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Benjamin Zephaniah hails the rising tide of poetry in lockdown

The poet, writer and musician enjoys listening to the 'fired up' generation
Benjamin Zephaniah

Poetry keeps rising up. And during lockdown young people who have something to say have given poetry a new lift. They are taking it to another level.

When I was young, there was Linton Kwesi Johnson, John Cooper Clarke, Jean Breeze and Porky the Poet (who is now Phill Jupitus). And when we would do gigs, the press would talk about poetry as the new rock’n’roll. We were selling out music venues better than some bands.

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There was no spoken word scene then. We literally created the spoken word scene you see today. That could be seen as a golden age for poetry and spoken word.

It was the Thatcher era, which coincided with the back end of the apartheid era. But some anti-establishment poets on both continents – especially in Britain and in South Africa – had nothing to write about when Thatcher and apartheid went. You got this vacuum.

Now, subject matters are much more varied. There’s this word intersectionality. Kids and young people connect things.

The Black Lives Matter movement is not just black people any more, because white kids see how it connects with them and how their silence makes the situation worse.

So they’re all connecting it, and it feels really different now. Much more international.

Take the coronavirus pandemic as an example. Look at where it’s worst: Britain, America, Brazil, India. And look at the leaders they have. All these strongmen leaders, these ultra-nationalist leaders who don’t tend to care about their population. Their priority is not to save their people. It is about economics and retaining power.

Then you go to the opposite end of the social spectrum. All these kids on the street want the opposite. They want to get together. They want to talk about love and multiculturalism and sharing music and sharing culture and openness and taking down borders, not putting up new borders.

The problem is that these strongmen are costing lives. But it’s going to change. And it is going to change because these young people are going to grow up and have positions of influence, and I hesitate to use the word power, but positions of power.

And the poetry of these people, and the fact young people now will listen to poetry just like they listen to music whereas a long time ago it was more of a minority thing, tells us that they are awake.

They are awake and their poetry is speaking from the grassroots. They are speaking from the bottom up. People are saying, this is my life, this is how I feel, this is the wayI express my sexuality, my gender, my race and I’m putting it in the public domain.

If you put your thing on YouTube – or you go on [TV show] Life and Rhymes – people take notice. They might see this person is saying something interesting. It may not be deeply intellectual or change the world, but it is their experience. And that’s all we have. We have our experiences that shape us.

I receive lots of poems and books. This morning I wrote back to somebody and said, that was a really good book of poetry but you’ve got to change the title because I’ve read about 20 collections called I Can’t Breathe. I understand though. It’s a powerful sentiment. People want to express their outrage.

There has been an explosion online and within the student community in my university there was a rise in people writing poetry or essays in the student newsletter about university life and racism. People are a lot more confident now.

What happened with George Floyd is that people were saying, that’s horrific, that’s terrible – but what’s happening here in London? What’s happening in Australia? All over the world people have looked at what’s happened in the United States and said, that is terrible, but we are not much better, are we? And now I’m gonna talk about it.

I listen to a lot of younger spoken-word artists and I get what they’re doing. It’s really good that they are so fired up. There’s another generation coming forward. There’s a poet on our show I really like called Kid Anansi. He really comes alight when he is performing and is a very thoughtful person. I remember feeling that same deep need to speak about what was happening to me.

When you come from a community that has no voice and is not being listened to, when you’ve had the kind of experiences I’ve had, you want to shout about it a bit, you know?

So I love that fire they bring. And I remember it. I still have a lot of it. That’s why I’m still here. That is why I’m still doing poetry.

Windrush Child by Benjamin Zephaniah is out now (£6.99)