Zephaniah, Benjamin 1958- (Benjamin Pbadiah Iqubal Zephaniah)
Zephaniah, Benjamin 1958- (Benjamin Pbadiah Iqubal Zephaniah)
Born April 15, 1958, in Birmingham, England; son of Oswald (a post office manager) and Valerie (a nurse) Springer. Education: Attended Ward End Hall Comprehensive School and Broadway Comprehensive School. Hobbies and other interests: Martial arts, running, numismatics.
Home—England. Agent—(Literary) Rosemary Canter, Drury House, PFD, 34-43 Russell St., London WWC2B 5HA, England; (film/radio/television) Sandra Boyce Management, 1 Kingsway House, Albion Rd., London N16 0TA, England.
Poet, playwright, and performing artist. Africa Arts Collective, Liverpool, England, writer-in-residence, 1989; Memphis State University, Memphis, TN, writer-in-residence, 1991, 1995. Actor in films and television programs, including Didn't You Kill My Brother?, Farendg, and Dread Poets Society. President, SHOP
(self-help organization for ex-prisoners); chairperson, Hackney Empire Theatre, and Umoja Housing Co-Op; patron, Irie Dance Company, Tom Allen Centre, Market Nursery-Hackney, Newham Young People's Theatre Scheme, Chinese Women's Refuge Group, Music Works-Brixton, and Newcastle One Work Association.
Equity, Musicians' Union, Writers' Guild, Performing Rights Society, Author Licensing and Collecting Society, Blackliners (Black and Asian AIDS & HIV support network), Prison Phoenix Trust (promoting yoga and meditation in prisons), VIVA! (Vegetarians International Voice for Animals), SARI (Soccer against Racism in Ireland).
British Broadcasting Corporation Young Playwrights Festival award, 1988, for Hurricane Dub; Portsmouth Book Award for longer novel, 2002, for Refugee Boy. University of North London, honorary doctorates in arts and humanities, 1988; University of the West of England, doctor of letters, 1999; Oxford Brookes University, doctor of arts, 2002.
FOR CHILDREN, EXCEPT AS NOTED
Talking Turkeys (poetry), Penguin (London, England), 1994.
Funky Chickens (poetry; with audio cassette), Penguin (London, England), 1996.
School's Out: Poems Not for School, AK Press (San Francisco, CA), 1997.
Wicked World! (poetry), Penguin (London, England), 2000.
Little Book of Vegan Poems, AK Press (San Francisco, CA), 2000.
Refugee Boy (novel), Bloomsbury Children's Books (New York, NY), 2001.
Face (young-adult novel), Bloomsbury Children's Books (New York, NY), 2002.
We Are Britain (poetry), Frances Lincoln Books (London, England), 2003.
Gangsta Rap, Bloomsbury (New York, NY), 2004.
J Is for Jamaica, photography by Prodeepta Das, Frances Lincoln (New York, NY), 2007.
Teacher's Dead, Bloomsbury (London, England), 2007.
Pen Rhythm, Page One Books (London, England), 1980.
The Dread Affair, Arena (London, England), 1985.
Inna Liverpool, Africa Arts Collective (Liverpool, England), 1988.
Rasta Time in Palestine, Shakti (Liverpool, England), 1990.
City Psalms, Bloodaxe Books (Newcastle upon Tyne, England), 1992.
(Editor, with Marie Mulvey Roberts) Out of the Night: Writings from Death Row, New Clarion Press (Gloucester, England), 1994.
Propa Propaganda, Bloodaxe Books (Newcastle upon Tyne, England), 1996.
(Editor) The Bloomsbury Book of Love Poems, Bloomsbury Books (London, England), 1999.
Too Black, Too Strong, Bloodaxe Books (Newcastle upon Tyne, England), 2001.
Playing the Right Tune (stage play), produced in London, England, 1985.
Job Rocking (stage play), produced in London, England, 1987.
Hurricane Dub (radio play), British Broadcasting Corporation (London, England), 1989.
Streetwise (stage play), produced in London, England, 1990.
Delirium (stage play), produced in London, England, 1990.
The Trial of Mickey Tekka (stage play), produced at Hay-on-Wye Literature Festival, England, 1991.
Dread Poets Society (teleplay), British Broadcasting Corporation (London, England), 1991.
Listen to Your Parents (radio play), British Broadcasting Corporation (London, England), 2000.
Also contributor to numerous television and radio programs for British Broadcasting Corporation, Menton Films, After Image, Thames TV, Tyne Tees, Yorkshire-TV, and World Service.
