Born in the heart of Handsworth, Birmingham, the poet Benjamin Zephaniah thought for years that he was living in some outpost of Jamaica. ‘At that time all the food was Jamaican, all the music was Jamaican and all the people were Jamaican. Once my mother told me that someone was coming to visit me from Jamaica and I ran out in the street looking at the buses to see which one was coming from Jamaica.’
His early sense of security and belonging was shattered when his mother got a job in a hospital in a poor white working class area and the family moved there. He was the only black boy in the school and had to bear the brunt of the usual racial stereotyping. He remembers injuring a finger when his teacher forced him against his wishes to play cricket, insisting that ‘every dark person must be able to play cricket’. Similarly the day after Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Clay) had won a fight, all the children wanted to box him, and he ended with a bloody nose and lips. He remembers his teacher laughing and saying, ‘you have the same colour blood’.
The final straw was a brick. He still has the scar to show for his encounter with a white youth on a bike who slammed a brick against his head. His mother at last saw the light and moved him to Deykin Avenue school in Whitton, Birmingham. This school was very cosmopolitan and he found that he could express himself artistically, and was happy there. It was there that he had found his voice for rhyme and rap and more conventional poetry. ‘I have always been doing poetry, even before I knew what the word poetry meant. I was a great rhymer. Sometimes we’d have competitions where someone would pick a word at random and I would improvise a poem around that word. I usually won.’
After becoming well known and receiving numerous invitations to visit schools, Benjamin nurtured the wish his old school would invite him back to do a performance of his work. When no invitation materialised, he wrote them saying ‘My name is Benjamin Zephaniah, I am a poet and used to go to your school and I want to come and read some poetry to the children.’ They had not realised that he was an old boy and immediately invited him to the school.
The brand of poetry Benjamin developed was strongly influenced by the music and oral poetry of Jamaica, termed ‘dub poetry’, and what he calls ‘street politics’. By the time he was fifteen he had gained a strong local following. By age twenty-two he was finding Birmingham ‘too small’, and headed south for London where his first book Pen Rhythm was published by Page One Books.
He began to read his poetry at community events which met with a positive response. ‘People would come up to me in the streets and ask when my next reading would be. The poems then were very angry. I never imagined that anybody would put me on television with my type of poetry. Once after a reading in a room above a bookshop a woman came up to me and said, “you’re going to be famous”. You must remember the National Front was on the streets then, the SUS laws were in force, and the police were picking me up every night, locking me up and dropping me back on the street. So I didn’t think the media would want to hear what I had to say. But she said, “your poetry is in such an original style that people are going to take notice of it”.’
The next reading he did at a small polytechnic building in Stratford, East London, proved to be important for his future. ‘In the audience were a lot of people, who are now household names, who were just emerging from the alternative comedy scene at the time: Rik Mayall, Alexei Sayle, Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders amongst others. They said, “Why don’t you do some things with us?” I said, “I don’t do comedy.” Though my show was quite funny, I said, “I don’t want to be dubbed a comedian.” And they said, “No. You’ll be introduced as a poet. We have a political audience so they will listen, not just a cabaret audience.” I started doing shows for them and then it really took off. Channel 4 had just come into being and I got my first exposure on Black on Black produced by Trevor Phillips. Because my work was so political I found myself being invited to read at political demonstrations and meetings. One week I’d be performing my poetry at CND demonstrations, the next at animal rights or ANC demonstrations. I know it sounds like “rent a militant” but I felt passionate about all these things. In the West you are always asked what is the poet’s role in society and I always say that I know exactly what it is, it is to be a newscaster when the news is not picking up our stories, so we must tell that news though our poetry. They say here, “Do you want to be a poet or a comedian or an actor?” But in the griot tradition you can be all these things.’
Benjamin is undaunted that oral/performance poetry does not enjoy the same status as written poetry. ‘I always say that poetry is a big tree with many branches. You may get introduced to the tree by climbing on to one branch, but that does not mean that you do not explore the rest of the tree. I came on to that tree through oral poetry, but through that I have come to love classical poetry, limericks, nonsense verse – all kinds of poetry equally and that’s the important thing. A lot of people bring a snobbish approach and classify written poetry above the oral, forgetting that the oral came first.’
His entry into the world of children’s poetry came about after he was approached by an editor from Penguin. ‘I originally said no, I just do poems and some children like them. But then again a lot of teachers were saying to me that I should do some poems especially for children, for them to hold the book and say “this is my book” and after a while I said, “Yes. I’ll go for it”.’ His first book was Talking Turkeys published in 1994 which was an immediate success and had to be reprinted after six weeks. This book was followed by Funky Chickens. He puts the success of these books down to the fact that he tackled real issues such as war, racism, bullying, animal rights and environmental issues, etc.
Benjamin Zephaniah’s energy and creativity find expression not only in the oral poetry that comes into its own on the performance stage, but also in playwriting, acting in films and TV, and in making records. He has taken his poetry to every continent and still today he tours for the British Council – who pursue an enlightened policy of projecting a multi-cultural image of Britain abroad. His books and records have gained immense popularity in such far flung places as Malawi and the former Yugoslavia. His help during their years of struggle has been personally acknowledged by such leaders as Nelson Mandela and Yasser Arafat.
Irreverence for the academic trappings of traditional written poetry, a loose-foot, streetwise approach to form and content and a large-hearted humanity, permeate his poetry, and this should ensure his popularity with school children – natural iconoclasts – for years to come.
Benjamin Zephaniah’s poetry for children:
Talking Turkeys, Puffin, 0 14 036330 0, £4.99 pbk
Funky Chickens, Puffin, 0 14 037945 2, £4.99 pbk
School’s Out, AK Press, 1 873176 49 X, £3.95 pbk
Inna Liverpool, AK Press, 1 873176 75 9, £1.95 pbk
City Psalms, Bloodaxe, 1 85224 230 2, £6.95 pbk
Propa Propaganda, Bloodaxe, 1 85224 372 4, £6.95 pbk
Errol Lloyd is an artist and writer.