Zephaniah, Benjamin 1958–
Benjamin Zephaniah 1958-
(Full name Benjamin Obadiah Iqbal Zephaniah) English poet, playwright, children's book author, and writer of radio and television plays.
Known as Britain's Rastafarian poet, Zephaniah writes political verse which advocates social justice and racial equality. He has made a name for himself with his high-energy and charismatic spoken-word and recorded performances, which have attracted popular and critical attention and are often broadcast on British television and radio. Zephaniah has also written several radio and television plays and children's books, and has recorded music.
Zephaniah was born in 1958 in Birmingham, England. He spent most of his youth in Jamaica, however, and was influenced by his mother's recitation of poetry and the tapes of Jamaican poets that were played in the household when he was a child. He began to perform in poetry competitions and became known for his ability to create poems that entertained audiences at churches, community centers, and on street corners. As a teen, he began to have discipline problems and left school at the age of fourteen. Around that time he was jailed for burglary. After being released, he decided to channel his energy into music and poetry. He worked as a reggae DJ in Handsworth, where he continued to develop his own poetic and performance style. In 1979 he moved to London and published his first poetry collection, Pen Rhythm (1980). Five years later, his first play, Playing the Right Tune, was staged in London. He was appointed writer-in-residence at the Africa Arts Collective in Liverpool in 1989 and has been a creative artist in residence at Cambridge University. A political activist, he became involved with the Rastafarian movement and adopted a vegan lifestyle, both of which profoundly affected his life and career. He also has worked as an actor on television shows and written several television and radio plays, one of which, Listen to Your Parents (2000), won the 2001 Race in the Media Radio Drama Award from the Commission for Racial Equality. In 1998 he became an advisor on the arts and music for the National Advisory Committee on Creative and Cultural Education. He has also made several well-received musical and spoken-word recordings. In 2003 he garnered much publicity for refusing to become an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE), an award bestowed by the British government, explaining that the title reminded him of the brutality inflicted on his ancestors by imperialist powers. He has received several honorary doctorates, including from the University of North London and the University of Exeter.
Politics plays a central role in Zephaniah's work. As a prolific writer and well-known public figure, Zephaniah has written poetry, children's books, and plays that ex- plore such topics as problems in Israel, the dangers of imperialism and capitalism, the evils of slavery, issues of national identity, and the need for social justice in contemporary society. Much of his work reflects his feelings about the racial discrimination encountered by minorities, especially by young black men in England. For example, in one of his young adult novels, Refugee Boy (2001), a young boy, Alem Kelo, is abandoned in London by his father, who hopes his son will escape the violence of the Ethiopian-Eritrean war. Placed with a kindly Irish foster family, Alem faces discrimination but perseveres despite legal troubles and the death of both of his parents. In one of Zephaniah's best-known poems, "Dis Policeman Keeps on Kicking Me to Death," he charged that black men are subject to police brutality; the issue is very personal for him, as his cousin, Michael Powell, was killed as a result of police brutality in Birmingham. Not only does Zephaniah denounce the racial discrimination black people experience in Britain, he also condemns the violence against women endemic in many cultures. His Rastafarian beliefs permeate his verse and many of his poems touch on animal rights, veganism, and the central role marijuana plays in the Rastafarian ideology. "Ganja Rock," for example, encourages believers to cultivate and smoke marijuana to attain mental emancipation and to fight for the legalization of the drug. Critics note that many of his poems are directly influenced by his involvement with music, particularly hip-hop and reggae, as well as the rhythms of his popular spoken-word poetry performances.
Zephaniah has achieved prominence as a popular but controversial British poet and performer as well as a playwright, actor, and public figure. Reviewers have compared the explicit political content and highly charged anger in his verse to gangster rap, and praise his wit, intellectual rigor, and trenchant social and political commentary. Some recognize Zephaniah as a courageous and revolutionary voice for minorities experiencing racial, economic, and gender discrimination worldwide; others charge that his verse is shallow, childish doggerel that is cynically calculated to appeal to youthful sensibilities. These detractors unfavorably compare his verse and performances to Jamaican singer-songwriter Bob Marley and charge that, unlike Marley, Zephaniah is not fully committed to his revolutionary voice. Noting his association with the British literary establishment, they accuse Zephaniah of "selling out" to the very institution he criticizes. Despite the mixed critical reaction to his work, commentators agree that Zephaniah is a charismatic poet and playwright who does not flinch from exploring controversial and sensitive issues.