Dub Ranting, The Cartel, 1982.
Rasta, The Cartel, 1983.
Big Boys Don't Make Girls Cry, The Cartel, 1984.
(With The Wailers) Free South Africa, The Cartel, 1986.
Us and Dem, Island/Mango (London, England), 1990.
Crisis, Workers Playtime, 1992.
Back to Roots, Acid Jazz (London, England), 1995.
Belly of de Beast, Ariwa Records (London, England), 1996.
Reggae Head, 57 Productions, 1997.
(With Back to Base) Dancing Tribes, MP Records, 2000.
(With Swayzak) Illegal, The Medicine Label, 2000.
(With John Webster and Brindabrand), The Shelley Story, Pathfinder Audio, 2001.
(With Mieko Shimizu and David Lowe) What Is In-between, Oval Music, 2006.
Naked, One Little Indian Records, 2006.
Although he was born in Birmingham, England, Benjamin Zephaniah spent much of his childhood in Jamaica, giving him a multiracial experience that has shaped his work as a poet, playwright, musician, and actor. Reminiscent at times of rasta or rap music, Zephaniah's poetry bypasses the formality of written verse to find its rhythms in the everyday speech of ordinary people. Having produced several plays, records, books, and even a television film, Zephaniah brought out his first volume of poetry for children in 1994 and his first young-adult novel in 2001.
Like the author's work for older readers, the poems in Talking Turkeys recall the oral tradition in their use of rhythm and language. D.A. Young, writing in Junior Bookshelf, noted that Zephaniah's "wit is devastating and his well aimed shafts of satire rarely miss their mark," making Talking Turkeys "jolly good fun." The assembled poems cover such subjects as freedom, peace, love, politics, and even the role of the poet: "I used to think poets / Were boring, / Until I became one of them." Showcasing the oral nature of rap, Funky Chickens appeared with an audio cassette. It contains raps, hip-hops, and rhymes in serious and humorous modes. "Thoughtful, tender, humane, and humorous" number among the adjectives a Books for Keeps contributor used to describe this collection.
Zephaniah once stated his mission as a writer: "To popularize poetry. Many working-class people in Britain and worldwide believe that poetry is an art of the middle class. To redress this, I make a great effort to
perform anywhere on the planet, always try to keep my publications to a low purchase price, and write around issues that concern working class people." Writing for children helps accomplish his mission by cultivating an audience who will grow into adult poetry-readers. In addition to Talking Turkeys and Funky Chickens, other juvenile verse collections by Zephaniah include School's Out: Poems Not for School, Wicked World!, and J Is for Jamaica, the last described by a Kirkus Reviews writer as an "alphabetical jaunt to Jamaica" featuring colorful photographs by Prodeepta Das.
In his fiction for younger readers, Zephaniah deals with realistic contemporary problems. In Refugee Boy he lets readers peek inside the uncertain world of fourteen-year-old Alem, a refugee from Africa, whose parents are involved in the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Although his father brings him to London to insure his safety and then returns to Africa, Alem faces such challenges as discrimination, grief, and the red-tape maze of applying for political asylum. The work garnered praise for its realistic portrayal of the refugee experience in England, London Observer Kate Kellaway calling it "an exceptional novel for teenagers." In Publishers Weekly a reviewer noted that, although Zephaniah tells this story using a "relatively objective stance," the injustices Alem faces will anger readers. In the same vein, Booklist contributor Jean Franklin found the writing "occasionally too stark," yet praised Zephaniah for presenting teens with a compelling rendition of a "memorable story." "Alem is a refugee who transcends his identity as such," concluded a Kirkus Reviews contributor; "he becomes a hero, even a role model and readers will care about him."
Zephaniah's second novel, Face, was inspired by seeing a man with a badly scarred face and wondering what prejudices that man encountered because of his condition. Face revolves around the changing life of fifteen-year-old Martin Turner, a popular teen at his inner-city London high school. After an automobile accident leaves him disfigured, Martin loses friends he thought were loyal, as well as a girlfriend, but ultimately gains in understanding and maturity when he learns to look beyond physical appearance in judging others. In Booklist, Michael Cart wrote that, although Zephaniah tends to keep the moral lesson visible within his story, he also "does an excellent job of animating his setting, [London's] … economically disadvantaged, ethnically mixed neighborhoods." Writing in the London Observer, Caroline Boucher praised Face as an "excellent" book for young adults, and School Librarian contributor Maureen Porter predicted that readers will "draw inspiration from Martin's transformation" from class clown to mature teen.
