Benjamin Zephaniah @ St George’s
Benjamin Zephaniah strolls onstage grinning, his long dreads swinging over his purple suit jacket, to clamorous applause. His voice fills the room with ease as he introduces himself and his new book, an autobiography that took around seven years to write, The Life and Rhymes of Benjamin Zephaniah, because he ‘don’t like no deadlines’. Not a typical poetry reading, his performance was far more personal as he discussed some of the topics in his book, sometimes launching into a ‘dub rant’ without warning.
Benjamin touched on the beginning of his fascination with spoken word and rhyme — the answer being that there was no beginning. For as long as he can remember storytelling and rhyme has been drummed into him, mainly by his mother who used to speak in rhyme ‘for fun’ to her children. For Benjamin then, spoken word poetry is intrinsically natural, an ingrained culture and a chosen lifestyle. He performs the heartwarming ‘I Love my Mother’ which he introduces as the first poem he ‘created’ (Benjamin has been creating poems since he could speak, but he only began writing them down when he was about twenty years old). Much of the discussion of his early experiences delved into his contact with racism in Birmingham from a young age, his abusive father and his proximity to crime. Despite this, he still managed to bring a lightness to these heavy topics.
The contextualisation of this revolutionary poet was both rewarding and enlightening, it made his poems all the more striking and personally political. He reflected on many aspects of 1980s London: the racial tensions and riots, his involvement in Brixton, his time living in a communal home and his poetry performances at demonstrations, gigs, on tv and outside police stations. His poetry was, and continues to be, political, radical, musical and accessible. This anarchist Rastafarian’s status and position in the dub poetry canon is undeniable, his performance of ‘Us an Dem’ was electric, strong and passionate - still as relevant today as it was when released in 1990.
The session ended with a Q and A, in which Benjamin responded to questions about his veganism, his acting career in the hit-TV show Peaky Blinders and toxic masculinity. He finished with the fan favourite ‘Talking Turkeys’. The crowd cheered enthusiastically as he strutted around the stage projecting in a sing-song voice ‘be nice to yu turkeys dis Christmas, don’t eat it, keep it alive, it could be yu mate, an not on your plate, say, yo! Turkey I’m on your side’.
Illustration by Izzy Thompson.