Pen Rhythm (poetry) 1980
The Dread Affair (poetry) 1985
Playing the Right Tune (play) 1985
Job Rocking (play) 1987
Hurricane Dub (radio play) 1988
Delirium (play) 1990
Our Teacher's Gone Crazy (television play) 1990
Streetwise (play) 1990
Dread Poets Society (television play) 1991
The Trial of Mickey Tekka (play) 1991
City Psalms (poetry) 1992
Out of the Night (poetry) 1994
Talking Turkeys (children's poetry) 1994
Funky Chickens (children's poetry) 1996
Propa Propaganda (poetry) 1996
School's Out (poetry) 1997
Face (young adult novel) 1999
Listen to Your Parents (radio play) 2000
The Little Book of Vegan Poems: Explicit Vegan Lyrics (poetry) 2000
Wicked World! (children's poetry) 2000
Refugee Boy (young adult novel) 2001
Too Black, Too Strong (poetry) 2001
We Are Britain! (poetry) 2002
Gangsta Rap (young adult novel) 2004
Prostate (play) 2006
J Is for Jamaica (juvenilia) 2007
Teacher's Dead (young adult novel) 2007
Darren J. N. Middleton (essay date 1999)
SOURCE: Middleton, Darren J. N. "Chanting down Babylon: Three Rastafarian Dub Poets." In ‘This Is How We Flow’: Rhythm in Black Cultures, edited by Angela M. S. Nelson, pp. 74-86. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1999.
[In the excerpt that follows, Middleton considers Zephaniah's Rastafarian beliefs through an examination of his religious verse.]
Fortified by a mighty arsenal of word and rhythm power, the Jamaican singer-songwriter Bob Marley used his Rastafarian religious beliefs in an often bitter and protracted campaign against Christian missionary propaganda and capitalist imperialism. That was in the sixties and seventies. Since then, however, Rastafarian reggae and "dub poetry" has catapulted to the status of popularist art form. Today, an ever-increasing plethora of Afro-Caribbean poets are mixing their own Molotov cocktails of trenchant social commentary with militant, black liberation theology. Armed with potent lyrical grenades, contemporary Rastafarian "dub poets" are now launching their own Marley-inspired musical call to resistance. In this essay, I briefly examine the religious poetry of three such Rastafarian dub poets: Mikey Smith, Mutabaruka, and Benjamin Zephaniah. Possessed with intense focus and singular purpose, their nontraditional verse and unique rhythmic expression seeks to raise the consciousness of the hearer in a manner not unlike the Hebrew prophets and psalmists of ages ago.
The Way of the Black Messiah: The Roots of Rastafari
At the height of his powers in the late twenties, Marcus Garvey urged the poor underclass of a tiny Caribbean isle fervently to look to their African homeland for the imminent crowning of a king. Like some latter-day John the Baptist, Garvey and his "prophecy" helped to lay the foundation for the man who was to come and save the African diaspora from physical and mental slavery. And so, when Ras Tafari, son of Ras Makonem of Harar, finally was crowned in Ethiopia in the early thirties, black nationalists and influential preachers in Jamaica found new meaning in timeworn biblical verses. Of particular importance is Psalm 68:31: "Princes shall soon come out of Egypt; Ethiopia shall stretch forth her hand unto God. Behold Philistine and Tyre with Ethiopia: my son was born there." This, along with a host of other biblical verses, served only to confirm that Ethiopia had a special relationship with God. Not everyone agreed with this hermeneutic, however, for it appeared severely to anger those Christian missionaries and white colonialists intent on believing in Africa as the primitive, dark continent.
