Benjamin Zephaniah

Benjamin Zephaniah is one of Britain’s most inventive poets. His work is often called “dub poetry” and is infused with his particular musical rhythms. As a result, his live performances take poetry beyond the page, mixing poetry with music and dance. Growing up in Britain and born to Caribbean parents, he often explores multicultural identity, race, and politics. His rejection of formal English in favour of slang lets him tackle these big themes in accessible and exciting ways. In 2003, he was awarded an OBE but publicly rejected it due to the award’s historic links with the British Empire. In 2008, the Times included him in their list of the 50 greatest post-war writers.

British Identity

For Zephaniah, with Caribbean and British heritage, being British is complicated. His poetry – particularly, The British – celebrates this complexity which is a recipe for modern diversity: “Mix some hot Chileans, cool Jamaicans, Dominicans, / Trinidadians and Bajans with some Ethiopians, Chinese, / Vietnamese and Sudanese.” How do you define being British?

Music

Zephaniah is an accomplished musician, releasing several albums. His poetry reflects this passion and is full of musical riffs and references. Feel the rhythm of the opening lines of Dis Poetry: “Dis poetry is like a riddim dat drops / De tongue fires a riddim dat shoots like shots / Dis poetry is designed fe rantin / Dance hall style, big mouth chanting.”

Language

“I waz walking down Wyefront street / When me trousers ran away, / I waz feeling incomplete / But still me trousers would not stay.” Like many of his poems, the opening lines of Wot A Pair use non-standard spelling and slang. Zephaniah’s language reimagines what words are acceptable in poetry. Do you think poets should use formal English?

Racism

“Without Black suffering they’d have no jobs. / Without our dead they’d have no office. / Without our tears they’d have no drink.” As these lines from The Race Industry show, Zephaniah’s poetry confronts racism head-on. He draws on his own experience to explore the difficulties black people face in British society.

Animals

As a committed vegan, Zephaniah often writes about animal rights. His first children’s poetry book, Talking Turkeys, asked readers not to eat turkeys for Christmas dinner: “Be nice to yu turkey dis Christmas / An spare dem de cut of de knife, / Join Turkeys United an dey’ll be delighted / An yu will mek new friends ‘FOR LIFE’.”