Rastafarian poet Benjamin Zephaniah wears it all on his sleeve: his politics, his veganism, and his dreadlocks. And he talks about it in a grammar and spelling all his own.
Kicking off Thursday evening at the Geneina Theater, the British-born Zephaniah delivers “Dis Poetry,” with a Jamaican accent. “For the uninformed,” he tells his audience, “dis is spelled D. I. S.”
Zephaniah’s act came as part of the Spring Festival organized by Al Mawred Al Thaqafy. He is Britain’s poster-boy for diversity, quite literally so, judging by the super-size billboard seen at the British Council. The poet himself proclaims Britain as “one of the only places that could take an angry, illiterate, uneducated, ex-hustler, rebellious Rastafarian and give him the opportunity to represent his country.”
The bit that does not make it to the back cover of his poetry books, like his latest “Too Black, Too Strong” is that he is “concerned that in the country of my birth, my rights are ignored.” From prisons to hospitals, says Zephaniah in the introduction, institutions in Britain do not recognize the Rastafarian way, and racism against African-Caribbean community persists. His struggle as poet is to “bring the margin to the center.”
“Rewriting” classics into parodies is one of the ways that Zephaniah overturns the center. The poet tells Daily News Egypt that he likes to “take something well-known and bring it up to date.” In his early writing, too, Shakespeare’s famous verse became “To free or not to free.”
Zephaniah gives a humorous introduction to every poem he performs at Geneina; sometimes this stand-up comedy falls flat. Introducing his poem “What’s dat got to do wid me?” Zephaniah speaks of a friend’s response to struggles worldwide, till he personally hits him on the head. The poem produces no such effect on the audience.
Other points do “hit one on the head,” such as a poem that addresses the racism inherent in the English language. In “White Comedy,” Zephaniah reverses the use of “black” and “white,” complaining “I waz whitemailed / By a white witch…” till he ends with “Don’t worry, / I shall be writing to de Black House.”
This man with an odd accent, odder spelling, and, in Cairo at least, the oddest hair, is still a curiosity; the kind of character that makes the “Oddly Enough” section of your Reuters news feed.
Zephaniah will also be the first to admit that there is something odd about governments like his own sponsoring artists like him and according them honors.
While Zephaniah, who turned down the Queen’s honor of the Order of British Empire, may not speak for the “empire,” a word that he connotes with slavery and brutality, he would nevertheless like to engage with and as part of Britain.
“I want to connect with people. My poetry is not really trying to impress diplomats or monarchy,” the poet said, “If Tony Blair likes my poetry; it’s just as if another guy likes my poetry. The point is to stay true to yourself.”
The business of poetry
“Most of my life is not writing poetry; it’s about running a business,” he says of deadlines and contracts. “Sometimes you haven’t finished the novel yet, but the publisher has already done the front cover. It’s in next year’s brochure, and people are buying it on pre-order.”
“I can’t remember the last time I just walked through the park and saw a bird and got inspired and wrote a poem about it. That’s what people do when they’re starting off, and I’d tell them to enjoy that, because I would love to have that time to do that.”
Aware of his own secure status, Zephaniah says, “I could write about flowers, but I’m not content (with that). I think I have to concern myself with the struggle of others. I have to remember where I came from and the people that I live with who still don’t have anything; in the area where I grew in Birmingham.”
His veganism makes him appear less than macho, a point he also addresses in his poetry. Yet Zephaniah is trained in martial arts in which he trained and practiced in China while also working on two novels, “Faces” and “Refugee Boy.” He has also released a CD called “Naked” with artwork provided by great British graffiti artist Banksy.
Yet this diverse and well-versed (pun intended) individual is in fact a reject student.
“I used to say that I failed school, but now I say that school failed me,” Zephaniah tells Daily News Egypt. “I was always a bit of a rebel,” he admits, but sometimes he was chastised for challenging teachers, for example, when he was taught Christopher Columbus “discovered” blacks.
“I knew more about black history than my teacher, so I had to teach my teacher. I got expelled for that.”
“You educate to liberate,” says Zephaniah, who is nevertheless passionate about education. But he insists on “the right kind of education,” engaging with the Open University in Britain to bring people, young and old, back to education.
“When I was younger, teachers could get away with a lot of racism,” he says. While at that time, he enjoyed being sent off to play football if he struggled in class. Now, Zephaniah feels wronged by the stereotype that blacks are better at sports, and whites at academics.
As a former rabble-rouser, Zephaniah is still not welcome at his last school in Britain from which he was expelled at age 13. When BBC made a program about the poet, “they wouldn’t let me in the school. But in the school they’re teaching my books,” he says. “It’s ironic.”
“They just said ‘Go away! You are uneducatable, you are a problem.’ In fact they said I was a born failure and I’m never going to come to nothing. I’m either going to end up dead or doing life in prison,” Zephaniah recalls.
“Schools that threw me out, schools that rejected me, those very same schools that are now teaching my poetry,” Zephaniah triumphantly says.
Ironic, too, that at an event co-sponsored by the British Council, some of the most powerful lines he delivers come from an otherwise average performance of his poem, “Naked.”
“I hate the government as much as I hated the one before it / An I have reason to believe / That I will hate the one to come.”
One hopes that the irony does not simply pass for comedy, and that his criticism is not simply seen as a sign of the broad-mindedness of its sponsors.
For more on Benjamin Zephaniah, visit http://www.benjaminzephaniah.com/
Published online at Daily News Egypt on May 17, 2010.