Sunday 17 December 2023

Eulogy: Benjamin Zephaniah


Photo taken backstage at Edinburgh International Book Festival

Eulogy: Benjamin Zephaniah

As read for The Black Writers Guild, Brixton, December 2023

I come with a few notes to say. A feeling to share. I come to show you some broken pieces. In fact I feel like a child showing you a broken thing. Yes. That is what this feels like. If you ask me to speak on the passing of Professor Benjamin Zephaniah I hurtle back in time and am reminded how it felt to be a child, like I am pointing to a hurt and broken world, and hoping an adult and grown up or someone in charge will come and kiss it better, glue it back together, make it whole again. The world is so scary right now. My heart is properly broken. Please excuse my clumsiness. I am not very good at this December. I lost sight of the lighthouse and I am rowing my boat in dark water right now. We lost Shane Macgowan. We lost Benjamin Zephaniah. Punk. Rasta. Ireland. Jamaica. Rebel. Anarchist. Activist. Big heart. Spirited soul. Trailblazer. Pioneer. This week is also the anniversaries of the suicide of my Irish father and the deaths of both of my grandmothers. May they all rest in peace, in power, in paradise. I need lots of Guinness and rum if you're asking. 

I have learned that when people go, your mind takes you back to the beginning of the story. You go back to when you first met them. So standing here to speak is not me, I am not here, it is not the 50 year old Salena, but standing before you is the 20 year old me. Fresh from Hastings. Leaping around early 1990's London like Tigger in Winnie the Pooh. The time before iphones and the internet. A city vibrating with grunge and punk and house and rave and drum n' bass and hip hop and jungle and reggae music. I was a kid that came to London as a seeker, wanting to know what this writing poetry stuff was all about and finding so much inspiration and fire and life in the poetry community, in the smoky back rooms of pubs, with velvet flocked wallpaper and thick sticky carpets, when we chain smoked fags indoors and nothing was really filmed or photographed. You had to be there. It was fantastic. We all belonged nowhere, but found home and family in poetry. I remember roaming London just looking for mischief and rebellion and books and parties and fun and hope and truth. Benjamin symbolised of all of this, this meaningful words place, this shape of things to come, this wave of courage and resilience, this bold and changing tide. So many of us have followed the path that Benjamin cut through, the path made by going first, by being the first, the path that is so well trodden now. Poetry back then was not what it is now. It wasn't really funded. (haha) It wasn't seen in the same way. Back then it seemed more DIY and home made, poetry was printed in photocopied zines and recorded on cassette tapes. I have boxes of these archives, scrap books of gig fliers and posters, poetry art and recordings. These spaces and stages and platforms were made for the love of it, for the passion of it. Everything we take for granted now was fought for. We can never forget that. 

Benjamin Zephaniah meant the world to me. And I know he meant the world to you too. He was like everyone’s big brother, a guide, a someone to look up to. I admire and love Lemn Sissay in the same way. I am honoured and humbled and feel very lucky to know so many great poets as mates for the thirty years I have been here in London doing this thing. Whatever this thing is. The bottom line is Benjamin was always gentle and kind to me. As Maya Angelou once said “We may not remember what people say or do but we remember how they made us feel” we never forget kindness. I never forget kindness. Benjamin welcomed me, he held the door open to me, this scrappy wide-eyed idealistic ska-punk potty-mouthed poet. 

Looking back now I learnt so much from Benjamin, I learnt how it feels to be regarded, to be seen, to be heard, how to dream bigger. We must copy this example, make space, fight for platforms, hold the door open. Hold the line.

Professor Benjamin Zephaniah was so many things to so many people, mentor, educator, hero, teacher and leader with integrity and spirit, he is soulful, warm and encouraging and generous in every memory I have stored. But above all that it is the laughter I keep returning to and his laughter that I want to bring your attention to. 

In one photograph I have shared online: we are recording an episode of BBC Radio 4's Loose Ends. It was Benjamin that started it and he isn't here to defend himself so I will blame it on him. We started mucking about and put our names on yellow post it notes on our chests, so they would remember our names. Then we swapped our name tags, Benjamin laughed, let's swap them, see if they mix the brown people up. We made the programme like this. Laughing. Benjamin with Godden on his chest. Me with Zephaniah on my heart. I don't think I ever took it off.

In every memory I have stored of Benjamin Zephaniah, he is cracking up laughing. He used to say my name, like this, he'd tilt his head, grin and crack up laughing, which would make me grin, and crack up laughing. This is my medicine right now, this is the medicine I want us to share, remembering his laugh, I share the memory of it and hold it. I replay it, his smile, his laugh, like the way you might play a piece of well-worn vinyl. I know every single one of you can remember it now, his laugh, his smile. I think that is what he would want us to to all do right now, and today, for us all to smile, hold space for his smile, the sound of his laughter, hold that, share that, in our minds and hearts. 

I was gonna write that I cannot believe I wont hear him laugh and say my name like that again. But I can hear it now and he's saying ok ok ok Salena that's enough. Let someone else speak. So I will go now. 

Viva Zephaniah! Viva the great poets! Viva the revolution! 

Photos taken whilst recording Loose Ends BBC Radio 4

Photo taken on set of the BAFTA award-winning Life & Rhymes
with Benjamin Zephaniah and Lemn Sissay

RIP Shane! This looks like it was maybe taken in 1990's Filthy’s, maybe, but that’s how I always remember seeing Shane, drinking at the bar of Filthy McNasty’s with Jock Scot, so here’s raising a glass to that love and laughter, and those raucous and colourful memories. photo: Danny Elwes, Evening Standard, 1994.

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