Recent Articles

Articles Categories

Benjamin Zephaniah

Saturday, 21 September 2002

Dr Benjamin Obadiah Iqbal Zephaniah was born in Birmingham but spent some of his early years in Jamaica where he absorbed much of the music, poetry and what he calls 'street politics' which strongly influences his later work. Termed a 'born failure' by one teacher, Benjamin had a difficult school life, he later found out that he was dyslexic, and after being sent to an approved school he spent some time at Her Majesty's Pleasure.

As Benjamin says, prison proved to be a turning point in his life, it was then he decided, 'I'm going to use this energy differently. I've got the talent to be a poet... I wanted to educate myself, be a bit more spiritual, a bit more political.'

Soon after this he started publishing poetry for adults, but it was in performance that the Dud (Reggae) Poet would cause a revolution, injecting new life into the British poetry scene: 'I can't say anything about the rules of poetry because I've broken them all. Everyone says you shouldn't do this or that, but I do it!'

Benjamin's mission was to take poetry everywhere. He has read all around the world, from Argentina to Palestine, in prisons, theatres, youth clubs, demonstrations, taking poetry to those who don't read books. As he says, 'I was one of those kids that kept asking Why? Once I received some of the answers, I realized that those in authority were not right, so I could not go along with them.' His poetry was musical, radical, relevant - and on TV. It was once said of him that he was Britain's most filmed and identifiable poet.

He feels at home anywhere the oral tradition is still strong, listing South Africa, India and Zimbabwe among his most memorable tours.

Life has been one long tour, but this is the only way to keep the oral tradition alive. Benjamin's voice is known throughout the world and he has released several records.

He has written plays for radio, TV and theatre including Dread Poets Society (BBC TV). He has presented, or appeared in numerous TV programmes ranging from The Tube to The Bill via Eastenders and The South Bank Show.

In 1989 he was nominated for Oxford Professor of Poetry, narrowly beaten by Seamus Heaney.

One of Benjamin's most famous fans is Nelson Mandela. Having heard Benjamin's tribute song (recorded with the Wailers) while he was in prison, Mandela invited Benjamin to host the Presiden't two nation concerts at the Albert Hall. This relationship led to Benjamin going to South Africa to work with returning refugees and township children.

Benjamin is actively involved in numerous organisations, including the Hackney Empire Theatre, Umoja Housing Co-op, the Are Dance Company, VIVA (Vegetarians International Voice for Animals), Newham Young People's Theatre Scheme, the Chinese Women's Refuge Group, Musicworks - Brixton, SARI (Soccer Against Racism in Ireland), and SHOP (Self-Help Organisation for ex-Prisoners). When asked how he finds the time for all this, he says, "I care about all these things passionately."

Benjamin's first collection for children, Talking Turkeys (Puffin) was published in 1994 and with Funky Chickens (Puffin) he changed the perception of what poetry for children might be.

In 1999, Benjamin's first novel, Face, was published. In the novel, Benjamin explored the issue of prejudice from an unusual and powerful angle. Writing the book was a new challenge for Benjamin: "I haven't read that many novels... I has an idea in my mind what I wanted to do and I did it. Sometimes I broke the rules, and if it worked, it worked." It worked. Face has received rave reviews and was shortlisted for the Children's Book Award 2000.