A fifteen year old is also the focus of Gangsta Rap, Zephaniah's third young-adult novel. East Ender teens Ray, Prem, and Tyronne find it easier to spend time at the local record shop, run by a Jamaican named Marga Man, than at their homes or at school, and they start a rap band they call the Positive Negatives. After Ray leaves home to avoid more fights with his father, the teens decided to take their band to the top. However, the rap community is tied directly into the East End's gang culture, and the three young men quickly realize that the music business can be more threatening than life at home. In Gangsta Rap the author "paints a vivid picture of the hip-hop music scene," noted a Publishers Weekly critic, and in Booklist Gillian Engberg concluded that "teens will enjoy the thrilling music fantasy" at the core of Zephaniah's novel."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Contemporary Poets, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 2001.
Zephaniah, Benjamin, Talking Turkeys, Penguin (London, England), 1994.
Black Issues Book Review, November-December, 2004, Desiree Harrison, review of Gangsta Rap, p. 75.
Booklist, September 1, 2002, Jean Franklin, review of Refugee Boy, p. 117.
Books for Keeps, November, 1995, review of Talking Turkeys, p. 13; January, 1997, review of Funky Chickens, p. 22; July, 1999, review of Face, p. 24.
Bookseller, October 12, 2001, "Zephaniah Speaks for Refugees," p. 40.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, October, 2002, review of Refugee Boy, p. 87.
Choice, January, 1994, D.A. Barton, review of City Psalms, pp. 784-785.
Junior Bookshelf, February, 1995, D.A. Young, review of Talking Turkeys, p. 47.
Kirkus Reviews, June 1, 2002, review of Refugee Boy, p. 814; November 15, 2002, review of Face, p. 1704; July 1, 2004, review of Gangsta Rap, p. 639; December 1, 2006, review of J Is for Jamaica, p. 1226.
Kliatt, January, 2005, KaaVonia Hinton, review of Face, p. 19.
Library Journal, January, 1998, Louis McKee, review of Propa Propaganda, pp. 103-104.
London Review of Books, December 5, 1985, Blake Morrison, review of The Dread Affair, pp. 14-15.
Observer (London, England), August 22, 1999, Caroline Boucher, review of Face, p. 14; October 24, 1999, Kate Kellaway, review of The Bloomsbury Book of Love Poems, p. 13; October 28, 2001, Kate Kellaway, review of Refugee Boy, p. 16.
Publishers Weekly, July 1, 2002, review of Refugee Boy, p. 80; November 11, 2002, review of Face, p. 65; August 23, 2004, review of Gangsta Rap, p. 56.
School Librarian, February, 1993, Chris Routh, review of City Psalms, p. 37; February, 1995, Susan Hamlyn, review of Talking Turkeys, p. 31; February, 1997, Celia Gibbs, review of Propa Propaganda, p. 44; winter, 1999, Maureen Porter, review of Face, pp. 214-215; spring, 2000, Robert Dunbar, review of The Bloomsbury Book of Love Poems, p. 42; winter, 2000, Catherine Sack, review of Wicked World!, p. 209; winter, 2001, Pat Williams, review of Refugee Boy, p. 215.
School Library Journal, October, 2002, Daniel L. Darigan, review of Refugee Boy, p. 178; December, 2002, Vicki Reutter, review of Face, p. 151; February, 2005, Jack Forman, review of Gangsta Rap, p. 144; November, 2005, Mary R. Hoffman, review of Face, p. 60; January, 2007, Margaret R. Tassia, review of J Is for Jamaica, p. 121.
Southern Review, spring, 1994, Mark Jarman, review of City Psalms, pp. 393-408.
Times Educational Supplement, February 18, 2000, Sarah Bischoff, reviews of Talking Turkeys and Funky Chickens (audio versions), p. 23; September 22, 2000, John Mole, review of Wicked World!, p. 5.
Voice of Youth Advocates, December, 2002, review of Face, p. 393; February, 2005, Diane Tuccillo and Luke Lambert, review of Gangsta Rap, p. 487.
World Literature Today, summer, 1997, Bruce King, review of Propa Propaganda, pp. 595-596; spring, 2002, Kwanne Dawes, review of Too Black, Too Strong, pp. 159-160.
Benjamin Zephaniah Home Page,http://www.benjaminzephaniah.com (May 28, 2008).
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