Nationality: British. Born: Birmingham, in 1958; grew up in Jamaica. Family: Married in 1990. Career: Performer. Awards: Honorary doctorates: University of North London, 1998; University of West of England, 1999. Agent: Sandra Boyce Management, 1 Kingsway House, Albion Road, London N16 0TA, England.
Pen Rhythm. London, Page One, 1980.
The Dread Affair: Collected Poems. London, Arena, 1985.
City Psalms. Newcastle upon Tyne, Bloodaxe, 1992.
Talking Turkeys (for children). London, Viking/Penguin, 1994.
Out of the Night. Gloucester, New Clarion Press, 1994.
Funky Chickens (for children). London, Puffin/Penguin, 1996.
Propa Propaganda. Newcastle upon Tyne, Bloodaxe, 1996.
School's Out. Edinburgh, AK Press, 1997.
Recordings: Dub Ranting, Radical Wallpaper, 1982; Rasta, Upright, 1983; Big Boy Don't Make Girls Cry, Upright, 1984; Free South Africa/Stop de War, Upright, 1986; Us and Dem, Mango, 1990; Crisis, Working Playtime, 1992; Back to Roots, Acid Jazz, 1995; Belly of de Beast, Ariwa, 1996; Dancing Tribes (with Back to Base), MP Records, 1999.
Playing the Right Tune (produced London, 1985).
Job Rocking (produced London, 1987).
Streetwise (produced London, 1990).
Radio Plays: Hurricane Dub, 1989; Our Teachers Gone Crazy, 1990.
Television Play: Dread Poets Society, 1991.
Face. London, Bloomsbury, 1999.
Ina Liverpool. Liverpool, African Arts Collective, n.d. Rasta Time in Palestine. Liverpool, Shakti, 1990.
Editor, The Bloomsbury Book of Love Poems. London, Bloomsbury, 1999.*
Critical Study: "Chanting down Babylon: Three Rastafarian Dub Poets" by Darren J. Middleton, in 'This Is How We Flow': Rhythm in Black Cultures, edited by Angela M.S. Nelson, Columbia, University of South Carolina Press, 1999.
Theatrical Activities: Actor: Film —Didn't You Kill My Brother?, 1987; Farendg, 1989; Dread Poets Society, 1991.
Benjamin Zephaniah comments:
Zephaniah is a great believer in oral poetry. He is continually touring, taking his poetry to people who do not have books readily available and to countries where the illiteracy rate is high. His work is mainly political or social commentary and can go to both extremes, from humorous to serious drama. Zephaniah also believes that it is not good enough for one to stand on stage proclaiming one's ideas but that the artist must work with organizations to make those ideas a reality.
Zephaniah's motto is Increase the peace by any means necessary.* * *
Benjamin Zephaniah is black, red, and dread. His themes are drawn from the news, from the front pages, from the pubs and streets, and from the black British politics of today. In a very old-fashioned way, he is a poet fighting injustice with words, and what is the point of having a poet if he tells the stories just as you or I would have told them?
Zephaniah came from Jamaica by way of Handsworth Green in Birmingham. His childhood has already become the subject of a mythology of its own; one newspaper had his family too poor to afford a comb so that they used a fork instead. He was composing and performing poetry before he could read and write effectively, and he still performs everything from memory. I remember that, when I asked him for a copy of his "Green Poem," Zephaniah said that he did not have a copy and that if I wanted one I would have to take it down from dictation. After being told off for spelling "dis," "dem," and "dat" with "th," I got the hang of it. The rhythm solves it.
It is not easy for Zephaniah to reach an audience among which his words will strike new chords. Over the years he has become a regular performer at literature festivals up and down the country, but the audiences in these places are typically white and middle class. Although they enjoy the business of a comic poet painting the vices and follies of humankind, they do not get near an understanding of the roots of the poetry or the heart of the man. Where the audiences do intuit what he means—the people in the pubs and clubs of the inner cities, the South Wales valleys, the streets of Liverpool—they do not laugh from the heart at "Dis Policeman Keeps on Kicking Me to Death." Theirs is a laugh of empathy with bits on the miners' strike, urban riots, and the poll tax, with Thatcherism wrapped up in it, a different laugh from the one at the Cheltenham Literature Festival.
Younger audiences sometimes miss a dimension of Zephaniah's work. Able to enjoy the flow of language in his performances, they do not, however, always have a mature grasp of the issues involved. For some time he has addressed children's audiences directly and for the purpose of entertaining them. The publication of Talking Turkeys in 1994 proved to be a great success, with immediate requests for more poetry for children, which, as in the way of the world, adults love too.
It is often assumed that establishment poets do not rate Zephaniah seriously, but I am not sure that this is true. They have at least heard of him, even though he may not have heard of them. There is a view sometimes whispered that his poems do not work on paper. I think it is true that one needs to know his speech patterns and his voice before the rhythms become plain in reading the work. But I can think of dozens of poets whose work only became clear to me once I had heard them reading it. In the late 1980s Zephaniah was nominated but not finally accepted for honorary chairs in poetry at both Oxford and Cambridge, losing out to the worthy Seamus Heaney in one case. At best he suspects that snobbery about the properness of his poetry is to blame. At worst, who knows?