The Life and Rhymes of Benjamin Zephaniah: The Autobiography

by Benjamin Zephaniah

Scribner, £20

Review by Brian Morton

Like Billie Holiday before him, Miles Davis used to pretend that he had not read, let alone written, his own autobiography. Holiday’s starkly dramatic memoir was ghosted by the journalist and activist William Duffy, while Miles: The Autobiography was apparently based on conversations with the poet and lyricist Quincy Troupe. It isn’t just the awkwardly tacked-on and unnecessary subtitle of Benjamin Zephaniah’s memoir that prompts a niggling unease. The tone is awkward, too.

Zephaniah explains his own resistance to the autobiographical form, denouncing it as “fake” and a cover either for special pleading, oversharing or the inflation of a very minor talent. He’s probably right about that. He admits to having his head turned by a friend in publishing and then by a journalist from Shrewsbury called Andy Richardson, who transcribed a series of interviews with the performance poet. There’s no further mention of Richardson, certainly not as a ghost writer or editor, but one can’t help feeling that book owes too much to those notes, particularly in some of the later, very short chapters which feel like they’ve come straight off a tape machine.

Lack of sound editing has often been a problem for Zephaniah. His first collection Pen Rhythm was the work of a man who didn’t yet know the publishing business, and, intriguingly, he explains here why his second book The Dread Affair came out without editorial invention. As he says, with no real attempt at modesty, his new publishers treated him a little like “a god”, untouchable, and put out the poems pretty much as they received them. There may be some truth in this. Zephaniah would be most casual reader’s first choice as the voice of black militancy and Rastafarianism in Britain, as well as a spokesman for such causes as veganism, republicanism and proportional representation, dyslexia, and reform of the honours system. He is a Rasta who no longer smokes, and the statute of limitations means that the criminality that dominates the early chapters of The Life and Rhymes, apart from those episodes which did result in approved school and borstal, has now lapsed.

It most certainly won’t do to describe Zephaniah as an establishment figure now. He has, admittedly, rubbed shoulders with Tony Blair and Robin Cook as well as with Nelson Mandela and (at a certain distance) Bob Marley. Zephaniah declined an OBE, but has accepted honorary degrees. He was once touted for a Fellowship at Trinity College, Cambridge, but following a Sun editorial worthy of the Deep South (“Would you let this man near your daughter?”) the idea was quietly dropped. He is a radio-friendly voice, even though what he describes is often disturbing. There is a strangely chilling account here of the day when he looked after the child of white friends and was questioned by the police – such encounters are a running thread – while a crowd gathered. He asks whether the sight of a white man with a black child would receive the same attention, and it’s difficult to know how to answer him.

I first saw Zephaniah perform, alongside Attila the Stockbroker, Seething Wells and Richard Jobson, at one of Michael Horovitz’s Poetry Olympics events. He was blown off the stage, though, by another West Indian poet called Michael Archangel, whose “The Wearing of the Tams” and masked recitation (he wore the hat of the title pulled down over his face; common practice to avoid police identification) stays with me to this day. More than anything of Zephaniah’s. The next time I heard his name, I was reading “Be nice to yu turkeys dis Christmas, / ‘cos turkeys just wanna hav fun. / Turkey are cool, turkeys are wicked, / and every turkey has a mum”. Despite my cod Barbadian accent, it worked. No turkey – bronze, wild or Bernard Matthews – ever again darkened our Christmas dinner table.

It is perhaps ironic, and a little diminishing, that Zephaniah’s best-known work is for children. His novel Face came out in both children’s and adult editions. If it seems unlikely that a white man my age can recite angry Rasta poetry, I can still make a fist at some of the tougher lyrics from City Psalms and Propa Propaganda, both of which came out on Bloodaxe, an imprint that understands poets and poetry publishing. Perhaps unfortunately, and perhaps has a result of his dyslexia, Zephaniah has never quite decided whether he is a poet at all, or perhaps more of a reggae artist. He was encouraged by Bob Marley’s letter to “forward on”, which he has done, manfully. He has had much more than racism to put up with, not least infertility and a curiously painful divorce. Like the incident with the white child, and the strange image of him and his wife Amina trading karate and kung fu kicks, this section was genuinely hard to read. He has been able to work with the reformed Wailers (which means he took Marley’s place in the front line); he was a major star in Yugoslavia; and a combination of wanderlust and British Council support has allowed him to criss-cross the world. And yet there is something poignantly lost about Benjamin Zephaniah. He seems ill-at-ease in the world and to have had fame thrust upon him.

It is his real name. Benjamin Obadiah Iqbal Zephaniah was given to him in church. His rhyming came from his mother, though. In that sense, he is more like Miles Davis than like Billie Holiday, and his life has been blessed by it, even when most turbulent. The prophet Zephaniah warned Babylon of her coming destruction, and that the cormorant and the bittern would lodge in her lintels. It’s unfair to suggest that Benjamin Zephaniah’s totem is a table bird, but it’s hard now to get past those turkeys and find the sorrow-singer within.