Benjamin Zephaniah

In the first of my explorations of poetry used in modern music, I will shine the light in the direction of top UK poet Benjamin Zephaniah.

Benjamin Zephaniah appeared on the first Imagined Village album, where he performed a retelling of the old English poem Tam Lin in words that would speak to our current times, picking up the hot potato of asylum and immigration.

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This was the first of Imagined Village’s three albums, and it seemed deliberate that for this first album they employed well-known names such as Billy Bragg and Paul Weller – great musicians and a little controversial.

Benjamin Zephaniah has never been one to shy away from controversy, but in the nicest and most morally upstanding of ways – namely his rejection of his OBE. “OBE” means “Order of the British Empire”. Zephaniah said, ‘Me? I thought, OBE me? Up yours, I thought. I get angry when I hear that word “empire”; it reminds me of slavery, it reminds me of thousands of years of brutality…’

Zephaniah was born in Birmingham – a diverse city in the south of England – and gained a keen audience among Afro-Caribbean and Asian people. However, he wished to reach a wider audience and so set off to London in search of riches, like so many characters in folk music and British history. Well, Zephaniah certainly did reach a wider audience after first publishing “Pen Rhythm” in 1980 and releasing an album “Rasta” in 1982. Nelson Mandela requested Zephaniah open The Two Nations Concert at The Royal Albert Hall in 1996. Zephaniah sat in on the Bloody Sunday inquiry, he wrote more poetry for adults, children and then four novels.

In 2015, Zephaniah called for Welsh and Cornish to be taught in UK schools, stating that these languages are a part of UK culture. An author, social commentator, poet, actor and playwright, Zephaniah has come a long way in 60 years and has played a crucial role in UK life. He has also impacted individual lives in his voluntary role on the streets of inner cities, talking to gang members, encouraging them to leave their criminal lives behind for a better life as he himself had done. As a dyslexic child, Zephaniah had left school at 13 and fell into crime. After leaving prison at the age of 20, Zephaniah taught himself to read and write, and to want more out of life – possibly his greatest achievement.

I love Zephaniah’s role on Imagined Village’s first album. As a fan of both Zephaniah and folk music, I was a happy chappy. Imagined Village set out to marry traditional British music with the cultural diversity that we are blessed with in the UK today. Band members include Simon Emmerson of the Afro-Celt Sound System, Johnny Kalsi of The Dhol Foundation and the Afro-Celts, renowned sitar player Sheema Mukherjee and Andy Gangadeen of The Bays, along with folk royalty Martin and Eliza Carthy and Chris Wood. Zephaniah was a perfect fit for Imagined Village and Tam Lyn Re-Told.

Benjamin Zephaniah’s new album “Revolutionary Minds” is a banquet of reggae, dub and politics. As an English teacher to Chinese students, I was happy and taken aback to hear Mandarin Chinese spoken as an interlude before the fourth track.

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Don’t be fooled by the laid back reggae beats and a track called “Hot Like Jamaica” where Zephaniah goes on a bit about a woman who is, um, hot like Jamaica. Don’t be lulled into any false sense of security because this album is full of POLITICS. Aborigines, LGBT, Stephen Lawrence and Palestine all get more than a mention, along with that longterm theme of Zephaniah’s, civil disobedience. Zephaniah once said that he tried to break one law every day – probably by lighting up the holy herb – but now he seems more concerned about people following their government blind; sheeple.  It’s worth a listen or six.

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Restavek; le choix

I will begin by giving the story in English. Nearly 200 years ago, the slaves of Haiti revolted and threw their colonial masters, the French, off their island. This is a cause for admiration and pride.

However, a documentary that has just been on the telly showed the Restavek – the slave children of Haiti.

I do not find it acceptable that children are thrown onto the streets because their parents are too poor to feed and clothe them, and so very young children become slaves. With a favourable exchange rate for making a real difference I have decided that the Restavek will have my attention, and I hope to draw other people’s attention to them.

Find out more at restavekfreedom.org

 

Leur peuple, les esclaves le seulement au monde

Dont qui ne restent plus avec des maîtres

Il y a presque deux cents années depuis l’île d’Haiti s’est libèré

Qui est une cause d’admiration et fierté

Admiration et fierté, admiration et fierté

Libèré du mal, de destruction, d’abuses

Admiration et fierté, admiration et fierté, admiration et fierté.

Une documentaire m’a reveilé un secret publique

Avec cette publicité je m’a decidé envoyer une chèque

Pour donner secours qui sont en besoin d’amour et du fric

Et aussi il m’a provoqué écriré des Restavek.

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A little bit about…

This is a little bit about my novel Coming Back To Life.

