys had to go into an emergency reprint after just 6 weeks, no one could foresee how popular the book would be, it went to the top of the children's book list and stayed there for months. At first he was not keen on publishing a book for children believing that there was just poetry, not children's poetry or adult's poetry, but he was soon convinced that young people did appreciate the fact that he was not afraid to write about the real world where there are bullies, guns, racism and war. Being a passionate vegan he writes a lot about animals but these animals are not all smiley, happy creatures, some may just be waiting for slaughter or losing their habitat, and of course some may be having fun. Then seemingly from nowhere, in 1999 he wrote a groundbreaking novel for teenagers. 'Face' the first of four novels to date, proved that teenage boys would read if they have access to books that they can relate to. Zephaniah writes gritty, realistic novels about the lives of teenagers, these novels are directed to adults as much as they are to teenagers. He believes that for the most part teenagers know what they are going through, but adults need reminding, they have short memories.

Young writers have said that the accessibility of his work has inspired them to take up writing, many record sleeves bare witness to the fact that he has inspired many of the new generation of rappers, and of all the performance poets that emerged in the late seventies and early eighties he is one of the few that is still going strong. He has sixteen honorary doctorates and the Eailing Hospital in west London has named a wing after him in recognition of his work. Zephaniah believes that working with human rights groups, animal rights groups and other political organisations means that he will never lack subject matter. He now spends much of his time in China, but he continues working throughout Asia, South America and Africa, and is as passionate about politics and poetry now as he has ever been.

"They put a leather belt around her
13 feet of tape and bound her
Handcuffs to secure her
And only God knows what else,
She's illegal, so deport her
Said the Empire that brought her
She died,
Nobody killed her
And she never killed herself.
It is our job to make her
Return to Jamaica
Said the Alien Deporters
Who deports people like me,
It was said she had a warning
That the officers were calling
On that deadly July morning
As her young son watched TV."

from 'The Death of Joy Gardner'

Who's Who from "Talking Turkeys"

I used to think nurses
Were women,
I used to think police
Were men,
I used to think poets
Were boring,
Until I became one of them.

From his website