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Benjamin Zephaniah

Born, 1958 in Birmingham, UK

Benjamin Zephaniah is one of the UK’s most prolific poets and writers. He grew up in Birmingham but subsequently settled in London. By the early 1980s he had emerged as one of a new generation of Black British poets, or ‘Dub Poets’ as they were sometimes referred to. These poets – many of whom were British, but chose to deliver their poetry in a range of patois dialects reflective of Caribbean conections - included Shaka Dedi, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Anum Iyapo, Frederick Williams, and others. In the early 1980s The New Musical Express introduced him to an unsuspecting readership, as ‘The Bard of Stratford’, though this witty reference was to Zephaniah’s locale of Stratford, East London. But this was more than a witty play on words. Zephaniah’s introduction as ‘The Bard of Stratford’ effectively challenged the sense that poetry should be seen as the preserve of only certain people. The Bard of Stratford - some might think Shakespeare. But people were invited to acknowledge another Bard from another Stratford. Zephaniah and other poets have done much to liberate poetry from its rarified and hallowed associations, declaring it to be a more than suitable means of expressing dissatisfaction and disaffection of political and social conditions, in the UK and further afield, in contexts such as apartheid South Africa. Likewise, Zephaniah declared that poetry could very well articulate and reflect the Black experience and the ways in which it comprised so many elements or aspects - Pan-Africanism, Britishness, political struggle, etc.

Zephaniah performed his poetry to audiences around the country, but his principle means of disseminating his work has been through recorded works. He disturbed the traditional ways in which poetry was read or delivered. Eschewing tradition, he delivered his poetry with a range of musical acompaniments, primarily reggae. His first collection of recorded poetry was ‘Rasta’ released in the UK in 1983. The track listing gives a sense of Zephaniah’s perhaps eclectic politics and his essential iconoclasm. Rasta / Get High / Dis Policeman Keeps on Kicking Me to Death / No Politicians / Free South Afrika / 13 Dead / De Children Future. The title track was an upbeat poem of joyful praise or exultation to Zephaniah’s own particular brand of Rastafarianism (he has been dreadlocked for most of his life). Other poems variously dealt with such topics as police brutality, the duplicitous nature of politicians (“No politicians can’t come ‘round here…”), and the struggle against apartheid. 13 Dead spoke out against the horrific deaths of 13 Black youngsters in a suspicious house fire in New Cross, London, the previous year. Reflecting the rampant and crippling unemployment that affected Britain at the time, the record’s final track, De Children Future was a plea for the opportunity to have gainful employment, and with it, self-respect and the opportunity to provide for oneself and ones family. “We want the right to work, Stop treating us like dirt…”

Other recordings followed, including Us An Dem. The collection includeds a distinctive, though exasperated, commentary on the high levels of gun violence (and by extension, gun possession) in Jamaica. Everybody Hav a Gun is accompanied by an ironic, caustic, humourous, and above all, highly original use of the famous theme tune to the classic spaghetti western, The Good, the Bad and The Ugly. Us An Dem, the title track was the inspiration for the 1994 exhibition Us an’ Dem, featuring the artists Faisal Abdu ‘Allah, Denzil Forrester and Tam Joseph. The exhibition, curated by Eddie Chambers, attempted to fashion or reflect a critical dialogue about the relationship between Black people and the judiciary and the instruments of ‘law and order’. Held at The Storey Institute in Lancaster, the exhibition was sponsored by Lancashire Probation Service and came about through the initial of Manjeet Lamba, an artist who worked for the Probation Service. It was Zephaniah who opened the exhibition, his speech culminating with an impromptu rendering of Us an Dem. “Us an’ dem, it is us an’ dem; when will dis ‘ting ever end?”

Zephaniah appears regularly in the media, whether in newspaper features, magazine articles, or radio. His work has been published extensively and his counter-cultural position notwithstanding, he has carved out for himself a position as one of the country’s leading poets who seeks to bring poetry to wider audiences beyond those audiences with which it has traditionally been associated.

Zephaniah famously turned down an OBE because it reminded him of “how my foremothers were raped and my forefathers brutalised.” In a piece written for the Guardian newspaper, Thursday 27 November 2003, Zephaniah disregarded protocol and waxed lyrical about his reasons for publicly declining a gong. The title of his piece, ‘Me? I thought, OBE me? Up yours, I thought’ hinted at the opprobrium he was to heap on the honours system and its recipients:

“…There are many black writers who love OBEs, it makes them feel like they have made it. When it suits them, they embrace the struggle against the ruling class and the oppression they visit upon us, but then they join the oppressors’ club. They are so easily seduced into the great house of Babylon known as the palace. For them, a wonderful time is meeting the Queen and bowing before her presence.

I was shocked to see how many of my fellow writers jumped at the opportunity to go to Buckingham Palace when the Queen had her “meet the writers day” on July 9 2002, and I laughed at the pathetic excuses writers gave for going. “I did it for my mum”; “I did it for my kids”; “I did it for the school”; “I did it for the people”, etc. I have even heard black writers who have collected OBEs saying that it is “symbolic of how far we have come”. Oh yes, I say, we’ve struggled so hard just to get a minute with the Queen and we are so very grateful - not…”

Link to his website: www.benjaminzephaniah.com

Related items

click to show details of Law and order on new show’s agenda

»  Law and order on new show’s agenda

Review relating to an exhibition, 1994

click to show details of Us an’ Dem (Us and Them) - press release

»  Us an’ Dem (Us and Them) - press release

Press release relating to an exhibition, 1994

Related exhibitions

»  Us an’ Dem

Group show at The Storey Institute. 1994

Related venues

»  The Storey Institute

Lancaster, United Kingdom