RANGA Shankara, Bangalore. March 17. Benjamin Zephaniah, the charismatic British performance poet, is on stage. A banner backdrop cues us in to him: “Poet. Prophet. Activist.”
The dreadlocked Rastafarian of Jamaican origin offers dramatic poetry that seethes with politics. Every word connects with his concerns – the Iraq war, animal rights, the body beautiful and macho men, race, class and gender. Most deeply, a quest for co-existence and love for Planet Earth. In a trice, we all bond with him. No wonder he has been one of the British Council’s most popular cultural ambassadors since the 1980s, equally beloved in China and India, Fiji or Argentina, South Africa or Australia. Or even at schools across Britain.
On his twelfth Indian visit and fourth tour, Zephaniah touches Mumbai, Pune, Ahmedabad, Chennai and Kolkata, en route to Sri Lanka. He shies away from Queen’s English and pucca public school conformism. He celebrates the spoken word, the lively language of the British streets. What the spotlight misses is the secret Zephaniah. The one who learnt kalaripayittu near Kochi or is moved to tears because a feral cat in an English garden is put to sleep because it isn’t a pet!
Zephaniah was shortlisted for a fellowship at Cambridge University, and later for Oxford Professor of Poetry. His poem, “The London Breed,” has found a place of honour in the British Museum: “I love this concrete jungle still/ with all its sirens and its speed/ the people here united will create a kind of London breed.”
His journey to reluctant celebrity has been long and hard. A troubled childhood, dealing with a violent father in Handsworth, “the English capital of Jamaica.” Dropping out of school at 13, learning to read and write at night school at 21. “I got my education from travelling, from talking to people, debating and asking questions about their society. That really excites me. All these observations about life make fascinating poetry,” Zephaniah says.
A far cry from Shakespeare or Shelley, who figure on his icon list, Zephaniah is “an equal opportunities poet.” His working class poetry is attuned to slavery, racism, bigotry, and every possible battle for justice.
What triggered his creativity? “I just love playing with words. When I heard people talking, I didn’t just hear the words, I heard the rhythm. I was surprised one day when somebody told me it was poetry. I didn’t know there was a word for it! My mother says I started doing poetry when I was about five years old, as soon as I was able to put words together,” Zephaniah recalls in an interview in Bangalore.
Taking in the current British performance poetry scene, embracing Asians, gays and lesbians alike, Zephaniah adds, “I create poetry to reach people, whether they are kids sleeping on the streets of Kolkata or those attending a literary seminar at Cambridge. Or friends from Jalandhar, who don’t even know I’m a poet. I play football with the kids there.”
He has vivid memories of poetic activism, though. Of reciting ‘Free South Africa’ at a rally in Trafalgar Square in front of South Africa House. It became a rallying cry against apartheid. “When another unpublished poem was chanted back to me by thousands of people, I remember thinking: It’s been published in their hearts. That’s the kind of publishing I’m interested in,” Zephaniah adds.
Yet, he has made the grade as a published poet including The Dread Affair (1985), Inna Liverpool (1990), Rasta Time in Palestine (1991), City Psalms (1992), Propa Propaganda (1996), and Too Black, Too Strong (2001). The exuberant non-conformist has edited The Bloomsbury Book of Love Poems (1999), and written three novels for teenagers.
Can an artist today be apolitical? “I think you could, but you’d be doing your art a disservice,” responds Zephaniah. “If there’s a platform available, black people would make a statement. Writing about the personal is probably what I haven’t done as much as I should have done. I feel people in Iraq or Sri Lanka are more important than me.”
What sets his poetry apart? Paraphrasing Nobel laureate Derek Walcott, the globe-trotter says, “When we Caribbean poets write, we always write with a voice in our heads. When we put it on the page, we’re trying to capture that voice. I think he extended that to Asian writers as well. It’s a poetry of sound. When you read it, I want you to hear it.”
A poet who is recognized in British TV studios, hotels or brand outlets, Zephaniah continues to be anti-establishment. He declined an Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 2003. He even has refused to front a British police campaign to recruit a more multicultural force after constant trouble with ‘institutionalized racism.’
Today, with a flat in Beijing, and a country house in Lincolnshire, what makes him tick? “I’ve always been a very independent thinker. I once argued that paganism is the only true world religion,” Zephaniah says. “In the Eighties, I travelled to pilgrimage sites like Jerusalem and Jordan. I came away feeling close to god, but less religious. But I’m still an animal rights hardliner. I still won’t consume or wear anything from an animal. If they’re putting makeup on my face for a TV programme, I check that it’s not animal-tested.”
How does being British fuel his poetry? “I’m living in Britain. I’ve got Jamaican rhythms going around in my head. I’m listening to bhangra music. I practice martial arts like kung-fu. Before we start, we do Chinese chanting, play some Chinese music. I would be a brick if I wasn’t taking in all these influences,” he confesses.
In an introduction to Too Black, Too Strong, Zephaniah wrote, “I live in two places, Britain and the world, and it is my duty to explore the state of justice in both of them… speaking my mind as I go, ranting, praising and criticizing everything that makes me what I am. But this is what Britain can do. It is probably one of the only places that can take an angry, illiterate, uneducated, ex-hustler, rebellious Rastafarian, and give him the opportunity to represent the country.”
That was the gift that Zephaniah bore to us in India. From the Rasta road, with love.
(Originally in The Week magazine, 2007)