A Tribute to Benjamin Zephaniah
We were very sad to hear of the passing of the great Benjamin Zephaniah recently and want to celebrate his life and wonderful poems. We are very proud to have his recordings on the Archive and to be able to preserve them for the next generation, who will also gain inspiration from his words.
Benjamin Zephaniah was born in Birmingham, and grew up in Jamaica and in Handsworth, where he was sent to an approved school. He left school at 13 unable to read or write and was imprisoned for burglary. His political angered stayed with him, channelled into protest, music and performance.
He moved to London in 1979, the year Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister; in the early 80’s Punks and Rastas were on the streets protesting against SUS laws, unemployment, homelessness, the National Front and the policies of the Thatcher government. Zephaniah’s poetry could be heard on the demonstrations, at youth gatherings, outside police stations, and on the dance floor. His mission was to take poetry everywhere.
‘Reggae Head’, in the recording here, gives a taste of his unique sound, his comic exuberance, and his rage.
Touring and performing was at the heart of his focus on keeping the oral tradition alive; over a 22–day period in 1991 he performed on every continent. He recorded a tribute to Nelson Mandela with the Wailers; soon after release from prison, Mandela requested a meeting, and this led to Zephaniah working with children in South African townships and hosting the President’s Two Nations concert at The Royal Albert Hall in 1996.
Zephaniah’s first book of poetry for children, Talking Turkeys, was a startling success; children respond to his delight in words and sounds, and his realism. He was a vegan: turkeys, he says in the title poem, have mums. In the recording of ‘Library Ology’ he develops an idea originally used in a famous BT advert: you got an Ology! The voice is dark, sexy and playful.
He has fun with words and sounds, but the fun is only a means to an end. This recording of ‘City River Blues’ gives an illustration of his unwavering purpose: to express simply and starkly the pain some citizens feel in living in modern Britain. The river runs through our lives, ‘dat bloody smell’: listen to the fury in the voice, the urgent rhythm, the despair moderated by defiance, the refusal to compromise the truth of what he sees and feels.
Benjamin Zephaniah was a candidate for Oxford’s poetry professorship, and talked of as a possible Poet Laureate. But when offered an OBE in 2003, he declined, because the word Empire reminded him of how his foremothers were raped and his forefathers brutalised.