Reworded: According to Benjamin Zephaniah, poetry was primarily about connecting with others through communication.
Benjamin Zephaniah, who passed away at the age of 65 today, was a multi-talented individual who referred to himself as a poet, writer, lyricist, musician, and mischievous person on his website. He wrote 30 books encompassing poetry, stories for various age groups, nonfiction, and plays. He also dabbled in music and occasionally acted. In his autobiography, The Life and Rhymes of Benjamin Zephaniah, released for his 60th birthday in 2018, he listed one of his most notable accomplishments as surviving until the age of 30 “without being shot.”
It is impressive that a young man who dropped out of school at 13 and later served time in prison has become a beloved national figure for his unconventional and thought-provoking poetry and performances. Despite being considered a part of the establishment and having his work included in educational curriculums, he still maintained his rebellious spirit. He even hosted a concert for Nelson Mandela at the prestigious Royal Albert Hall in 1996 and was offered an OBE in 2003, which he turned down with his usual flair. “I reject your offer, Mr. Blair and Mrs. Queen. I am strongly against the concept of empire.”
Zephaniah was a Rastafarian and strict vegan, who also had a passion for martial arts and music – he even collaborated with Sinéad O’Connor on a record. Despite being an anarchist and activist throughout his life, his beliefs often contradicted one another. He was the oldest of nine siblings, born in Handsworth, Birmingham in 1958 to parents who had immigrated from the Caribbean in the 1950s. His father, a postman from Barbados, was violent and abusive towards him and his mother, as Zephaniah revealed in his BBC radio play Listen to Your Parents. His mother eventually left with their eldest son, leaving behind eight other children. Zephaniah carried a “Wanted” poster of his father in his mind, always wary of encountering him again.
Despite being dyslexic, he had a passion for words since the age of eight and was determined to pursue it, despite feeling that writing was something reserved for white men. At 10 years old, he performed a spontaneous rap of the books of the Bible at church and was later known as “the prophet Zephaniah.” However, his future seemed bleak as he got involved with a gang and ended up in various detention centers and prisons. Throughout all of this, he wrote “poems” in his mind, though he didn’t refer to them as such. It wasn’t until his last stint in prison that he became politically aware and realized that his actions were only playing into the hands of the law.
At the age of 18, he officially entered the music scene as a rapper (although he preferred to use the term “toasting”, which is a Jamaican style of rap). However, by his early twenties, he had already experienced the deaths of three people. Realizing that he needed to leave in order to survive, he moved to London in 1979. He told his mother that the next time she saw him, he would be on television. She jokingly replied that he would probably be on the crime show “Police 5”. Interestingly, when Zephaniah did eventually become a familiar face on TV as a regular guest on Question Time, he credited his confidence to his conversations with his mother.
While living in London, he became a member of a group he referred to as “a collective of poets and painters”. At the age of 22, he published his debut book, Pen Rhythm. Due to his struggles with reading and writing, he wrote the book phonetically and had someone else type it up. However, he made it clear that he did not want it to be translated into standard English. His goal was to connect with individuals like himself. The first time he was labeled a writer instead of a poet or rapper, he was taken aback and enrolled in night classes in Newham, located in east London.
As Margaret Thatcher took office and the National Front gained power, the young Zephaniah found many reasons to be upset. He sent his first book and some early recordings to Nelson Mandela while he was imprisoned on Robben Island. After Mandela was released and visited London, he contacted the poet to arrange a meeting before meeting with the prime minister. Throughout his extensive career as an activist, Zephaniah spoke out against issues such as apartheid, the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and the treatment of residents in Grenfell Tower in 2017. For Zephaniah, everything had a political aspect. In a later interview with this paper, he admitted that even at nearly 60 years old, he was still “extremely angry”. Similar to his approach to poetry, he enjoyed discussing politics and ideas with people who didn’t think they were interested in them.
He wrote children’s books that were rebellious and fun, such as his 1997 collection called School’s Out: Poems not for School. His first book for children, Talking Turkeys, was a huge success and was reprinted within six weeks. It continues to be a beloved book. Thanks to YouTube, we can watch some of his workshops. In his poem Naked, he expresses his sadness about not being able to have children of his own and uses his platform to discuss the societal expectations surrounding black masculinity.
He viewed poetry as more than just words on a page, but rather a means of communication. Despite not being a fan of poetry, he began writing it with the intention of altering its perception. In an interview, he explained, “I enjoy using language, but I wanted to transform the concept of poetry. I aimed to make it relevant and discuss current events.”