Benjamin Zephaniah

(b. 1958)

"I defy anyone to listen to a performance of his poetry and not come away uplifted" - Poetry Review

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Extras

  • The Caribbean Poetry Project
    This pioneering collaboration between the Cambridge University Faculty of Education, the Centre for Commonwealth Education and the University of the West Indies aims to help teachers develop their knowledge, understanding and enjoyment of Caribbean poetry, and to extend knowledge, understanding and creative engagement with Caribbean poetry among secondary-school students.

Select bibliography

  • Pen Rhythm, Page One Books 1980
  • The Dread Affair: Collected Poems, Arena 1985
  • Inna Liverpool, Africa Arts Collective 1988
  • Rasta Time in Palestine, Shakti 1990
  • City Psalms, Bloodaxe 1992
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  • Out of the Night: Writings from Death Row (editor with Marie Mulvey Roberts), New Clarion Press 1994
  • Talking Turkeys, Viking 1994
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  • Funky Chickens, Viking 1996
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  • Propa Propaganda, Bloodaxe 1996
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  • School's Out: Poems Not for School, AK Press 1997
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  • Reggae Head, 57 Productions 1997
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  • Face, Bloomsbury 1999
  • The Bloomsbury Book of Love Poems (editor), Bloomsbury 1999
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  • Wicked World, Puffin 2000
  • A Little Book of Vegan Poems, A. K. Press 2000
  • Refugee Boy, Bloomsbury 2001
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  • Too Black, Too Strong, Bloodaxe 2001
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  • We Are Britain! (with photographs by Prodeepta Das), Frances Lincoln 2002
  • Chambers Primary Rhyming Dictionary, Chambers 2004
  • Poetry Quartets 9 (with Anne Rouse, Ian Duhig and Matthew Sweeney), Bloodaxe 2004
  • Gangsta Rap, Bloomsbury 2004
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  • J is for Jamaica (World Alphabet) (with photographs by Prodeepta Das), Frances Lincoln 2006
  • Listen to Your Parents Playscript, Longman 2007
  • Teacher's Dead Bloomsbury Publishing PLC, 2007
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  • Teacher's Dead, Bloomsbury 2007
  • Face: The Play (with Richard Conlon), Heinemann Educational 2008
Benjamin Zephaniah was born in Birmingham, and grew up in Jamaica and in Handsworth, where he was sent to an approved school. He left school at 13 unable to read or write, ending up in prison for burglary. His anger stays with him, channelled into protest, music and performance.

He moved to London in 1979, the year Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister; in the early 80's Punks and Rastas were on the streets protesting against SUS laws, unemployment, homelessness, the National Front and the policies of the Thatcher government. Zephaniah's poetry could be heard on the demonstrations, at youth gatherings, outside police stations, and on the dance floor. His mission was to take poetry everywhere.

'Reggae Head', in this recording, gives a taste of his unique sound, his comic exuberance, and his rage.

Touring and performing is at the heart of his focus on keeping the oral tradition alive; over a 22 day period in 1991 he performed on every continent. He recorded a tribute to Nelson Mandela with the Wailers; soon after release from prison, Mandela requested a meeting and this led to Zephaniah working with children in South African townships and hosting the President's Two Nations concert at The Royal Albert Hall in 1996.

Zephaniah's first book of poetry for children, Talking Turkeys, was a startling success; children respond to his delight in words and sounds, and his realism. He is a vegan: turkeys, he says in the title poem, have mums. In this recording of 'Library Ology' he develops an idea originally used in a famous BT advert: you got an Ology! The voice is dark, sexy and playful.

He has fun with words and sounds, but the fun is only a means to an end. This recording of 'City River Blues' gives an illustration of his unwavering purpose: to express simply and starkly the pain some citizens feel in living in modern Britain. The river runs through our lives, dat bloody smell: listen to the fury in the voice, the urgent rhythm, the despair moderated by defiance, the refusal to compromise the truth of what he sees and feels.

Benjamin Zephaniah was a candidate for Oxford's poetry professorship, and talked of as a possible Poet Laureate. But when offered an OBE in 2003, he declined, because the word Empire reminded him of how his foremothers were raped and his forefathers brutalised.


Prizes

1988 BBC Young Playwrights Festival Award Hurricane Dub

2001 Commission for Racial Equality Race in the Media Radio Drama Award Listen to Your Parents

2002 Portsmouth Book Award (Longer Novel category) Refugee Boy

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