Benjamin Zephaniah is a fascinating and exciting writer, singer, actor who holds provocative views for some and inspiring for others. He is one of those people who you can’t just ignore.
Born in Birmingham, he wrote poetry from an early age and was attracted to music which drew its influence from the music and street politics of Jamaica.
Of his many writings, his poetry and novels are aimed at children and young people though there is a wider context in that adults are encouraged to engage with the realism of the subjects. Nowhere does he ‘talk down’ to his audience and he tackles the issues of the real world and its conflicts and struggles at a local level.
Outside poetry and writing, he has recorded music which, like his writing, deals with gritty issues. He was responsible for an early tribute to Nelson Mandela and appeared in Peaky Blinders as the preacher Jeremiah, “Jimmy” Jesus. He has what some would think of as radical political views but which spring from a desire for justice, equality and reform in our society that many feel is vital if we are to become a harmonious and homogenous multi-cultural society.
It’s worth following him on his own website https://benjaminzephaniah.com/ which gives you an amazing insight into who he is and what he believes as well as access to his writings.
His picture of our multi-cultural and diverse society is expressed particularly in his poem The British. At a time when we are faced with an unprecedented influx of people from other parts of the world, especially Syria and now the Ukraine, it’s good to be reminded that Britain is shaped by people of diverse ethnicity stretching back to the Indo-European migration way back in the mists of time.
Very few of us could claim to be descended from the original British people (except, perhaps, the Welsh and Cornish). Even our Home Secretary, deeply involved in immigration matters, has a non-British background which brought her parents from Uganda to Hertfordshire. Her paternal grandparents came from Gujarat in India. I myself have some Irish ancestry which brought my great grandparents from West Cork to Glossop in Derbyshire.
This is one of the great components of our diverse and multi-cultural society.
It’s probably what really makes us ‘Great’.
Our story from pre-Celtic and Roman times is one of assimilation which brings enrichment, occasional tension, but there is always the possibility of celebrating difference by sharing common ground.
This is a big debate but Benjamin Zephaniah opens a window for us in his poem. It has humour which is always a good way of presenting complex matters but its message is powerful.
As he says himself, at the end, enjoy
Take some Picts, Celts and Silures
And let them settle,
Then overrun them with Roman conquerors.
Remove the Romans after approximately 400 years
Add lots of Norman French to some
Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Vikings, then stir vigorously.
Mix some hot Chileans, cool Jamaicans, Dominicans,
Trinidadians and Bajans with some Ethiopians, Chinese,
Vietnamese and Sudanese.
Then take a blend of Somalians, Sri Lankans, Nigerians
Combine with some Guyanese
And turn up the heat.
Sprinkle some fresh Indians, Malaysians, Bosnians,
Iraqis and Bangladeshis together with some
Afghans, Spanish, Turkish, Kurdish, Japanese
Then add to the melting pot.
Leave the ingredients to simmer.
As they mix and blend allow their languages to flourish
Binding them together with English.
Allow time to be cool.
Add some unity, understanding, and respect for the future,
Serve with justice
Note: All the ingredients are equally important. Treating one ingredient better than another will leave a bitter unpleasant taste.
Warning: An unequal spread of justice will damage the people and cause pain. Give justice and equality to all.