At his coronation, Ras Tafari took a number of theological titles to go along with others of a more regal nature: King of Kings and Lord of Lords, Elect of God, the Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, and Power of the Trinity: Haile Selassie I. Terms such as these recall famous verses from the Christian New Testament Book of Revelation and, in one way or another, they were used in preacherly discourse by Leonard Howell, Joseph Hibbert, and Archibald Dunkley to "verify" Haile Selassie's divine status. In time, of course, early Rastafarian believers began to develop their credo to include the eschatological hope that Selassie I would help repatriate the black diaspora back to Ethiopia: the Black Man's Vine and Fig Tree.
Early Rastafarian preachment was enormously popular among the ghetto youth of Jamaica. A prototype of the liberation theology that is so vital in Latin America today, the Afrocentric thrust of Rastafarian beliefs initially provided much-needed hope and the possibility of improved life to a people long since marginalized and dispossessed by colonial rule. In the late thirties, then, Rastafarianism flourished throughout Jamaica with the force and veracity of a forest fire in summertime.
Since then, the mission field for Rastafarian preachers has extended beyond the boundaries of the crumbling and often violent projects of Western Kingston. Today, Rastafarianism is a worldwide phenomenon and is no longer confined to the lower socioeconomic classes.1 In spite of this globalization, however, Rastafarian devotees continue to remember their humble roots. That is, contemporary Rastas continue to play an active part in Jamaican life by offering a social ministry for the poor. At the center of modern Rastafarianism, we could say, is an Africanized theology of hope for those caught up in a web of despondency: a Way of the Black Messiah. And nowhere is this ministerial vocation more dramatically worked out than in the lives of those Rastafarians dedicated to the use of language—revered today as a holy tool—to effect social and political metanoia in our time.
The Righteous Wail of the Soul: Origins of "Dub Poetry" in Jamaica
Jamaica's native tongue is a unique form of Creole patois. This is an elusive dialect of English that owes a great deal both to African tribal vernacular and to the colonial plantation owners of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. One person stands out, however, as the pioneer of poetry written in patois ("dub poetry"). She is Louise Coverley Bennett, a.k.a. "Miss Lou." Originally educated at London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in the early decades of this century, Miss Lou is credited with introducing a language often considered by colonial educators as too "uncouth" for "genuine" creative writing. To this day, however, she defends her use of patois with the claim that it was the "ordinary" discourse of the influential oral storytellers of her youth. That is, it was the life's blood of a people run down by centuries of systemic oppression or, better put, the natural linguistic mode for men and women who knew the liberating power of parable and story in a time of harsh enslavement. Here is a brief quotation from her famous poem "Back to Africa":
Back to Africa Miss Matty?
Yuh no know wa yuh dah sey?
Yuh haffe come from some weh fus,
Before yuh go back deh?2
Of course, Miss Lou's preference for the "language of the people" has its parallels in non-Jamaican writing as well. Consider Nikos Kazantzakis, the Cretan novelist, and his controversial use of the "demotic" form of modern Greek in his epic tome Odyssey: A Modern Sequel. Kazantzakis delights in the use of words and phrases familiar to the peasants of Greece—the fisherman and the coppersmith—but which are disconcertingly unfamiliar to the intelligentsia.
A similar reverence for the oral tradition—with its own special lexicon, strange spelling, and unfamiliar idiom—continues to be the chosen form of Rastafarian poets today. As a corollary, Rastafarian poets hardly ever pay attention either to grammar or established laws of poetry. There are some, like the poet U-Roy, who possess a keen eye for "grammatical correctness," but for the most part it proves very difficult to find a Rastafarian poem that is written in traditional meter (in English, the ten-syllable unrhymed iambic line of five beats)! Why is this? There are at least two reasons. First, the "educated" concern for "correct" language use in creative writing is viewed as far too stylized, restrictive, and oppressively Western. By contrast, Jamaican dialect is seen as vibrant, alive, and unable to sustain an interest in so-called "grammatical exactness"; it is the dub poets who have always known how best to create strong messages out of patois' unique and powerful word stock. Second, Rastafarian dub poets consider social conscience to be a more pressing concern than any zeal for the "educated" observance of "acceptable" literary form; it is the dub poets who have always worked hard to keep the conflagration of social resistance and community rebellion burning. In short, Rastafarian dub poetry is not a refined, classically aesthetic product. It chiefly is an evolving and dynamic grasping and re-grasping of the theological significance of current events. Mikey Smith, the dub poet whose work I will examine, puts it this way:
We haffi really look into the whole thing of the language thing, because sometime it is used in a negative sense as a hindrance to your progress, and people think seh, "Boy, why don't you communicate in Standard English?" Standard English is good to be communicated, but you must also communicate in what you also comfortable in. And what is widely being used by your own people from which you draw these source. So that's why me communicate da way deh. And if me can really spend some time fi try to learn the Englishman language and so, the Englishman can spend some time fi learn wha me seh too, you know.3.....
