I asked at Waterstones for a copy of “The Life and Rhymes of Benjamin Zephaniah”. ‘Sold out’ was the reply and an online order will only reach you after Christmas, which it did.
So now at last I have been able to read the autobiography of this remarkable performance poet that I first heard on stage at the Durban poetry festival in 2009. There are two aspects of his fame that I plan to discuss: his poetry and his campaigning. Through each shines the strength of character of someone who grew up in challenging circumstances but who was able to carve a unique career shining a spotlight on society around him, and us. This article, part 1, starts with his poetry.
Lifting poetry from page to stage
Benjamin Zephaniah was a pioneer in performance poetry. His career in this started when he moved from Birmingham to London in 1979 and started going to “Rock against Racism” gigs, either punk or reggae. As a child with Caribbean family roots, he grew up with reggae, and also at his mother’s church he got applause for recitation. He learned to play bass, which crucially in pop music provides the rhythm that gives shape to the song. He describes the gigs he went to in London at that time:
“You had punk music thrashing out 125 beats per minute, and reggae which could be as little as 90 beats per minute, but they had much in common. These poor white kids lived on the same estates as the poor black kids; but they felt persecuted by the same politicians, hated by the same bigots, and they felt as alienated as the black youth, so it made sense to share the same platform.”
Rock against racism started in 1976, not just as a response to racist skinheads but also as a retort to leading musicians like Eric Clapton and David Bowie who had made appalling pro-racist public comments. Against these trends, punk poets started to appear on stage to give rhythmic political rants. Zephaniah decided he wanted to become such a poet. He knew his poems worked best when performed, but did not know how to get them published. He got them typed up and took them to publishers but they were negative, “We don’t do black or Rastafarian poetry.”
Then he found his way to a bookshop near Stratford called “The Whole Thing” which was a co-operative, part-café, part-wholefood shop and part-campaigning bookshop. They agreed to publish his poems so long as he was part of the production team, from typing up to collating and selling. So his first set of poems was published as “Pen Rhythm” and ran to three issues. It then caught the notice of a producer at the new Channel 4 TV station and was made into a programme broadcast in 1982 (it deserves a replay – come on Channel 4).
He first got the opportunity to perform a poem on stage almost accidentally at a “Troops Out” rally (part of the campaign against British troops in Northern Ireland). From then on, he realised he could mesmerise an audience with his rhythmic poems, and he found a circuit around community halls and Afro-Caribbean cultural events. He could both rant (fast-paced punk style) and dub (reggae rhythms). He started to attend bigger concerts where he could get invited to rap several poems in between the other songs. He also developed engagements to introduce MC bands, as his fame as “the Bard of Stratford” grew.
His fans followed him from event to event, as they shared his anti-racist, anti-authoritarian message (“dis policeman, dis policeman keeps kicking me to death”). People would chant along with him. He comments, “The ability to get so many people to chant your word is a sort of power, power one could easily manipulate.”
His first full recorded dub album was called “Rasta”. “To me music and the spoken word are indivisible,” he commented. It has also been acclaimed by a music journalist as the first album of “world music” as he used a sitar player, an oboe, a mandolin player and an African drummer.
He was expanding to international venues. He got invited to perform in Yugoslavia to huge audiences. Then he decided he wanted to record in Jamaica. There he found the Wailers (the group who used to perform with Bob Marley, who had died in 1981) were willing to make a record with him, including the “Free Nelson Mandela” song. It was this disc, a 12-inch, that two dare-devil rich white boys in South Africa, dropped in hundreds from a helicopter above the townships, and got two years in prison for doing so. Later on, he met Nelson Mandela who had been following his campaigning music from prison.
About this time, the British Council started paying for him to travel to perform. What he found humbling was that he would go to places, even as far away as Columbia or Papua New Guinea, and find people there who already listened to his music and poems. He comments
“Travelling is how I got my education and it’s how I got my compassion.” Not only did he meet the leaders in countries he went to – but he also made sure to mix with people in the streets, especially the women (rather than the male-centric views of taxi drivers).
It must have been at one of these British Council-financed trips that I first heard him perform at the Durban Poetry Festival. I immediately wanted to buy his works. There was always a well-stocked bookstall in the foyer, but not so good on sound discs.
I still feel that for the best experience of Zephaniah, you need to get the dub/rap sounds – preferably in a live performance. As a graduate who majored in English Literature and who has had contracts teaching and examining it, I think too much English poetry has been composed and confined to the printed page. This is not true, of course, of Shakespeare’s iambic lines or the song lyrics of his time, or English opera. But for many generations of literary poets, this meant finding a publisher for the paper version of the poems, even if it meant first creating a fan base as the Romantics did. Poetry circles involved “reading” poems rather than performing them. By the twentieth century, free verse was becoming popular. Rhyming was dropped, as well as conventional stress-unstress rhythms. At amateur poetry readings, the aim was to share the experience, the mind-associations of the words, rather than sounds and rhythms.
Then into this came the rants and dubbing of the 1970s-80s. Suddenly rhythm and the human voice became vital to poetry again. Zephaniah was at the forefront of this – a poet you have to listen to, a pioneer performance poet indeed.
So a book review is not really the best way to start to appreciate his poetry. Far better to have heard him perform first, and then use the autobiography to understand the influences and social context of his work. Next best – I think I need to go to the record shops to check out if any still have his vinyls.