Photography: Ian Flanders

Benjamin Zephaniah

WoWFest18 @ Philharmonic Hall 20/5/18

Rastafarian wordsmith BENJAMIN ZEPHANIAH is in Liverpool tonight in support of his memoir, The Life And Rhymes Of Benjamin Zephaniah, but the event isn’t a simple history and a few readings. Zephaniah is a performer, so he performs, taking us on a journey through excerpts from his life interspersed with poems, with WowFest18’s theme of Crossing Borders at its core.

He begins with his mother, who saw a poster encouraging West Indians to come to Britain to live and work (I Love Me Mudder). He returns to the theme of the Windrush generation often, focusing on national events both past and present, and includes racist incidents from his own life, starting with being picked as cricket team captain at primary school when he hadn’t ever played the game and doesn’t like it (“really slow and reminds me of colonialism” – a witty observation that really hits home: no Lara, Lloyd, Sobers et al without colonialism?), and the racism to which he is now, after the 2016 referendum, being subjected for the first time since the 70s.

More challenging of the orthodoxy comes as he observes that secondary school taught him that Christopher Columbus “discovered” black people. He mentions that he was expelled from a few schools, with one teacher telling him he’d end up dead or serving a life sentence – words which eventually propelled him out of his bed and Birmingham hometown. He skates over the life he was leading – but it’s detailed in the book – merely stating that he left one ‘gang’ for another (London’s artistic community).

"Zephaniah is a performer, so he performs, taking us on a journey through excerpts from his life interspersed with poems"

After Us An Dem, and some shocking statistics on child poverty, illiteracy, women’s status and more, he returns to his mother’s decision to come to Britain and the repercussions this decision is having for the many who made it – and their descendants. Even people born here feel unsafe: “We don’t know what our final solution is going to be yet.” He’s been on planes carrying people who are being extradited, so he knows about what he speaks, and in The Death Of Joy Gardner observes: “She’s illegal, so deport her/Said the Empire that brought her”, words which, sadly, have a chilling pertinence today.

After a mood-lightening foray into veganism, travel broadening the mind, India’s sadhus and more, the performance part of the evening ends and it’s time for the Q&A.

Asked about Rastafarianism and weed, he explains that marijuana is a holy herb for Rastafarians, not a drug, but that he has liberated himself from both religion and weed via meditation: “I’ve learned to get high from breathing” – good advice for us all.

After Talking Turkeys, the night is over, but lines from Rong Radio Station linger during the walk home: “I was beginning not to trust me, in fact, I wanted to arrest me/I’ve been listening to the wrong radio station”, with their implication that we can re-tune that radio station to a more positive one. Turn on, tune in… activate.

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