Capitalism in a Poetic Headlock: The Dub Poetry of Benjamin Zephaniah
Although born in England, Benjamin Obadiah Iqbal Zephaniah spent the best part of his youth in Jamaica. His adolescent years, by all accounts, were traumatic and controversial. For example, he found himself taken out of his assigned comprehensive school at the tender age of twelve, largely because of discipline problems, and appeared then to have all the makings of an incorrigible ruffian. He arrived in London, however, at age twenty-two, and immediately set about writing verse for himself. Early books such as Pen Rhythm and The Dread Affair were received with critical acclaim, and this in spite of the fact that he sees his role chiefly as a "performance poet" rather than one who works with the page in mind.
Zephaniah has toured throughout the world, earning himself rave reviews for the dramatic manner in which he delivers his verse, and at one stage was shortlisted for two prestigious writing posts: Creative Artist in Residence at the University of Cambridge, and Regius Professor of Poetry at the University of Oxford. Sadly, he was forced to endure malicious treatment at the hands of the British tabloid media during the selection process for both positions. That is, the so-called "gutter-press" in the United Kingdom seized on Zephaniah's "approved school" background, seeking to create a climate of fear in the minds of the selection committee, yet the press omitted to mention that Zephaniah has spent many years visiting schools, youth clubs, and teacher-training centers in order to hold workshops in creative writing.
Like that of the other two poets in this survey, Benjamin Zephaniah's Rastafarian poetry fits hand in glove with his political interests. In Great Britain, for example, he has served as chairperson of a number of housing and workers cooperatives, women's refuge centers, and theater groups. Not surprisingly, in his poetry he refuses to shy away from a rigorous and forthright analysis of the current British cultural scene. In "Dread John Counsel," he chronicles the slow, invidious decay of a political system that deprives black men and women of a genuine sense of identity and belonging:
In this land my brothers and some sisters fight me
therefore in the dark place and the jailhouse I am
but I have a weapon that shall burn the enemy
and it has a fallout that shall rule equality,
the court is revolutionary the righteous ones shall
and in the tabernacle there doth play a reggae band
there is no House of Commons and everyone is high
and this kingdom is governed by a upfull one called I,
but I am here in exile so far away from home
still in this sick captivity I will not use their comb.4
The comb reference requires some explanation. One of the most striking symbols of identity in the Rastafarian faith is the wearing of distinctive plaits or matted hair called dreadlocks. This brings to mind the Masai or Galla Warriors of Eastern Africa as well as the law in Leviticus 19:27. Rastafarians refuse to shave or cut their hair and, sometimes, will not use a comb either.
The net result is that to see a gathering of Rastas is like witnessing the mighty and gracious movement of a pride of lions—primary symbol of African strength. Here Zephaniah's reference to "their comb" is a symbol for his trenchant moral resistance—itself inspired by Leviticus 19:27—to Babylon, and its many instruments of oppression:
we are not too fussy 'bout being British free
the kingdom's international a kingdom we can see,
they will never give us what we really earn
come our liberation and see the table turn,
still this is me in exile so far away from home
still recruiting soldiers to break this modern Rome.5
One controversial aspect of Rastafarian belief is the frequent use of marijuana as a holy herb. It is often referred to as the "weed of wisdom." This is because of the legend that "ganja" purportedly was found on the grave of King Solomon, and because "sinsemillia" is thought to assist the believer in times of intense theological reflection, or "grounation" sessions. Rastas defend its use in three other ways.
