Benjamin Zephaniah – The Poet Polymath

Born in Birmingham England as his unlikely cameo in TV series Peaky Blinders may indicate, Benjamin Obadiah Iqbal Zephaniah remains deeply attached to his Jamaican roots. Known to different people for his many abilities that involve poetry, performance, music and activism, this British born Rastafarian continues to be a vehicle for the issues facing people in the world today.

Beginning his ability to place potent words side by side in poetry from as far back as he can remember, oddly his schooling seemed to play no part in his interest in this. Instead without taking a scholarly interest in developing his skills in the language, instead he took his influences from the streets he walked upon and the musicians he listened to. His community in Birmingham was packed with Black people who were struggling to assimilate into the English crowds. The town of Handsworth is one of his favourite destinations as seen in his song ‘Unite Handsworth’. This town is one he dubbed ‘The Jamaican capital of Europe’, and one in which the struggle of his peers was apparent. With his poetry now used to bring attention to the issues facing these and others in the underclass, he hoped to reach a bigger audience. Publishing his first book with a London based company when he was 22, his dream of reaching more ears and opening more eyes continued.

As the 80s gave way to further unemployment, discrimination and a bubbling revolution of counter-culture thinkers, Zephaniahs dub poetry became the perfect accompaniment to the voices being raised at the unjust rulers. This ability to perform his poems shot him into the spotlight as his activism reached new heights. His words could be heard at demonstrations, protests and now on TV. Many of his lyrics talk about the way the news media helped spread stereotypes about people of colour, how the people in charge had been perpetuating fear about outsiders whether they were Jamaican, African, Pakistani, Indian or from wherever. These ideas continue throughout his work, in his 2006 album Naked the track ‘Rong Radio’ expresses these themes through the perspective of what is being dispelled through the radio waves.

By 1991, the poet and humanitarian had performed on every continent and thus his quest to spread his message reached new heights. And as his acclaim grew so did the diversity of his writing abilities. Many people get their first glimpse of the Rasta poet through his much less political children’s poems. Unhappy with the stagnant and removed impression of poetry that had taken the country, he continued to innovate and bring the medium to new audiences all the while keeping things interesting and exciting. Easing of the often ‘in your face’ approach that his socio-political content usually took these fun and charming poems introduced new younger eyes and ears to the world of writing poems. From here another pivot in his career, his novel for a teenage audience brought to light the struggles of adolescence.

As a whole the work of Benjamin Zephaniah reaches all. Whether you know him from outlandish on screen performances, through his words or for his human rights endeavors, it cannot be said his work is not exemplary. Today his mission to bring knowledge and happiness to others continues in the east, but his music and poetry are easily obtainable to anyone who is curious.