Initially I wrote this novel as a series of short stories but when a publisher – Steve Savage – read the stories he said if I write six more and turn the stories into a novel he would publish them.

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At the time I was working at a fairground. We had quiet times, such as school days, and so the bosses were happy for the staff to do other stuff as long as the working areas were tidy and we dealt with customers when they arrived. One woman was studying to be an accountant, one man was studying to be a pilot and I wrote a novel.

I set the novel in Stoke-on-Trent, which is a working class city in the middle of England. I was a student there, and I loved the down to earth nature of the people. I volunteered and worked with homeless people in Stoke, and so I have mentioned Hope Street – which is also the title of a Levellers song about people who live below the poverty line.

The stories in Coming Back To Life are either my personal history or the personal histories of several of my friends who came to the UK from Rwanda and Congo. I have also mixed in other stories that were in the news – or took place under the radar – at the time I wrote the novel. And so the lead character Danica is someone from a tough situation. She is from Toulouse in the south of France. At the time of writing, the ghettos in Toulouse had become no go areas for the police, and kidnappings and murders were an every day event. Danica could be seen as a freedom fighter, on the side of the innocent. Under the command of international crime lord Mr Gladstone, Danica is smuggled into England to escape the dangers she faced in Toulouse and Mr Gladstone puts Danica to work in Stoke-on-Trent.

The scenes in the novel were set in my dreams. I had many recurring dreams about an alternative cafe, a house on a coast and abandonned factories, and so I used these locations as the settings for John’s cafe, Hepburn’s grandmother’s home and a fight scene.

The chapter Three Frogs and a Red Bandanna is a nod towards Nick Burbridge whose band McDermotts 2 Hours wrote Blue Bandanna. Burbridge has supported my writing since 2003 and he has inspired so many people and bands such as the Levellers and Ferocious Dog as well as being an acclaimed poet and writer whose work is now on the GCSE exam paper. I’ve also inserted several people I know into the novel. The older couple on the last page are my parents. The young man in the first chapter in Dr Martens boots and a duffle coat is the Scottish script writer Chris Lindsay who has worked on Holby, River City and the film Cloud Atlas – a great friend who has stuck by me through everything.

I love playing with double meanings so I did a mini celebration every time I wrote a double meaning into Coming Back To Life. It was a joy writing this novel and fairly easy because it is a novel of mini stories instead of a novel with A and B story lines. For a reader, this means Coming Back To Life is easy to read. If a reader needs to read a chapter and then put the book down for several days – or weeks – there is no concern over forgetting details for the final pay off. The pay off is there, where Danica finds peace, but the pay off comes after an accumulation of events and stories, not details. Danica has a very happy ending.

I hope people have a good time reading this novel. It touches on real events that are often forgotten and it celebrates the family that people who have nothing make for themselves.

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Daffodils

The daffodils trembled behind me while my lily white hands were grubby from digging myself into a hole. Where did the daylight go? The sun, jaundiced in my memory, no longer lit the horizon. The disease of lost youth ate my heart. This existence is fallow, and the future seems barren. I’m not sure what my fate will be.

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The weight of loss fell down heavy on my shoulders. The hole grew bigger. Loss of life, with no one to call a friend and nothing left to inspire among the concrete and the benefits queue that lined the streets and the fat blackeyed drunk leaning on the pub’s doorwat. Digging, trying to find some sense of vitality. All that digging left me exhausted.

As I dug, I forgot to think. I simply kept digging, and then I fell.

The sky rose above me, breaking apart with gold highlights. With irises bulging, I saw above me the tree branching out into decoration, and home to several birds who sang in the morning, a chorus of life. The leaves moved as fresh air was breathed and the daffodils danced on the spot, rooted with loving care. Lying in the soft, warm earth womb I had made, I came into the world anew today.

 

 

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The Three Liars 3

‘You think we go?’ I looked to Ahmed and he looked away. Next to me, the young girl was trembling. ‘It will be OK,’ I told her. ‘OK.’ I put up two thumbs. Tears fell down her face. I repeated, ‘OK’ and gave the thumbs up again.

Of course she was not OK. How could I get her to understand that right now we had to work together and then everything will be OK. That’s what I meant. I knew from the past that it really will be OK, in the years to come, after so much time had passed, years spent in therapy with sympathetic but impotent doctors.

‘Nadia?’ I said to her. ‘I am here with you.’ I signalled for Ahmed to translate, but when he spoke to Nadia, he spoke harshly again. She was still shaking. I asked her, ‘Can I put my arm around you?’  I lifted my arm towards her.

‘No!’

I sat back.

‘You speak in English.’