First, the Bible appears to support the smoking of herb. Consider Genesis 1:29, "And God said, ‘Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of the earth, and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat.’" In addition, Revelation 22:2 speaks of "the leaves of the tree" that are for "the healing of the nations."
Second, this last verse underscores the general belief among Rastas that ganja has an enormous calming effect on the consumer, reducing psychological tension and helping the believer to acquire keenness of spiritual insight. The "healing of the nations" reference is often used by Rastas to refer to ganja's proven ability to assist in curing glaucoma and other illnesses.
Third, Rastas believe that ganja's functional purpose may be likened to the use of incense and/or bread and wine in the Christian church. That is, it is an aid to reflexive worship and sometimes takes on the quality of being a sacrament for the pious devotee. The believer is not obliged to use ganja if he or she does not wish to do so; rather, Rastas are encouraged to see its positive benefits and to decide for themselves.
Benjamin Zephaniah versifies this particular aspect of Rastafarian theology in his "Ganja Rock." That the holy herb inspires reflection ("third eyesight") is clear from the first stanza:
Sip one time, sip two time
'til the mood is right,
hold a cool meditation
gain a third eyesight
as from time begun show your love for the sun
'cause as you burn you learn,
start from now for sure somehow
everyone must get their turn.6
Not surprisingly, the public or private use of marijuana still is outlawed in most countries around the world. Against this practice, Zephaniah's "Ganja Rock" is an explicit preachment to cultivate, nurture, and smoke your own weed—all in the name of reverence for what nature supplies us with, and our own mental emancipation!
lawmakers don't like ganja rock
but if you look at the right clock
I am sure you'll see it's ganja time,
so liberate this ital weed
it gives I headside vital feed
and show them using herb is not no crime.7
As we have seen, the Christian New Testament Book of Revelation is often used by Rastafarians to "verify" many aspects of their theological beliefs. For instance, recall the connections between Haile Selassie's many regal titles and the apocalyptic figure of the Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah in Revelation 5:5, and the use of the "healing of the nations" reference in 22:2 to "support" the practice of smoking ganja in Rastafarian worship. In "Dread Eyesight," Zephaniah crafts a poem based on the Final Judgment by transposing some of the familiar images from the Book of Revelation. The notorious "four horsemen of the apocalypse" are now the "four dreadlocks" who arrive at the End Times bearing a banner on which is written Selassie's name and many titles.8 And it is the "elders" of the faithful Rastafarian community who herald the closing of history with life-giving words of inestimable salvational value:
We are the children of slaves and the victims of oppression, so from the land in which we are removed to let us shout with a voice that vibrates with dread and say to them men of earth, it is JAH RASTAFARI who giveth wisdom and understanding, for the land of Ethiopia has lifted up her heart, and the power of the trinity has opened the gates of Zion for the spirits of children who lived earth lives of great tribulation to enter therein.9
To close this brief account of Zephaniah's Rastafarian poetry, it is fitting to highlight one of the more important parallels between Smith, Mutabaruka, and Zephaniah: the Rastafarian belief in the divinity of every man and woman. For the Rastafarian, the spirit of Ras Tafari applies to all creation—rainfall, sunshine, etc. Yet is most fully incarnate in righteous men and women who abandon all belief that "God" is some supernatural reality "beyond them" and instead grasp the presence of Ras Tafari in all living things. In "Can't Keep a Good Dread Down," Zephaniah joins Smith and Mutabaruka in their theological immanentism:
The Lion of Judah has prevailed
the Seven Seals is I
no living in the grave no more
King Fari will not die,
no brainwashed education
for wisdom must top rank
if you want riches
you must check Selassie I bank …
… Selassie I keeps on coming
can't keep a good dread down
those that stood start running
when JAH JAH comes to town,
greater love keeps coming
Alpha is here wid us,
so stop praying to polluted air
and give rasta your trust.10
These last two lines indicate Zephaniah's belief in the utter futility of praying to the Christian missionary God "up there," and is further proof of Rastafarianism's this-worldly nature. Finally, the line "King Fari will not die" must surely denote Zephaniah's outright rejection, as Western propaganda, of the reports of Haile Selassie's death in 1976. For Zephaniah, as for most Rastas, it is impossible for God, who holds the power of death in his hands, to suffer and die. And it is deeply incongruous for a holy man, a man who purportedly incarnated God Himself, to suffer the biblical "wages of sin." For Zephaniah as well as the other two poets in this brief study, Rastafari liveth!
