The Life and Rhymes of Benjamin Zephaniah

I am not sure what I was expecting when I began reading this autobiography, but it certainly was not what I absorbed. I suppose I had been reductive in my perception of Benjamin Zephaniah. I saw an older rasta gentleman with useful insights about society, race and politics. What I did not see was one of the most influential figures of British culture, with a reach spanning decades. 

I suppose what this book reminded me was how little space we give to recognise people as being on a journey. When I saw an older gentleman, it did not occur to me to leave space for the journey to this age, the lives that had been lived up until this point, the experiences which shape a person like this. Nor did I appreciate the sheer number of accolades this man has deservedly received. 

This book can only be described as refreshing. The tone was as conversational as the methodology from which it emerged. I can believe that Zephaniah orated his story while someone frantically typed to catch every gem as it poured from his mouth. As effortless as his poetry is his ordering of thoughts. There is a unique combination of themes and chronology in the retelling of his life. The reader feels the passage of time, but also the change in locations, the maturing of the man and the changing environments. There is a beauty to this. We travel with him, evolve with him and learn with him. 

The reflective tone of the book also helps the reader feel a profound sympathy for Zephaniah. While we might not always approve of his life choices – not that he defends them all – we understand where his decisions came from and the pressures which at point forced his hand. I was glad that he was not falsely imprisoned for murder, even though I know he had no business being in that stranger’s car boot in the first place. 

I have to say that part of me wants to exist in the Britain he describes. A place with pockets of radical energy, where artists live together in a co-op to pursue and progress their work. This is not a Britain I have ever experienced and I do predict that it is to the detriment of our activism sphere. The book encouraged me to hold out (and push) for the recreation of radical pockets of organising to challenge the sociopolitical tide we see. Ultimately, this book offered me a spark of hope. For that, thank you Mr Benjamin Zephaniah. 

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