‘the police ripped out handfuls of dreadlocks as trophies’
Benjamin Zephaniah is well known for his poems but he has also written a number of books and is a musician and playwright.
As a veteran of dreadlocks, it’s a pleasure to welcome him to the Loc Boutique’s Hall of Fame. He has had them for over 40 years. So to that we say – Respect!!
Here are 5 interesting facts about Benjamin Zephaniah:
1. He is a Vegan
2. When he was 18 he sent Bob Marley some of his poems and received a letter back.
3. He has a hospital ward in Ealing, North London named after him.
4. He was Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Brunel University, London
5. He turned down an OBE.
His poetry is political, serious and at times simply fun In a BBC poll in 2009, he was voted the nation’s third favourite poet of all time (after T S Eliot and John Donne).
Benjamin’s poems are full of energy and their creativity and delivery has been influenced by Jamaican music and poetry.
The man himself recommends that his poems are heard and read out loud so you can get their full impact and meaning.
Watch and listen to Benjamin reciting one of his poems entitled ‘Money’.
Some more interesting background facts about Benjamin’s life:
Benjamin’s father was from Barbados and his mother from Jamaica and he was born in Birmingham, England.
As a young boy Benjamin had a great memory for words. He was drawn to rhymes and knew he wanted to do something with words.
At the age of 10 he became what he called ‘a bible rapping kid’. At times, when attending church with his mother, he would get up and rap the names of the Bible: ‘Genesis.Exodus.Leviticus.Numbers.Deuteronomy.Joshua.Judges.Ruth….’
He did not have the best time at school and was expelled. His teachers were not aware of the condition of dyslexia and he, therefore, didn’t get the help he needed in this area.
It was no surprise then that when he left school he had difficulties with reading and writing.
Benjamin has spoken openly about being involved in a range of criminal activities, such as pick pocketing, theft and involvement in gangs for which he has spent time in borstal and prison.
Apart from this, he still maintained his interest in rhymes and rhythms. As a teenage he attended Dancehalls where he performed what is called ‘toasting’ – lyrical chanting and talking over rhythms and a beat.
Benjamin developed his own poetical style to communicate his feelings about issues such as inequality, politics, apartheid South Africa and the Vietnam War.
It was In 1979, at the age of 21, when Benjamin was attending an adult education college that he finally got a diagnosis from a tutor who had advised Benjamin that he was most likely dyslexic.
According to Benjamin because of his dyslexia difficulties, he wrote his first book phonetically – the way it sounded, rather than how the words were actually spelled.
He was 22 when his first collection of poetry was published, ‘Pen Rhythm’ (1980).
Birmingham to London
Benjamin has explained that going to London opened up his mind ‘politically and culturally’.
In the 1980s, he became active in London protests against racism. He related a situation where the police grabbed protesters, including him. He ended up being put in a police van where he spoke about how the police ‘ripped out handfuls of dreadlocks as trophies’.
Benjamin has written a number of plays which have been performed in various theatres in the UK.
He has written many poems for children. His popular children’s book Talking Turkeys had to go into an emergency reprint after just 6 weeks – it went to the top of the children’s book list and kept that place for several months.
Benjamin has talked openly about his love of children and described his difficult times coming to terms with not being able to have them.
On a positive note this has helped others in the same position, particularly infertile black men who can relate to Benjamin. He has shown his vulnerability and strength in talking about the issue.
Oxford & Cambridge University
In 1986 Benjamin was offered the position of ‘artist in residence’ at Trinity College, Cambridge. However the offer was withdrawn. University officials at Cambridge backed down, due to the media interest which swirled around that Benjamin was black, a Rastafarian and had been in trouble with police.
Benjamin was also a candidate in 1989 for the post of Professor of Poetry at Oxford University. Unfortunately, for Benjamin, the accomplished and well known poet, Seamus Heaney managed to secure that position.
Benjamin holds a number of honorary doctorates from various universities in England. Interestingly, in 1988 Ealing Hospital in London named a ward after him.
Nelson Mandela had read some of Benjamin’s books, whilst he was still in prison on Robben Island. When he was finally released from prison, he asked to meet with Benjamin.
Also at, Nelson Mandela’s request, Benjamin hosted the President’s ‘Two Nations’ concert at the Royal Albert Hall in July 1996.
In 2003 Zephaniah famously refused an OBE for his contribution to literature with the words “OBE me? Up yours”, telling The Guardian newspaper at the time that “it reminds me of slavery, it reminds of thousands of years of brutality….. no way Mr Blair, no way Mrs Queen. I am profoundly anti-empire”.
Benjamin was shocked to be offered an OBE, especially considering the first poem from his anthology ‘Too Black, Too Strong’ (2001). It appears the awarding committee had not read his poem ‘Bought and Sold’.
Bought and Sold
Smart big awards and prize money
Is killing off black poetry
It’s not censors or dictators that are cutting up our art.
The lure of meeting royalty
And touching high society
Is damping creativity and eating at our heart.
The ancestors would turn in graves
Those poor black folk that once were slaves would wonder
How our souls were sold
And check our strategies,
The empire strikes back and waves
Tamed warriors bow on parades
When they have done what they’ve been told
They get their OBE’s.
Don’t take my word, go check the verse
Cause every laureate gets worse
A family that you cannot fault as muse will mess your mind,
And yeah, you may fatten your purse
And surely they will check you first when subjects need to be amused
With paid for prose and rhymes.
Take your prize, now write more,
Fuck the truth
Now you’re an actor do not fault your benefactor
Write, publish and review,
You look like a dreadlocks Rasta,
You look like a ghetto blaster,
But you can’t diss your paymaster
And bite the hand that feeds you.
What happened to the verse of fire
Cursing cool the empire
What happened to the soul rebel that Marley had in mind,
This bloodstained, stolen empire rewards you and you conspire,
(Yes Marley said that time will tell)
Now look they’ve gone and joined.
We keep getting this beating
It’s bad history repeating
It reminds me of those capitalists that say
‘Look you have a choice,’
It’s sick and self-defeating if our dispossessed keep weeping
And we give these awards meaning
But we end up with no voice.
In 2011 Benjamin was appointed Professor of Creative Writing at Brunel University in London
Benjamin played the role of street preacher Jeremiah Jesus in the BBC’s gangster series Peaky Blinders. The character was based on a man called Jimmy Jesus, who served in the British Army before returning to Jamaica.
Benjamin Zephaniah has also recorded many songs. His band have played at the Latitude and WOMAD festivals and been the headline act at London’s Jazz Café in 2017. You can check out Benjamin’s music on YouTube.
Autobiography & Tour
In May 2018 his autobiography was published, ‘The Life and Rhymes of Benjamin Zephaniah‘. He also went on tour.