Conclusion: Dub Poets as Contemporary Psalmists
It is a well-known fact that the Rastafarian community does not possess anything like the Christian systematic theological tomes of either John Calvin, Friedrich Schleiermacher, or Karl Barth. They probably never will. In one sense, though, this need not prove to be a threat to the flourishing of their faith. On the contrary, the sure and inevitable decline of vibrant and dynamically evolving religious belief arguably occurs when believers busy themselves with the "central tenets" of their faith, and with the recording of these as numbered theses in weighty books! Against the propositionally oriented tradition of Christian theology, then, Rastafarianism has the distinct advantage of keeping what it believes "in solution" through the use of concrete images, metaphors, and parables. Like the psalmists of Hebrew antiquity, contemporary Rastafarians proffer spirited contextual wordscapes, imagistic litanies, and a sense of the holy eternally renewed in the common. Crying out against societal injustice and appealing for comprehensive urban renewal, the Rastafarian dub poets—especially the three I have examined in this essay—are modern, urban psalmists in a world seemingly unredeemed, paralyzed by hatred and violence. Michael Smith, Mutabaruka, and Benjamin Zephaniah—all three may be counted as Rastafarian liberation theologians on a spirit-driven, God-given mission to chant down Babylon!
1. In this essay, I wish not to enumerate Rastafarian belief by numbered theses. In one important sense, this would be antithetical to the very dynamism of Rastafarianism, which, despite the "-ism," is far from monolithic. Here I want to give a brief account of the early development of this rich and varied religion and then explore specific beliefs in the poetry of the three writers I touch upon. Readers interested in learning systematically, however, may consult two of my earlier articles: "Rastafarianism: A Ministry for Social Change?" Modern Churchman n.s. 31, no. 3 (1989): 45-48; and "Poetic Liberation: Rastafarianism, Poetry, and Social Change." Modern Churchman n.s. 34, no. 2 (1992): 16-21.
2. Louise Bennett, "Back to Africa," in Black Youth, Rastafarianism, and the Identity Crisis in Britain, ed. Len Garrison (London: ACER Project Publication, 1979), 8.
3. See Mervyn Morris, "Mikey Smith: Dub Poet," Jamaican Journal 18 (1985):42.
4. Benjamin Zephaniah, The Dread Affair (London: Arena Publications, 1985), 54.
5. Ibid., 55.
6. Ibid., 60.
7. Ibid., 61.
8. Ibid., 79.
9. Ibid., 81.
10. Ibid., 24, 25.
Kwame Dawes (review date spring 2002)
SOURCE: Dawes, Kwame. Review of Too Black, Too Strong, by Benjamin Zephaniah. World Literature Today 76, no. 2 (spring 2002): 159-60.
[In the following mixed review of Too Black, Too Strong, Dawes unfavorably compares Zephaniah with Bob Marley and laments the fact that Zephaniah, in his official capacity with the British Council, does not "recognize that he may have actually been co-opted by the very system he denounces."]
In his introduction to his newest collection of poetry, Benjamin Zephaniah, easily one of the most recognized of popular British poets, declares that he is not interested in winning awards and that he writes what he feels about being in a world in which a whole litany of abuses of humanity exist. He proposes that his poetry is not as important as many things in the world, but that he chooses to write because he cannot stay silent. The introduction does something else: it establishes clearly that Zephaniah understands himself to be thoroughly British—a man with no anxiety about declaring his Britishness and his willingness to own that identity.
