Rachel Willcocks and Sinead Russell look back at the life, work and impact of Benjamin Zephaniah and his friendship with the British Council.
Until his recent death, Benjamin Zephaniah, British-Caribbean Brummie, Rastafarian, dub poet, actor and writer, was an influential activist and creative powerhouse.
A 'rebellious Rastafarian', Benjamin and the British Council were perhaps an unlikely pairing - not exclusively because his poems were often political. However, Benjamin was one of the British Council's most popular cultural ambassadors. He was involved in many of our programmes over the years (since the 1980s) across all areas of the organisation in arts, English and education. He even wrote a poem for our 85th-anniversary celebrations!
In 1990, a young Benjamin Zephaniah performed in Frankfurt at a major British Council festival called British Writing Today. It was one of his earliest trips with the British Council, but it became one of many to come. Later, he travelled with us to places such as Argentina, Malta, Germany, Nigeria, Brazil, and Egypt and to places further afield, including Uzbekistan, Libya, Seychelles and Papua New Guinea, acting as Master of Ceremonies at our awards ceremonies, performing for schoolchildren and gripping audiences with a fiery passion and captivating spirit.
In his autobiography, Benjamin wrote, 'Travel has always been key to what I do. Not having had a good formal education meant I worked hard to make up for it by meeting people and learning from them…Soon after I started travelling the world to perform, I had a conversation with my mum and we realised I was the most travelled person in the entire history of our family.'
Stories from colleagues about Benjamin's down-to-earth manner show he was loved by many he came into contact with worldwide. His involvement with the British Council and wider contribution to the world did so much to change perceptions of ‘Britishness’, representing a new multicultural and spirited version of British culture.
In an interview with High Profile, Benjamin said, 'I do a lot of work for the British Council, and a lot of people there are just as rebellious as me. They think: If we didn't work here, everyone in Africa would probably think that British culture is still ballet and opera. What we do now is take out reggae and hip hop, you know?'
Benjamin declined his nomination for the Queen's Honours List but was often referred to as 'the People's Poet', his words and rhythm became embedded in the hearts and minds of many. Despite being dyslexic and having left school unable to read and write properly, he held a handful of honorary degrees and, in 2008, was included in The Times list of top 50 post-war writers. Equally as powerful, many people speak of his kindness and the joy he spread with his words. He will be missed dearly.
If you're looking for recommendations of where to start with Benjamin Zephaniah's work, our Head of Literature, Sinead Russell shares some of her top picks:
Benjamin's writing was diverse and wide-ranging; he wrote in many different forms – poetry, novels, non-fiction, and books for young people and adults, which makes it a real challenge to pick favourites. The list below is my personal highlights, but time reading any Benjamin Zephaniah book, in my view, is time well spent.
The Life and Rhymes of Benjamin Zephaniah: The Autobiography (Simon and Schuster, 2018)
Benjamin lived a fascinating life, and his autobiography is a great way to get to know the man behind the art. It starts with his childhood in Birmingham, his struggles at school with dyslexia and racism, and his troubled teenage years. It goes on to describe his political activism and global adventures, as well as his encounters with figures like Nelson Mandela. It’s also a chance to learn about Benjamin's first of many engagements with the British Council; the book includes a description of his surprise when British council representatives responded positively to his ‘angry, ranting performance’, which was often critical of the UK establishment, and describes the cultural ties he was able to build in places he wouldn't otherwise have had the chance to visit, such as Libya.
Talking Turkeys (Puffin, 1994)
The title poem of Benjamin's very first poetry collection for children is very appropriate for this time of year, offering a turkey's perspective on Christmas day in a humorous but powerful way, reflecting Benjamin's commitment to a vegan diet. I can remember talking to colleagues in countries around the world as they investigated where might be an appropriate restaurant to host their VIP guest. The poems in Talking Turkeys reflect Benjamin's wider work in the dub poetry style he was famous for and are accessible, entertaining, and humorous, but at the same time, address some deep and serious topics.
Refugee Boy (Bloomsbury, 2001)
What is it like to have to leave the place and people you know and start again? Benjamin's novel for older children tells the heart-rending tale of 14-year-old Alem, who finds himself alone in London after civil war breaks out in his home of Ethiopia and Eritrea and follows him as he navigates the UK care and justice systems. A touching, humorous and devastating book which builds empathy and understanding, and which is sadly as relevant now as it was when it was first published.
Too Black, Too Strong (Bloodaxe, 2001)
It was tricky to choose one of Benjamin's poetry collections above the others, they are all worthy of selection for one reason or another. In the end, I selected Too Black, Too Strong because the book is a perfect snapshot of Benjamin's passion for social justice and the way he used his work to put a spotlight on issues such as racism, with his poetry as activism. In the intro, he writes: '… I think it is my duty to travel the world for The British Council and other organisations, speaking my mind as I go, ranting, praising and criticising everything that makes me who I am, but this is what Britain can do. It is probably one of the only places that can take an angry, illiterate, uneducated, ex-hustler, and give him an opportunity to represent the country…Here is a poet who won't stay silent. I live in two places, Britain and the world, and it is my duty to question and explore the state of justice in both of them.' The collection includes the famous poem 'What Stephen Lawrence has taught us', reflecting on the racist murder of the Black teenager Stephen Lawrence in London in 1993 and its aftermath.
Also, if you have the chance, please check out some of the many excellent online recordings of Benjamin performing his work – the words take on a presence of their own when you hear them in his voice. To start, you can hear five poems in Benjamin’s own voice at the Poetry Archive.
Watch Benjamin read out the poem he wrote to celebrate 85 years of the British Council.