AHEAD of today’s World Book Day, The Standard’s Anu Shukla spoke exclusively to renowned Birmingham poet, author and musician Benjamin Zephaniah about the impact literature has had on his life and the importance of inspiring young readers and writers.
Benjamin’s 2004 title Gangsta Rap has been relaunched because of its positive impact on young people and, widely read across UK schools, it also appeals to ‘troubled’ children who had a tough time fitting in.
Benjamin was just 13 years old when he was kicked out of school. Today he is Professor of Poetry at Brunnel University and writes books children can relate to so they can be inspired too.
He was a dyslexic child but his condition was dismissed by teachers who labelled him a ‘born failure’.
“I was excluded from school and some people thought that was the end of me – they put me on the shelf,” he said.
His inspirational book Gangsta Rap tells the story of troubled teen Ray who is expelled from school and finds solace in hip-hop and the artist Tupac.
Ray’s band, Positive Negative, reflects the idea of balancing the dynamics of such energies.
‘We all have positive and negative energies, but we just need to understand how to use them wisely,” added Benjamin.
Replace the hip-hop with reggae and aspects of the book reflect elements of Benjamin’s own life and the reality facing troubled young people today.
“If you find yourself on the street late at night with nothing to do then something is really wrong.”
“But it wasn’t just music though.
“Poetry also helped liberate me.
“In my book, Refugee Boy, the headteacher can see they’re not bad kids, it’s just the classroom environment is not working for them, so he sees another way of getting creativity out of them.”
Inspiring young readers and writers is a big part of Benjamin’s quest but he added: “A part of me is also saying to adults – try to understand what young people today are going through.
“Teachers are very restricted with the school curriculum because they have to teach in a particular way, but if they could be creative and they had the resources to be creative, then I think they would teach much better.”
Benjamin’s expansive repertoire contains several novels, children’s books, plays, poems, albums and acting roles, including in hit TV show, Peaky Blinders. He also became the first person after Bob Marley’s death to record a track with the Wailers, and since then, has used his influence to inspire youngsters to find their own forms of creative expression.
But despite the success you can tell he’s remained true to himself. It comes out in his Brummie accent and the transparency with which he dares to bare his soul.
His message to aspiring young writers is simple.
“First of all, don’t go with what’s fashionable and trendy to write.
“Write about what you feel passionately about, and if you write with truth and honesty, you will rise to the top.
“And try to be original.
“If you like Benjamin Zephaniah, that’s fine, be inspired by Benjamin Zephaniah, but don’t copy Benjamin Zephaniah, find your own voice.
“I get inspired by lots of people, but I have to find my own voice – it’s the most important thing.
“And remember, if writing isn’t your thing, then be a great reader because that’s also good for the soul.”