Benjamin Zephaniah was a poet who didn’t just want to read poems, he wanted to perform poems, rooted in the oral tradition, bringing poetry to life, bringing poetry to the people.
As a young Rastafarian from Handsworth, Birmingham, in the 80s, he could be found reciting poetry on Channel 4, bearing witness to the Black British experience. He was a face and a voice for those who struggled to see themselves represented on the screen or in books.
Zephaniah’s flashing locks, jumping and prancing, speaking a mix of Brummie-Jamaican patois, blazed a trail and open the doors of literature for others of colour to follow. He was a national treasure, the voice of the oppressed rocking the stage with punks and rockers, chanting the struggles of the working class, fighting against apartheid and refusing an OBE because of the brutal history of the British Empire.
His lived experience was at the heart of his poetry, as in ‘Dis Policeman Keeps on Kicking Me to Death’ of which he said before it was published “I had the audience chanting them with me. My poems were published in their hearts.” He used a wry sense of humour to bring a serious message across, as in ‘I Have A Scheme’.
He was an equal opportunities poet, with a dream. He was a human and animal rights activist using rhythm and rhyme wrapped in a smile, and the simplicity of Caribbean wisdom to warm the hearts of audiences and bamboozle politicians and academics.
Zephaniah spoke warmly of his mother, “I luv me mudder, and me mudder luv me” the power and influence in his life. His mother would tell him Anansi stories of the trickster who would outfox gods. Zephaniah was the original Anansi, spinning tales, poetry, novels and plays, enchanting us and keeping us mesmerised.
The last time we talked was between sets, preparing to be interviewed by Luke Wright on BBC's 'Contains Strong Language', 2022. We talked about the Brummie accent, talked about our parents and the struggles they went through to make life better for us, the love of our mothers, and how we were griots, going back to ancient times.
His smile beamed even wider, as he told me he had access and was working with ancient scripts from the Middle East, spoken by griots thousands of years ago. I hope something came of that project, such was his love for stories and poetry – the word made flesh.
The video above, To Do Wid Me, is a film portrait of Benjamin Zephaniah by Pamela Robertson-Pearce, drawing on both live performances and informal interviews. It shows him performing his poetry for different audiences and talking about his work, life, beliefs and much else. You see him live on stage at Ledbury Poetry Festival, Newcastle's Live Theatre, Hexham's Queen's Hall and Brunel University, and engaging with schoolchildren at Keats House in London, where he was writer-in-residence.
Roy McFarlane is a poet, playwright and former youth & community worker, the National Canal Laureate, a former Birmingham Poet Laureate and one of the Bards of Brum performing in the Opening Ceremony for Birmingham Commonwealth Games 2022. His third collection Living by Troubled Waters (Nine Arches Press 2022) is out now.