Nadia stared at me. The old woman began speaking rapidly at me and Ahmed. She geatured past me at Nadia. She was demanding that Nadia answer her. The old woman grabbed at my arm and shouted at me. I looked to Ahmed for a translation, but he kept his gaze away from me, his hands in his pockets, looking to the distance of bombed out houses.

‘Ahmed, translate!’

Yet he did not. Instead, he turned to Nadia and barked a command at her. Nadia swallowed in air and then wailed. Instinctively, I went to hug her, but she pushed me away. She went to run to Ahmed, but he pointed for her to sit back down and he shouted, furious. It was then that I realised that Nadia’s masculine, big shoes belonged to Ahmed.

Ahmed lost it. He ran at Nadia and roughly unzipped her red puffer coat. We didn’t have to look to know that she was wearing a suicide bomber’s belt. I pushed myself between Ahmed and Nadia. Ahmed pushed me back.

‘She will go now,’ he said. ‘You make this happen. Maybe she go alive before, but now you make her die.’

‘No. No.’

I looked at Nadia. ‘No.’

Ahmed took his hand from his jeans pocket so we could all now see the detonator. My stomach lurched.

And then I lurched.

Ahmed fell underneath me. The old lady screamed and Nadia wailed again, louder and louder. Ahmed threw me off him, off the top of the first storey’s floor and onto the ground below.

It saved my life.

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The Three Liars 2

The young man stared at me. Like me, he knew that something was amiss. A young girl who no one knows who is wearing someone else’s shoes. The translator spoke to the girl, pointing to her shoes.

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I saw the girl’s body freeze for a moment before she answered. The translator said, ‘She not know who shoes. She find shoes.’

‘Her clothes clean, she is stranger, she find shoes…?’ I didn’t know what I was getting at. The girl was perhaps seven or eight years old, she was clearly terrified and alone. I put a hand on her arm and she flinched.

‘Sorry.’ I put my hands up to show her I meant no harm. ‘Sorry.’ I looked to the translator. ‘Where are her parents or friends? Where is she from?’

The translator spoke to the girl again, a little harshly I thought. I wanted him to ask her her name. Without asking her, he said, ‘Nadia.’ He saw my confusion and explained, ‘I asked her before.’

‘Ok,’ I nodded. The bombing only started half an hour ago, but everyone was already suspicious of everyone else. Usually the suspicion kicked on later, after people had got to safety. But that was before Bosnia, before warfare changed. Before Bosnia; before traffiking and slavery. I should trust my fellow escapees.

Everything was quiet. Among us and beyond us.

‘Safe?’ I didn’t know why I looked to the translator. He didn’t answer, so I thought I would offer my name to cross a bridge towards him. ‘I am Mathilde. Who are you?’

He barely looked at me when he said, ‘Ahmed.’

Of course. That was not his name, and Mathilde was not mine.

 

This is the second part of this story. The third and final part will be posted tomorrow.

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The Three Liars

My back was still hot as I slouched against the remaining wall of a first storey bedroom. Dust covered my coat. I’d had to sit down. The adrenaline now leaked out of my veins and I wheezed in chalky air. On my right, wedged between me and a young woman was a girl in a red puffer jacket, and to my left was an older woman – perhaps in her sixties or seventies – whose black hijab had been pulled out of place by falling debris. She now pulled it back into place. She looked to the young man who stood in front of us. He was translating the old woman’s words into English for me.

And I tried to speak to him in English so that he could tell her what I wanted to say, but the panic in my mind got in the way.

‘J’étais comme elle, au passé,’ I said. ‘Long time. In past. My home bombé.’

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I made the signs with my hands of things falling from tbe sky. I noticee that the girl next to me wasn’t talking. She was looking straight ahead, flicking a loose red thread with her fingers over and over.

‘Is she OK?’ I looked to the girl. ‘Are you OK?’

The only response from the girl was to flick the thread faster.

‘Her parents?’

The young man shrugged. With one hand in his pocket, he gestured with the other. He asked the old lady and translated her answer. ‘She say girl is not… She not live here. She not see her before.’

‘Vâchement?’ I frowned, and I turned again to the girl. Somehow, she had avoided all the dust. Her trendy canvas shoes seemed too big for someone of her age and height. The design on them was black and green. I leaned forward and pressed the end of her left shoe with my finger. The top of the shoe pressed down to the sole. Looking up at the young man, I said to him, ‘Can you ask her who shoes? They not girl shoes.’

The young man stared at me. Like me, he knew that something was amiss. A young girl who no one knows who is wearing someone else’s shoes.

This is the first part of a story based on q dream I had this week. The second part will be online tomorrow.

 

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