Benjamin Zephaniah

Benjamin Zephaniah is one of the UK’s most renowned poets, novelists, playwrights and activists. He was born in April 1958 and spent most of his life between Handsworth, Birmingham and Jamaica. At the age of 14 he left school, and 34 years later he is one of Britain’s innovators and has made numerous contributions to literature over three decades. Since 1980 he has written nearly twenty books, performed on television and his work has featured at theatres around the country.

Benjamin Zephaniah loves people, and works all over the world. He writes for adults and for children, and through these words he spreads a message of equality for all. His first book Pen Rhythm (1980) set Zephaniah’s career in motion. His second collection, The Dread Affair: Collected Poems (1985) looked at domestic issues surrounding the British legal system. He has also written for children (Talking Turkeys (1994) and Funky Chickens (1996), as well as performing for radio.

Currently, he is embarking on a world tour, which sees him returning from Brazil and Norway, then heading off to South Africa, Spain, Mexico, India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, China, and finally back to the UK. He says, “I work with anyone from the top to the bottom, from intellectuals and academics to performing in townships (in South Africa). I love that I’ve always been able to do that easily. It’s hard sometimes; as I don’t like all the travelling, but once I get there and I’m on stage, I love doing all that.” His friendly nature and genuine personality make him one of Britain’s favourite writers of our time. He is a cultural commentator and through his art he strives to make a real difference. Through art he invokes change.

With the Internet, X-Box, home-cinema, Tesco delivery, home shopping, micro-chips, there is an ever-shrinking need to leave your home. Critics were certain that performance poetry would be dead, however Benjamin Zephaniah has proved them all wrong. He says. “People still come, be it the television, computer or the radio, its something about the human voice. People need to hear it.”

Benjamin Zephaniah has many influences, however the most important are Marcus Garvey, Bob Marley and Angela Davis. He says, “I read Marcus Garvey when I was a child. He was a man of his times.” Zephaniah continues, “I loved Bob Marley before he was relaunched. He was the first person that I wrote to, and he wrote me back. Years later, I met him and he remembered me, as well as the poems that I sent to him.”

Angela Davis was an American woman who was part of the Black Panther Party in the 1960s and 1970s. She was on the FBI’s most wanted list, Zephaniah jokes: “She was the Osama Bin Laden of her time”. He continues, “She’s a strong black woman. She was really frustrated and became a symbol of rebellion.”

Being a prolific writer has left Zephaniah with a large body of work. For him, his favourite piece of work is Naked, which appears in Too Black, Too Strong. He explains, “it was slightly inspired from Alan Ginsberg’s Howl, and for me, I stripped myself down naked and I wanted to be real about life, death, media, and infertility. “It’s one of my best poems and I wrote it very quickly. I thought this must be too good to be true.”

Benjamin Zephaniah’s work has the power to change your perceptions and invites you to think about the reality of the world. The poet always spreads a message, Benjamin says, “I want people to go away feeling that they understand how I see the world. He spoke from the heart and I want to do that.” He continues, “I want to make poetry and the arts accessible. For me this is the most important thing.”

As, the world becomes more televised, and we see wars in times of peace, famine in a time of globalisation, and the ozone layer shrinking and ice caps melting in a time of knowledge, Benjamin Zephaniah takes his role as a poet and activist seriously. He says, “There are two global issues that come to mind, the first one is the environment and the second is the war on terror. It’s about the idea of civilization and being civilized. Freedom ultimately becomes the freedom to drive. When you look down on a city, it is dominated by cars.” Zephaniah continues, “The real issue is our idea of civilization. ‘There is no way to peace, peace is the way’, this idea uses peace as a verb. The idea of fighting for peace, there is no way there. Did you know that for every soldier the price is four teachers? We’re going backwards, and as Ghandi said, ‘civilization, it would be an idea’.”

Within Benjamin Zephaniah’s commitment and conviction to social justice comes his refusal of the OBE three years ago. This refusal was big news, everywhere, and from that Benjamin Zephaniah has had his critics and his supporters. He says, “All this just means that some people know me who didn’t know me. Some people respect me for standing up for what I believe in, but it hasn’t changed anything and it doesn’t mean a thing to me.”

Britain has been fortunate enough to have three decades of Zephaniah’s work. He continues to write, produce and collaborate with artists across the world.

Cherie Federico