Artistic Photo of Benjamin Zephaniah

Benjamin Zephaniah at Malvern Festival of Ideas
Saturday 4 March 2023

Of all things, two sets of roadworks, creating looping re-routing, came as a bit of a struggle to “Malvern’s own” Benjamin Zephaniah on Saturday at the spa town’s 2023 Festival of Ideas.

His diverting visual presence – lean and fit frame; striking purple jacket and maroon fedora combo; signature calf-length dreadlocks – shouts loud from the crowd that shuffles into the Malvern Girls School venue, as the poet/author/actor/performer/professor/musician/activist (combine as you choose) eschews green room conventions to ensure fashionably on-time on-stage arrival, despite his diversion.

The day’s roadwork travails immediately transported Brum-born Benjamin to fond recollections of Summer holidays spent in the Hills with his four Zephaniah siblings – “Malvern was as far as we could afford to go” – citing barely any traffic, just as during those early Sixties days when street football games in Hockley were allowed to go largely uninterrupted, a now incredible picture to conjure up for the same quarter on the fringe of central Birmingham.  “Malvern’s own” though, said with a chuckle, is stretching it a bit.

Photo of Benjamin Zephaniah
Benjamin Zephaniah

Foil for this session is poet Liz Berry – herself truly meritorious of the “Black Country’s Own” parallel sobriquet – of Tipton vernacular and mellifluous tones, simultaneously contrasting and yet collaborating with Zephaniah’s deeper Caribbean Birmingham usages and accents, together, together, serving to keep the audience on its aural toes as they are indulged insights into what’s currently trying the loved lyricist’s mind.

Tai chi, jogging and a long-standing commitment to a vegan way-of-life (“I don’t eat anything that’s got a face”) have kept Benjamin sharp on his own toes, rooted and likewise light on his feet, those practices having allowed him to manage with a calmness the anger and frustration at the many injustices expressed through his poetry.

Children’s author, famously Peaky Blinders actor (and 1985 Eastenders – who’d have thought?), performance poet, it’s activism against all the prejudices and inequalities he sees that remains the constant theme of his life.

But having struggled with dyslexia, been subjected to systemic and individual racism, received the ‘prison or dead’ prophesy as he was expelled from school at 14 years of age, seen petty crime risk becoming a way of life, it is poetry – words – that have been the man’s redemption song.

And, markedly – and this is characteristic of many renowned poets, seemingly much more so than artists successful in other fields – Zephaniah rails against, on becoming successful, being subsumed by the system, being compromised by polite society, falling for fake fealty – “tea in Buckingham Palace?  I’d much rather be in Brum”.  His reggae, punk and dub roots are staying true, even if he shows reverence for fellow travellers and heroes such as Malcolm X, Maya Angelou, Tony Benn and personal correspondent Bob Marley – as well as, indeed, the joyful Liz Berry herself.

And “Stay in Birmingham” was his exhortation to an aspiring young poet, as much as “embrace your adversaries” and “remember kindness” were advised as means for overcoming whatever your own Babylon might be.

Happily signing a Cats Protection League sourced (£1, a bargain) recycled copy of his “Life & Rhymes of …” autobiography for one impertinent punter, the Struggle Goes On still for Benjamin Zephaniah, just as, through his work, he wants us to realise that the Struggle Goes On still for all of us.  A who responsible?

Unity. Peace. Dai M

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