NOTE - No " review star system" used here - see reason why at end of review.
Benjamin Zephaniah, writer, poet, lyricist, musician, made one of his infrequent public trips to Scotland tonight at The Queen’s Hall Edinburgh to promote the newly published book about his life “The Life and Rhymes of Benjamin Zephaniah” (Hardcover book May 3rd 2018 published by Simon & Schuster).
Although principally a book launch tour, Benjamin is not taking the potentially dull route to reading extracts from his book, but instead giving us stories of his upbringing and poetry performances of work created by the young boy of only 8 years old onwards. A short audience Q & A session also followed at the end of the evening.
Benjamin Zephaniah is a complex person, just visit his website at https://benjaminzephaniah.com and you will see a few of the many facets that make the man. He is also a man of stark contrast, and a very simple one at the opposite end of that complexity; someone who like me (and many, many more of us across the world) does not understand how we can possibly live in a world of such unbalanced wealth, access to basic food, water, shelter, and opportunities. Even worse perhaps, how we have global political and economic systems in place that not only allow this obscenity to continue, but actively allow it to expand. Benjamin Zephaniah was an angry young man, and now in the later years of his life, that anger has still not gone away, but his ability to use his words have allowed the political observer/activist and social commentator to focus and channel that anger into more positive use.
It is difficult to write this review without at least touching on some aspects of Benjamin’s life and experiences as a black man coming from a Jamaican background growing up in Britain, as those experiences and views are very much a large part of his work. Tonight, listening to Benjamin talking about his childhood and formative years’ experiences, the “in his face” racism he confronted at many times, I am appalled at what he faced. There however, my connection stops, because although we are roughly the same age, both come from fairly poor working class backgrounds, I am white, and although some people may argue with this next statement, because of being white, I have no concept of what being a black person and experiencing those things actually means to someone. I have no common reference point to engage with Benjamin in some of his experiences, and I feel that to pretend that I have is potentially an insult to him (or any non-white person). Benjamin’s cultural background also gives him very personal understanding of slavery, “The Windrush Generation”, and of what “The British Empire” meant. My cultural background does not give me that personal viewpoint from the other side of the mirror. It is easy to understand why this man refused an OBE.
I mention some things above because I just have no personal experience of many of the events and historical backgrounds that have formed some of the words Benjamin uses, but it is also words that connect the two of us. I believe that words have enormous power in their own right. Words can be used by politicians, those in power, and media to lie to us, manipulate and potentially control us, but they can also be used by observers and witnesses like Benjamin to tell truths that those who try to manipulate us would rather not come out in public. Words however are powerful (that is why those in power fear them so much) and truth, no matter how many try to suppress it, will always find a way out somewhere to speak to people who want to hear. Benjamin Zephaniah clearly not only understands the true power of words, but has the intuitive skills to use them to their full effect. Part of the pleasure of tonight’s poetry performances was hearing how these words changed from playfulness of a young boy exploring words with “I Love My Mother” to the immensely powerful words of “The Death Of Joy Gardner”. If you want to find out more (or if you are too young to remember the events), visit this Wikipedia page for starters
Along the way this evening, we touched upon other aspects of what make Benjamin Zephaniah complete – a Rastafarian and a Vegan being a few of them. In the end though, it is words and their power (and a short but hugely important exposure to inspirational teachers) that have allowed a young boy leaving school without achieving basic literacy levels to now be a writer whose work is standard text in schools.
Benjamin Zephaniah is no “angel” and makes no attempt to gloss over some of the more difficult times in his youth, or the anger at many things that he still feels inside of him, but he is now a positive role model for many young people and just as important as that, is out in the community constantly performing his work to people of all ages. Use of social media also makes his work immediately accessible to all.
What was so obvious all through this evening was not only the joy that Benjamin gets from public performance of his work, but also his humour and ability to so easily connect with audiences across a wide cultural and age range. That in itself is a rare gift.
I cannot leave this review though without giving some thought to the words of Benjamin Zephaniah, because if anything ever is going to help solve even a small part of the many problems in this world then it is education and words. Teach children in schools (in fact teach all of us) the good that is in different cultures. Teach us about their cultural achievements in writing, poetry, art, music and whatever else. The first time I came across translations of some of the Sufi poets’ works for example, I was amazed at the beauty of their work. Listen to Benjamin, a world where we can spend vast amounts of money on weapons to kill the poor rather than feed them is obscene. A world where my cat has better access to food, clean water, medical treatment and shelter than millions of people in this world is wrong.
The world needs more people like Benjamin Zephaniah to be speaking out against injustice, but the problem is, what are each of us willing to give up to start to put an end to the problems?
In the end, Benjamin Zephaniah reminds us all that the basic needs of everyone on this planet are common to us all, and that we can at the same time celebrate what is best in our different cultures without losing sight of what common threads bind us all together.
I have decided not to use our usual star rating system on this review because, to be honest, it feels inappropriate to do that. Benjamin Zephaniah was impressive on stage, but giving what is in the end subjective “stars” to words and truths seems not the right thing to do. How do you rate with “stars” injustice, prejudice, truths, and personal experiences? The answer is, don’t even try, just let the man and his words speak for themselves.
Review by Tom King