I lost one of my heroes last week. And a very dear friend and mentor.
Where do I begin?
I was first introduced to Benjamin Zephaniah when I was at school. It’s the first time I remember being present. Interested. Invested. Desperately wanting more after the last page of a book. Listening to his unique words through open ears. He brought fun and freedom to a classroom where so many of us felt anxious. Told to be serious. To keep our heads down and “stop talking Verity, for goodness’ sake”.
His poetry was different to anything I’d been exposed to before. It still is, in 2023. Dub poetry is a form of performance poetry of Jamaican origin – the term coined by the great poet Linton Kwesi Johnson (who I was fortunate enough to watch live last year). Dub music is an electronic style evolving from reggae in the late 1960s.
Looking back, it’s no wonder Benjamin’s works resonated with me so much through the years. He helped shape who I am, and my interests – I love rap music, spoken word poetry, and storytelling.
Benjamin’s poetry sings off the page and is destined to be performed. It’s also very poignant – using clever rhyme, storytelling and cadence to illustrate his experiences – along with his movements and expressions. He brought every piece of the performance poetry puzzle together craftily, with no bits missing down the sofa. His rhymes are dimes and he weaved them intricately, creating something we all understand and appreciate.
He frequently drew on his experiences of prison, racism, and his Jamaican heritage. And brought vital awareness to audiences worldwide in the smartest and most engaging ways.
One of my favourite poems of his, ‘Money’, illustrates the corruption of money around the world. It’s at the centre of everything – politics, egos, business – and also at the centre of struggle. The repetition of ‘money’ shows that everything is about money, as much as we don’t like to believe it. He always spoke the truth. And the rhythm of this one is too catchy to ignore. Twenty-six years later, this poem still resonates with audiences today:
Money makes a dream become reality
Money makes real life like a fantasy
Money has a habit of going to the head
I have some for the rainy day underneath me bed
Money problems make it hard to relax
Money makes it difficult to get down to the facts
Money makes you worship vanity and lies
Money is a drug with legal highs
Benjamin Zephaniah performing ‘Money’:
He is loved by big kids (like me) and little kids (also like me, once). ‘Talking Turkeys’ is still one of my favourite poems to this day. First published in 1994, the poem ‘Talking Turkeys’ literally talks about talking turkeys at Christmas. Genius. Benjamin became a vegetarian at 11 years old, and a vegan at 13. And although the poem is fun, using pauses and intonations thoughtfully, he had an important message to share about his love for animals. Reminding us all that “every turkey has a mum” – bringing an endearing humanity to animals. He used his voice for the often voiceless, and this is a great example of that. Try not to smile while watching this… it’s impossible.
Benjamin Zephaniah performing ‘Talking Turkeys’:
I wrote a lot during my childhood – mostly poetry. I was often labelled “emotional”, “expressive” and “sensitive” – the perfect ingredients for a poet, perhaps? I also had an adoration for rhyming and storytelling. Yes, definitely a poet in the making. My love for languages was obvious to everyone. There was no doubt in my mind that I was going to study English/ Creative Writing at university. I wanted to learn the ‘proper’ art of writing, story and verse structures, and learn it all from some of the best. I thank every star that aligned in my life to lead me to that decision. “I’m going to Brunel University!”
I’ll never forget the feeling I had when I saw Benjamin Zephaniah walking into my Poetry class. I didn’t know he was going to be my teacher until I properly looked at the details of my poetry module. My body moved forward as if I, myself, was zooming in. Was it fate that had led me to Brunel? I like to think so.
“He is my teacher?” I thought, eyes and mouth wide open. Unembarrassed at my state of awe and wonder. But this time, he was teaching me directly. “How long ‘till we can ask him to perform something for us?” I thought. Turns out, it’s going to take a few months but, boy, is it worth the wait. He took requests. A bunch of aspiring writers twitching in anticipation.
He shook his head when I asked for ‘Talking Turkeys’. “What, c’mon Verity? I’ve written more important ones than that.” He had a point. But that one was important to me – and that is the beauty of poetry and music. They all mean something different to all of us. I love reliving that memory, it makes me smile. “Seriously, Verity?” I can hear him now.
The first poem I ever performed was in his class. I was nervous, but he made nerves look weak and told me to laugh in their faces. He championed me, gave helpful critiques and tips, and he told me and he was impressed that I’d learn my poems off-by-heart before every class. He said that once, and I’ve done it ever since with every single poem I choose to perform. “Benjamin said it’s good to do that, so I’m doing it.” Our poetry exercises were fun, important and eye-opening. He introduced me to some brilliant dub poets and writers, including the aforementioned Linton Kwesi Johnson.
Then, he mentored me throughout my poetry dissertation. I chose to do a poetry dissertation mostly because of him. It was my opportunity, every week, to soak up his wisdom and knowledge. His cool, chilled and collected persona. His genius. Smart move.
One year after graduating, he invited me back to perform my first ever poetry set to his class. It was great to be back at Brunel. I was anxious, again, but then I remembered I was a student in their position once. Soaking up someone else’s words and experiences. Trying to learn. Only this time I had Benjamin standing and pacing at the side of me, wearing his grey trilby, giving me momentum and courage by nodding at the floor and concentrating on my words. I think I’ve always had him by my side for every performance, handing me the mic and saying “Right, let’s go Verity, it’s showtime” in his charming manner.
We remained friends after I graduated. He would take time out of his day to drop me a text and ask “How’s it going?”. He called me and invited me to his set in Manchester, because he knew I lived there. He gave me a shout out during his show. We had a few Zoom calls which he’d host from the Brunel office I came to love and call my safe space over the years. We jumped on a video call very recently, where he gave me the greatest advice about my poetry and we discussed a new video he’d made for an old poem of his, called ‘Big Brother’. He shared the video with me before publishing it – again, making me feel special, worthy and appreciated.
I was always on the edge of my seat at his storytelling. Both of us were always smiling, together. He was never too busy for me and he believed in me from day one.
When he was at school, Benjamin sent a letter to none other than reggae singer, Bob Marley. He told him that he’s from Birmingham and writes poems, asking him what he thinks of them. Bob Marley replied: “Young man, Britain needs you. Keep doing what you do.”
“That was a real inspiration to me,” Benjamin said. “It really inspired me to keep doing what I was doing … at the time there was no spoken word poetry, there was no dub poetry so to read those words…” (The Guardian).
He had his hero. And I had mine. I want to highlight the importance of being told “you can do it” and “keep going” by the people you admire. It’s life-changing.
He inspired me to become a spoken word poet and share my words with audiences instead of just my notebooks. For that, I am eternally grateful. I am sharing all of this because I want to shine a light on what he did for me, and for the world. A rule breaker and story maker – he was truly one of a kind. The intro to Benjamin’s website, in big bold letters, says “Poet, writer, lyricist, musician and naughty boy.” Those words were definitely written by him.
His words will live on forever. He told me to “speak truth to power” through my poetry. He taught me so much, and always will. From his books, performances and plays, to his BAFTA, panel shows, and role in Peaky Blinders, he was always sharing his art and beliefs with us, letting us into his welcoming world.
They say “never meet your heroes”. And to that I say, “be a rebel”. Just like Benjamin taught me.
He always knew what he meant to me, and that gives me great comfort.
Rest in Power, Benji.
I think poetry should be alive… You should be able to dance to it. – Benjamin Zephaniah
I’ve only listed a couple of my favourite poems of Benjamin Zephaniah’s, but he has a whole library full of wonderful and important stories – from plays, to music albums, to novels. Find out more about Benjamin Zephaniah’s life work here.