Too Black, Too Strong is political. In a short note introducing the poem "The Men from Jamaica Are Settling Down," Zephaniah lets us know that the piece was first commissioned by a BBC-linked film company which eventually turned down the piece because the last two stanzas were too political and too confrontational. The poet takes pride in declaring that he will not compromise on the struggle. And there is more: Zephaniah is daring in the collection in that he does take on, as he promises, some tough targets. His poem lampooning UB40, the popular British reggae group, pulls no punches: "You came, you saw, you copied, / And the record company loved you, / But you can't swing it / Like a buffalo soldier / Or a dreadlocks Rasta, / U.B. robbing we." But the dissing of UB40 is clearly too easily rendered, and one is not quite sure why he chooses to do that. The thing is that UB40, for all its limp cover songs, had a far from unrootsy beginning. And in a world in which the glorious power of reggae to touch all cultures is supposedly a good thing, their copying could be seen by some as flattery. Not Zephaniah.
Still, his targets are not all so easy. His poem "Christmas Has Been Shot" tackles the troubles in Israel, detailing the irony of the shutting down of Bethlehem for Christmas by the Israeli government. Zephaniah takes sides, and his reading of the politics of religion and race is complex in its daring even if his resolutions are not pat. But poetry cannot be pat. And the list of targets goes on. At times it is not clear where the revolution intends to go. Revolutionary poets are often faced with a troubling dilemma. What is the point of writing when fighting might be more useful? Christopher Okigbo decided to put away his pen and take up a rifle; he died fighting in Biafra after leaving us with a slim volume of tantalizingly brilliant poems. Bob Marley declared in his exile song, "Heathen," "He who fights and runs away / Lives to fight another day," but he had tasted bullets when he wrote that. Still, he declared the rationale for his art, his revolutionary art: "We free the people with music / With music, oh music, oh music" ("Trenchtown").
Marley saw it fit to make great art, art that was full of the genius of phrasing, of metaphor, of allusion and the grace of his honesty. His art sought to transform. But there is a rootedness to Marley's craft. It is grounded in a tradition of proverb-making, psalm-chanting, prophetic lamentation, folk interplay, blues resilience, griot storytelling and mythmaking that always grants his work the gravitas of age and wisdom: "Roots natty, roots / Dread bingy dread? I and I a de roots." It is not just the language; it is the relationship with history and tradition. In Marley it is rich. Zephaniah, on the other hand, seems to be attempting to make something out of nothing, or at best something shallow. He is not fully committed to a dialect voice, nor does he dialogue with voices that seem to share the tradition of revolutionary voice he espouses. If he borrows from a poetic tradition, it is in a thinly read British verse tradition that he never stretches or challenges. In a sense, Zephaniah sees in himself an affinity to Marley; but where Marley's craft almost always seemed to triumph by offering a sophisticated vessel upon which his psalms were spoken, craft sometimes fails Zephaniah.
Of course, it is grossly unfair to compare Zephaniah with Marley—after all, must every playwright be compared with Shakespeare? Still, one wants to know what Zephaniah has done with his access to Marley's model, since he understands himself to be an inheritor of Marley's reggae esthetic. Sadly, the connections are superficial. This does not mean that Zephaniah does not produce some good poetry. He does sometimes, and only when neither wit nor intellectual rigor fires the poems does he fail; only when one senses the poet seeking for posturing rather than for deeply worked-through observation do we see these failings. Refreshingly, there are moments which suggest that when the elements are right and when Zephaniah has the capacity for irony (not antithetical to radical thought, as some like to argue), he can write strong poems, such as "Going Cheap" or "Naked."
One would assume, based on Zephaniah's notes and some of his complaints in the poems, that he is a poet struggling for attention and respect in England. Yet in the act of complaint, we realize that Zephaniah is a rather privileged poet in the UK: "On one hand I think it my duty to travel the world for the British Council and other organizations, speaking my mind as I go, ranting, praising, and criticizing everything that makes me who I am, but this is what Britain can do. It is probably one of the only places that can take an angry, illiterate, uneducated, exhustler, rebellious Rastafarian and give him the opportunity to represent the country." I know too many black British poets who would die for just one of the many British Council junkets that Zephaniah routinely gets. As a British representative he is a curiosity, a figure whose ranting against Britain allows Britain to declare its wonderful liberal sensibility. Where Linton Kwesi Johnson is sometimes vilified and feared for his hard-hitting reggae verse, Zephaniah is loved. Perhaps this may merely be a product of personality, but I suspect there is a great deal more going on there. One sometimes has the impression that Zephaniah is seen as harmless. Who knows if this is true? But what I miss in him is the irony to recognize that he may have actually been co-opted by the very system he denounces.
