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In tribute to the much-loved Birmingham poet, activist and actor.

An afternoon celebrating the power of poetry, music and art in tribute to Benjamin Zephaniah.

The special line-up of guest artists includes Birmingham Poet Laureates, Casey Bailey and Jas Gardosi and you can also enjoy family-friendly activities in MAC’s public spaces.

All ages are welcome for this celebration in MAC's Outdoor Theatre.

In partnership with the Black British Book Festival and with kind permission of the Benjamin Zephaniah Family Legacy Group.

All ticket proceeds will be gifted to MAC’s Every Child campaign, which gives free tickets and opportunities to young people facing barriers to the arts.

Please note that this is an outdoor show so please check the forecast and come prepared with sun hats, sun cream or warm/waterproof clothing.

A celebration of the life and work of the late Benjamin Zephaniah will take place at Birmingham’s Midlands Arts Centre in September. What’s On recently caught up with three people involved in the event - Selina Brown, of The Black British Book Festival, and two Birmingham Poets Laureate: Casey Bailey and current incumbent Jasmine Gardosi...

Benjamin Zephaniah, writer, dub poet, musician and Professor of Creative Writing at London’s Brunel University, grew up in the Handsworth area of Birmingham, where the seeds of his life in poetry were planted. His first book of poetry, Pen Rhythm, was published in 1980, with his first album, Rasta, hot on its heels - the beginnings of a career which crossed genres. 

Zephaniah was a steadfast activist, an anti-racism and animal rights campaigner, a vegan, and a self-proclaimed anarchist. His death at 65, in December last year, was unexpected, and prompted an outpouring of tributes from admirers around the country. 

In his home city in September, Midlands Arts Centre (MAC) will host an event in his name, ‘celebrating the power of poetry, music and art’. 

The family-friendly celebration will take place at the venue’s outdoor theatre and feature a line-up of guest performers. Selina Brown, the founder of The Black British Book Festival (Europe’s largest Black literature festival), has been one of the people involved in curating the event, alongside MAC's Performing Arts Programmer, Jo Carr. 

“I think one thing for me that kind of speaks to Benjamin Zephaniah is how unapologetically Black he was,” Selina says. “How unapologetic he was about equality, how unapologetic he was about his veganism, and taking care of the planet. He just stood in his truth, always. He was not afraid in any platform, whether it was through poetry, whether he was doing dub - in all of that he spoke his truth with passion, and when he spoke, people listened.”

One of the ways Zephaniah has become so widely known is through his celebrated works for children - both poetry and prose - which have been passed down through generations, including to Selina’s own children: “I’m a children’s author myself - we actually share the same literary agent! I just feel like his poetry was what stood out for me, his Jamaican roots, his Rastafarian roots, the fact that I could feel the essence of home, of my grandma, when he spoke.”

Zephaniah performed at MAC numerous times, and Selina maintains that the arts centre offers a perfect venue to celebrate his life and values.

“It’s deliberately outside, in MAC’s amphitheatre, because we know that Benjamin loved nature. In order to have his essence there, we’re having it outside, we’re having drummers, we’re having workshops, we’re having vegan food the whole day at the Kiln cafe - we’re really honing in on his essence. We’re going to have pictures - an exhibition from his family that hasn’t been displayed before. It’s just a vibrant day for people to pay honour to him.”

It also provides an opportunity for local artists to celebrate a Birmingham legend.

“We really want to hone in on the fact that Benjamin was from Handsworth in Birmingham, and he was passionate about being a Brummie - so we want that local feel to it. We have amazing artists in the line-up; various artists who have been influenced by his work.”

Two of these performers are Birmingham Poets Laureate: Casey Bailey, who was Poet Laureate until 2022, and Jasmine Gardosi, who currently holds the post. Both first felt Zephaniah’s influence in school English lessons. In fact, both poets remember his Talking Turkeys, a playful and rhythmic poem which appeals for turkeys’ right to life at Christmas.

Jasmine recalls: “A lot of poetry to me at that point existed as black ink on white paper; this was the first time I heard a poem out loud and experienced it in a three-dimensional space.”

Casey thinks he knows why Zephaniah’s poetry has such an immediate impact on so many: “He has this ability to write things that, on first listen, if you’ve never listened to poetry before, make sense to you. If you’re someone who really dissects poetry and takes it really seriously, there’s another layer there for you as well.”

Zephaniah’s legacy reaches beyond his writing to his willingness to be authentic; and his authenticity was so different to that of other famous figures in the world of poetry.

“He leaned into his difference,” says Jasmine.  “He hasn’t ever tried to mask or simulate. I think there’s a huge temptation for us to do this, whether it’s a temptation to code-switch when it comes to race or accent or how we speak, or if it comes to sexuality or gender identity. I have found myself masking for many, many years of my life. What Benjamin did was, he was very gently himself.”

It is perhaps not a coincidence that Birmingham has a thriving poetry and spoken-word scene.

“You can go to Poetry Jam at Symphony Hall, you can go to The Bristol Pear in Selly Oak... there are lots of different poetry nights,” explains Casey. “You’ve got the Verve poetry night, which runs in the Jewellery Quarter. There are just so many routes if you’re a poet in Birmingham. It’s one of the best places in the country for you to be a poet, because there are places for you to share your work, there are groups you can be a part of.”

“Birmingham’s poetry community is an exact reflection, I think, of what Benjamin stood for and nurtured and appreciated and valued,” adds Jasmine. “A community of love, of support, of principle, of care, of standing up to things, of looking at power structures or infrastructures and thinking ‘How can they be better?’”

Poetry is an egalitarian artform, built around human communication - whether in speech, or the written word.

“You don’t need an instrument,” says Jasmine. “You don’t need to have a dancer’s body or flexibility; you don’t need to be able to sing - I can’t sing! I don’t think that’s just what poetry is, though; I think poetry is telling a truth. It’s also a playground for language… it’s so many things.”

While Zephaniah’s legacy stretches beyond his poetry, his poems continue to have a great deal of influence.

“There’s layers of inspiration,” says Casey. “Lots of us either wouldn’t be writing, or there wouldn’t be the strength of the scene that there is, or we wouldn’t feel like we have the space or the permission to write, without poets like Benjamin Zephaniah saying ‘This artform is for all of us.’ His biggest impact, in my opinion, is on the poets - especially from Birmingham, especially poets of African Caribbean origin in the country. We can look and see: that is an absolute poetry icon who looks like me. That means something, and that’s important.”

Selina shares a final thought, looking forward to the celebration. “I’m excited for everybody to be there, coming together with one aim, one mission, which is the love of Benjamin. Everybody is there to celebrate him. Hearing the artists, hearing his work being recited, everybody sharing the memories, the way he touched them - having that communion, that gathering; I think that’s beautiful. I just can’t wait for that to happen.”

Benjamin Zephaniah: A Celebration will be held at Midlands Arts Centre (MAC), Birmingham, on Sunday 1 September.

by Jessica Clixby

on Mon, 01 Jul 2024

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