Benjamin Zephaniah

Dr Benjamin Zephaniah was born and raised in Birmingham, England. He cannot remember a time when he was not creating poetry but this had nothing to do with school where poetry meant very little to him, in fact he had finished full time education at the age of 13. His poetry is strongly influenced by the music and poetry of Jamaica and what he calls ‘street politics’. His first real public performance was in church when he was 10 years old, by the time he was 15 he had developed a strong following in his home town of Handsworth where he had gained a reputation as a young poet who was capable of speaking on local and international issues.

At the age of 22 he headed south to London where his first book Pen Rhythm was published by Page One Books. This was a small, East London based publishing co-operative that were keen on publishing poets who were rooted in their communities. They published Zephaniah when others failed to tune into the new poetry that was about to emerge. The book sold well going into 3 editions but it was in performance that the Dub (Reggae) Poet would cause a revolution, a revolution that injected new life into the British poetry scene and attracted the interest of many mainstream publishers, many of whom had sent refusal letters to him only 12 months earlier.

A young Benjamin

In the early Eighties when Punks and Rastas were on the streets protesting about SUS Laws, high unemployment, homelessness and the National Front, Zephaniah’s poetry could be heard on the demonstrations, at youth gatherings, outside police stations, and on the dance floor. It was once said of him that he was Britain’s most filmed, photographed, and identifiable poet, this was because of his ability to perform on stage, but most of all on television, bringing Dub Poetry straight into British living rooms.

In the nineties his book publications, record releases and television appearances increased in Britain, although he has concentrated on performing outside Europe. He feels at home anywhere the oral tradition is still strong and lists South Africa, Zimbabwe, India, Pakistan and Colombia as some of his most memorable tours.

Young writers have said that the accessibility of his work has inspired them to take up writing, many record sleeves bare witness to the fact that he has inspired many of the new generation of rappers, and of all the performance poets that emerged in the late seventies and early eighties he is one of the few that is still going strong. He has sixteen honorary doctorates and the Eailing Hospital in west London has named a wing after him in recognition of his work. Zephaniah believes that working with human rights groups, animal rights groups and other political organisations means that he will never lack subject matter. He now spends much of his time in China, but he continues working throughout Asia, South America and Africa, and is as passionate about politics and poetry now as he has ever been.

benjamin zephaniah