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Farewell to a Beloved Poet: Remembering Benjamin Zephaniah's Impact on Poetry and Society

Today the world has said Goodbye to a man they may never have met, but whose influence has reached every corner of the world and has sparked response in many brains and hearts.

I first encountered Benjamin Zephaniah's work when I was studying English Literature. In the UK's National Curriculum, Professor Benjamin Zephaniah provides a splash of vibrancy, a highlight in the drudge of tone and a fascinating and unapologetic insight into all aspects of social and political issues. The first poem I came across was called 'Dis Poetry'. The title itself is a play on words - Dis/This and Dis/Diss. But I didn't come across the poem in a book. Later, of course, I had to look over and annotate the text, but it was specifically proscribed as watching and listening first. The reason for this? Benjamin Zephaniah was a performer who made words leap from the page. Many poets speak their poetry, but not like this. I remember thinking how musical the poetry was. His categorisation as a 'dub poet' did not go unnoticed to this English Lit studier! I was hooked!

Today we have lost a bright spark in two worlds I'm connected with - the literature world and the performance platform. Benjamin Zephaniah has sadly passed away today at age 65, following a very recent diagnosis of a brain tumour only eight weeks ago. I wanted to write this blog just to outline what an amazing person has passed through our current era and how much of a difference a truly kind heart can make in this world.

Benjamin Obadiah Iqbal Zephaniah was born 15th April 1958 to a Jamaican mother and a Barbadian father. He grew up in Handsworth, Birmingham, and lovingly referred to it as the 'Jamaica capital of Europe' and the 'cold suburbs of Kingston'. He's produced many interviews where he claimed he always had words in his head and he knew he could do something with them. Suffering from dyslexia and leaving school at thirteen years old, this might have seemed impossible to some. However, to Benjamin, poetry was using words to communicate - he had a mind to compose them and a mouth to speak them, and therefore his emphasis was always on people hearing his work, not reading it.

Benjamin moved to London in 1979. He had quite a strong following in the communities of Birmingham and was considered, although young, a competent poet and accomplished speaker. However, in later interviews Benjamin attributed his move to 'not [being] satisfied preaching about the sufferings of Black people to Black people' and so sought out a 'wider mainstream audience' for his poetry. Arguably, this is not a move for success of his work in its own right, but to communicate powerfully on the issues of the subject matter to as many people as it might make a difference to. Benjamin performed his poetry on the streets of London; at protests, gatherings and even outside police stations. His first collection of poetry: 'Pen Rhythm' was published in 1979 and addressed many social problems of the time such as homelessness, inequality and racism.

His second collection of poetry: 'The Dread Affair' (1985) focused highly on the downfalls and corruption of the British legal system. By this time, Benjamin was becoming more well known and attracting a lot of attention, both good and bad. However, his poetry resonated with people in all sorts of social settings. His poetry drew on Jamaican rhythm and melody and much more so due to his ability to perform it, concert style, with musical backing and with integrity, ingenuity and sincerity. He was quoted as being 'Britain's most filmed, photographed and identifiable poet' and this is largely due to his appearance and performance, 'most of all on television, bringing dub poetry straight into the British living room'.

He released books and albums of his works. In fact, he was the first person to perform with The Wailers after Bob Marley's death, in a dub poetry tribute to Nelson Mandela called 'Free South Africa'. Mandela met Zephaniah and also requested that he host a concert proposed in Mandela's honour at The Royal Albert Hall.

Obviously as I've stated in the introduction to this blog, Benjamin appeared as a core part of the British National Curriculum. His relatability, his difference, his subject matter and his form all promoted him as a poet to be studied, and to this day he can be integrated into literature learning from as early as Key Stage 1. In more recent years he wrote a great deal of material for children, allowing them the imagination, intelligence and insight that they often don't get from standard children's authors, and has been a hit with parents and teachers for moralistic, magical and ethical allegory.

Benjamin Zephaniah travelled the world over to take his poetry, live, to as many people as he could reach. Reaching world-wide recognition, Benjamin concentrated on performance outside of Europe, stating that he 'felt at home anywhere the oral tradition is still strong', and listing 'South Africa, Zimbabwe, India, Pakistan and Colombia' as some of his most memorable performances. In fact, in one ongoing 22-day period, Benjamin performed in every single continent across the world. Many places across the world no longer have an oral tradition for story-telling, poetry or fables, but every single human being world-wide has it in their history. The written word in cuneiform was developed around 3200 BCE. Alphabetic writing, or what we would recognise as a writing form from a modern perspective, emerged around 1st century AD. The English alphabet began development only 4000 years ago. But people have been passing on stories, legends, songs, history and poetry by spoken word for tens of thousands of years. There's no way that a rhythmic and intelligent poet such as Benjamin Zephaniah could fail to resonate with a part of us that is tuned in to listen. Interesting fact: Socrates railed against writing of any kind. He believed that writing would dull human memory. We only know that he thought that because Plato wrote it down about him!

Benjamin Zephaniah did neither apologise for nor compromise on his beliefs, morals and values. He was an animal rights activist and a vegan. He was vegetarian by the age of nine and went on to become vegan by thirteen. Speaking of his childhood memories, Benjamin stated 'I experienced racism in and out of the classroom, so in the playground I would often find myself...talking to the local cats. When the cats were away, I'd talk to the birds and the bees. Amazingly, I never met a racist animal'.

Amongst his achievements I can list:

Writer in Residence at the Africa Arts Collective in Liverpool

Honorary Doctorate in Arts and Humanities (University of North London) Doctor of Letters (University of Central England)

Doctor of the University (University of Staffordshire)

In 1998 he was appointed to the National Advisory committee on creative and cultural education, where he was able to advise on the place of music and arts in the National Curriculum.

However, he controversially declined an OBE in 2003. An OBE, as you probably know, is an acronym short for 'Officer of the Order of the British Empire'. Benjamin stated:

"Me? I thought, OBE me? Up yours, I thought. I get angry when I hear the word 'empire'; it reminds me of slavery, it reminds me of thousands of years of brutality, it reminds me of how my foremothers were raped and my forefathers brutalised. My obsession is about the future and the political rights of all people. Benjamin Zephaniah OBE - no way Mr Blair, no way Mrs Queen. I am profoundly anti-Empire."

To finish this little trip into the incredible life of this local-boy turned national treasure, I want to leave you with some words of Benjamin Zephaniah that will never leave me. There's three poems I'm quoting from; the first is 'Dis Poetry', the second 'We Refugees' and the final 'What Stephen Lawrence Has Taught Us' from his collection 'Too Black, Too Strong'.

Dis poetry is like a riddim dat drops

De tongue fires a riddim dat shoots like shots

Dis poetry is designed fe rantin

(Dis Poetry)

We can all be refugees Nobody is safe, All it takes is a mad leader Or no rain to bring forth food, We can all be refugees We can all be told to go, We can be hated by someone For being someone.

(We Refugees)

It is now an open secret

Black people do not have

Chips on their shoulders,

They just have injustice on their backs

And justice on their minds,

And now we know that the road to liberty

Is as long as the road from slavery.

(What Stephen Lawrence Has Taught Us)



Image from The Independent Online.

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