Benjamin Zephaniah

b. 1958

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

City River Blues

Benjamin Zephaniah

Library Ology

Benjamin Zephaniah

Reggae Head

Benjamin Zephaniah

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About Benjamin Zephaniah

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.

Additional material and useful links

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...


1988 BBC Young Playwrights Festival Award <i>Hurricane Dub</i>

1988 BBC Young Playwrights Festival Award <i>Hurricane Dub</i>

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

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

2002 Portsmouth Book Award (Longer Novel category) <i>Refugee Boy</i>

2002 Portsmouth Book Award (Longer Novel category) <i>Refugee Boy</i>

Selected bibliography

Teacher's Dead Bloomsbury Publishing PLC, 2007

Face: The Play (with Richard Conlon), Heinemann...

Teacher's Dead, Bloomsbury 2007

Listen to Your Parents Playscript, Longman 2007

J is for Jamaica (World Alphabet) (with photographs by...

Gangsta Rap, Bloomsbury 2004

Chambers Primary Rhyming Dictionary, Chambers 2004

We Are Britain! (with photographs by Prodeepta Das),...

Too Black, Too Strong, Bloodaxe 2001

Refugee Boy, Bloomsbury 2001

Wicked World, Puffin 2000

A Little Book of Vegan Poems, A. K. Press 2000

The Bloomsbury Book of Love Poems (editor), Bloomsbury...

Face, Bloomsbury 1999

School's Out: Poems Not for School, AK Press 1997

Propa Propaganda, Bloodaxe 1996

Funky Chickens, Viking 1996

Talking Turkeys, Viking 1994

Out of the Night: Writings from Death Row (editor with...

City Psalms, Bloodaxe 1992

Rasta Time in Palestine, Shakti 1990

Inna Liverpool, Africa Arts Collective 1988

The Dread Affair: Collected Poems, Arena 1985

Pen Rhythm, Page One Books 1980

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