Zephaniah, though, remains mildly angry and deeply committed to speaking against the things that he sees as oppressive. And he has done quite well in the process. He has published two novels with the quite respectable Bloomsbury Press; five collections of poetry, four with Bloodaxe, one of the most important poetry presses in the UK; and three collections for children with Puffin/ Penguin—all of this in the space of ten years. He continues to produce recordings of his work that are always quite popular. In this, he is assuring us that a legacy of work is bequeathed to his fellow Britishers and the world. The good news is that in every collection Zephaniah manages to spin out a few poems which have lasting genius and power. Of course, he lies about one thing: he is no "ex-hustler."
Christine Leahy (review date 29 September 2002)
SOURCE: Leahy, Christine. Review of Refugee Boy, by Benjamin Zephaniah. New York Times Book Review (29 September 2002): 27.
[In the following brief review, Leahy describes the plot of Refugee Boy.]
Alem Kelo's father is from Ethiopia and his mother is from Eritrea. It is the late 1990's, the two nations are at war, and the Kelos are persecuted in both places. Alem and his father travel to London for what is to be a brief holiday, but one morning the 14-year-old boy wakes up in their hotel room to find that he is alone, left with only a letter of explanation: "My dearest son: You have seen all the trouble that we have been going through back home…. Your mother and I think that it would be best if you stay in England. Here they have organizations that will help you, compassionate people who understand why people have to seek refuge from war."
Benjamin Zephaniah's chronicle of an East African in East London [Refugee Boy ] sees Alem through relentless cycles of hardship and good fortune. Alem is taken into the care of the Refugee Council, which places him in a foster home and shepherds him through an application for political asylum. He faces culture shock, anxiety about his family and his application, neighborhood bullies and unpleasant cold weather. But there are also supportive new friends, piles of books to read and tasty English biscuits to eat.
Alem has an astonishing ability to cope, and a Dickensian heart of gold; he demonstrates exceptional thoughtfulness, good manners and determination, devoting himself to schoolwork and to his kindly host family, who were themselves once refugees from Ireland. His foster parents, his schoolmates and his case workers at the Refugee Council all become so devoted to Alem that they are almost too nice to be believable. Alem feels "as if his life was a roller coaster." But "if good can come from bad," he vows, "I'll make it."
Asoya, Sylvester. "A Writer's Rage." Africa News Service (25 February 2004): np.
Reviews the controversy surrounding Zephaniah's refusal to accept the OBE award, and offers a brief overview of the author's work with the British Council and his views on multiculturalism.
Carter, James. "An Introduction to … Benjamin Zephaniah." In Talking Books: Children's Authors Talk about the Craft, Creativity, and Process of Writing, pp. 19-39. New York: Routledge, 1999.
An account of Zephaniah's reflections on how he became a writer and performer, his creative process, and the importance of his children's poetry.
Harrison, Desireé. Review of Gangsta Rap, by Benjamin Zephaniah. Black Issues Book Review 6, no. 6 (November-December 2004): 75.
Brief favorable assessment of Gangsta Rap.
Zephaniah, Benjamin, Michael Rosen, and Lara Saguisag. "Performance, Politics, and Poetry for Children: Interviews with Michael Rosen and Benjamin Zephaniah." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 32, no. 1 (spring 2007): 3-31.
Zephaniah discusses such topics as his views on the United States and England, the political content of his verse, and his work as a performance poet.
Additional coverage of Zephaniah's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale: Contemporary Authors, Vol. 147; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 103, 156; Contemporary Poets, Eds. 5, 6, 7; Literature Resource Center; and Something about the Author, Vols. 86, 140.