A Poet for the People

Benjamin Zephaniah, one of Britain's leading poets, merges politics and reggae with incisive wit. He was born in Birmingham in the industrial heartland of England, a far cry from his Jamaican roots, but his popularity has since spread around the globe, even earning him a no.1 slot in Yugoslavia!

Standard prose literature has not gained a strong foothold in Jamaica or in the Jamaican communities around the world. This is probably because a nation so devoted to making music has always felt a natural leaning to the lyricism of poetry. Reggae music relies strongly on the lyrics of songs to galvanise the listener and spread the message, which is very often of a political nature, and Jamaican English lends itself very easily to the expression of ideas through rhyme. Because of this, a rich genre of reggae and dub poetry has grown out of late-20th century Jamaica and Britain.

Undoubtedly, the most well-known UK reggae poet alive today must be Benjamin Zephaniah. Born into the large Jamaican community in Handsworth, Birmingham, in 1958, Zephaniah has been writing poetry for as long as he can remember.

His verses have concentrated primarily on racism and the problems faced by black people, but they also concern broader issues such as nuclear weapons and war. Zephaniah is also a passionate vegan and devotes several poems to animal rights issues.

His initial popularity was with the local West Indian and Asian community in Handsworth, where he developed a reputation for his outspokenness on controversial issues. By the time he was 22, though, he realised that he wanted to do more than just preach to blacks about the problems of black people, so he went down to London with a mission to change people's way of looking at poetry and the world around them.

As a natural performer he immediately shot to fame with numerous appearances at rock concerts, demonstrations and on TV. He has become something of an international envoy for reggae culture, with an official fan club in Malawi, a number one album under his belt in Yugoslavia and strong connections with South Africa, where he has worked on projects to help the schoolchildren in the townships. He hosted Nelson Mandela's Two Nations concert at the Royal Albert Hall in 1996, and in 1991 created another kind of record by performing his poetry in all five continents of the world in just 22 days. He has published over fifteen books of poetry, plays and radio and TV scripts, including a highly popular work for children called Talking Turkeys. This was in such demand that it had to be reprinted after only six weeks. Despite his impressive publishing history Benjamin Zephaniah is never-theless very much a performer and likes to appear in countries where there is a strong tradition of storytelling.

Here are two of Zephaniah's poems. The first, De Rong Song (The Wrong Song), is a protest against the way everyone is forced to live under pressure and the way people are told not to complain about their problems and the conditions they live in. It may sound familiar...

The last stanza aptly demonstrates the vicious circle we ar caught in! The next poem, White Comedy, suggests that racism is deeply embedded in language itself. In English there are many words and phrases containing the word "black", most of which have some negative connotation. Here Zephaniah has cleverly inverted some of these words with interesting effect. For all the words containing "white" in the poem, see if you can discover the meaning if they were to use "black" instead. Many of the "white" words do really exist and, of course, their meaning is more positive than the "black" words. For example, a white witch is a good witch who makes good spells; a black witch is involved in black magic. For those "white" words that don't exist, it shouldn't be too hard to work out the point that Zephaniah is making. Watch out for the nice little twist in the tail.

Steve Heighes