Zephaniah: the poet who set the world on fire

“A born failure”: That’s what one teacher told him. Now he has 16 honorary degrees. © Getty

Does inspiration come from within? To mark Black History Month, The Day is launching a series of stories about modern black role models. Our first is the hugely popular Benjamin Zephaniah.

Benjamin Zephaniah was expelled from school when he was 13, and never went back. Suffering from dyslexia, he was unable to read or write. His teacher told him that he was “a born failure” who would end up dead or serving a life sentence in prison. Within a few years he had a conviction for burglary and, as a gang member, lived in fear of being killed.

But one night, at his lowest point, he listened to Marvin Gaye’s protest song What’s Going On? “And I remembered that teacher and I said, ‘I want to prove her wrong.’”

No one would dispute that he has done that. At 62, he is one of Britain’s best-known poets. He is also a novelist, playwright, actor, political campaigner and musician, and was included by The Times newspaper in a list of the top 50 post-war writers. He has honorary degrees from 16 universities.

He was even offered one of Britain’s highest honours, the OBE – but turned it down because he disapproved of the British Empire.

Zephaniah was born in the Handsworth district of Birmingham, the son of immigrant parents. His Bajan father worked as a postman and his Jamaican mother as a nurse, but money was short, and they lived in a house without an inside toilet or bathroom.

Worse, his father used to beat up his mother. Eventually, she and Benjamin ran away, knocking on people’s doors to beg a bed for the night.

But all along he was writing poems. At eight, he sent one into the BBC; by 11 he was reciting them in public, and at 15 started to make a name for himself by performing them at punk gigs. Because of his dyslexia, he composed his poems in his head and memorised them instead of writing them down.

At 22 he moved to London, where he found another gang – but this time of painters and poets. “We all need gangs,” he says. “We’re social animals. The key is finding the people that are doing good stuff instead of doing bad stuff.”

His first book of poetry was published soon afterwards, and in 1982 he recorded an album, Rasta, featuring The Wailers. He never met Bob Marley, who had died the year before, but he remembers receiving a letter from him that said, “Britain needs someone like you.” It was, he says, deeply inspiring.

Rasta included a tribute to another inspirational figure, Nelson Mandela, who asked to meet him. The two became friends, and Mandela invited him to host a charity concert held at the Royal Albert Hall during the South African president’s state visit to Britain.

Zephaniah has used his popularity to campaign against many injustices – particularly racism, which he often faced as a young man. “There are places in Birmingham and places in London where I couldn’t go as a teenager because of the National Front. And if I got beaten up by the National Front, I could never go to the police about it because I would get beaten up by the police too.”

Since 2011, he has been teaching creative writing at Brunel University. “I love doing it,” he says. “I see it as part of my duty to help and inspire.”

Does inspiration come from within?

Source of the force

Some say, yes. If you want to be a poet, novelist or painter, you can study great examples all you want, and you will probably learn a great deal from them. But what counts in the end is an innate gift, which some of us are blessed with and some are not. You will only be able to produce work of value yourself if you have wonderful ideas of your own.

Others argue that we all need people we can look up to and who can show us what is possible. Benjamin Zephaniah would not have achieved what he has without the inspiration he got from Marvin Gaye and Nelson Mandela. He himself is an inspiring figure because he has overcome huge disadvantages and, having decided to be a poet when it was not considered cool, has opened the door for many others.

You Decide

  1. Who is the most inspiring person you have ever come across?
  2. Are poems that contain rhymes more effective than poems that do not?

Activities

  1. Watch a video of Benjamin Zephaniah performing one of his poems. Make a collage of him based on it.
  2. Write a poem in the style of Benjamin Zephaniah. Make a video of yourself performing it.

Some People Say...

“If poetry comes not as naturally as the leaves to a tree it had better not come at all.”

John Keats (1795–1821), English poet

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that an inspiring piece of writing can utterly change people’s lives. Zephaniah says that one of his proudest experiences was receiving a letter from a woman who had suffered a facial disfigurement. Until she came across his novel Face, about a boy in a similar situation, she had been too ashamed to leave her house. But, she wrote, “After reading your book, I'm going out shopping. I'm going to buy myself a new dress.”
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is around whether it is possible to improve your chances of finding inspiration. An American psychologist, Scott Barry Kaufman, argues that you can. One way is by looking out for inspiring people; another is by keeping yourself open to new thoughts and experiences; and a third is putting in a lot of hard work, even if this does not in itself produce something brilliant.

Word Watch

Marvin Gaye
An American singer and songwriter (1939–1984) who was known as the Prince of Soul. He was killed by his own father, who shot him dead after an argument.
OBE
Short for the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. Dating from 1917, it recognises distinguished work in public service, charity, the arts and science.
Bajan
From Barbados. It is also the name of the island’s language, which combines English and African influences.
The Wailers
The Jamaican reggae band that backed Bob Marley. Its earlier names included the Wailing Rudeboys and the Wailing Wailers.
Nelson Mandela
South Africa’s first black president, who held office from 1994 to 1999.
National Front
A far-right party that was active in the 1970s and involved in violent clashes with anti-fascist groups. It split in the 1980s and many members joined the British National Party (BNP).
Brunel University
A university in London named after the Victorian engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

Subjects

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