Celebrated poet, writer, musician, activist and actor Benjamin Zephaniah has shared advice with students at De Montfort University Leicester (DMU) about surviving in the creative industry.
Zephaniah posing with DMU students Andre and Lydia
Final-year students from the Leicester Centre for Creative Writing at DMU learned about Zephaniah’s challenges as a young Black man before rising to fame in the early 1980s, when his poetry resonated with people protesting about sus law (a stop and search law), high unemployment, homelessness and the National Front.
Once considered Britain’s most identifiable poet due to his stage and television performances of dub (reggae) poetry, Zephaniah spoke about being born and raised in Birmingham, in a household where reading was not encouraged.
At school, he faced racism from both teachers and children, recalling: “I’m severely dyslexic, but back then it was dismissed as ‘my kind being better at sports’, so I was sent outside to play football by myself.
“It was at the time that boxer Muhammad Ali was doing really well and I think I was the only Black person who didn’t want him to win, so I wouldn’t have to fend of groups of kids wanting to fight me at school.”
Although writing poetry was a way for Zephaniah to escape the racism he experienced, leaving school at 13 without being able to read or write led to him down a dangerous path of crime.
He said: “My biggest achievement in life was lying in bed one night and deciding I had to leave my life of crime and gangs behind me as it would only lead to death or a life sentence.
“I headed down to London with just £50 in my pocket and after doing a few live shows I joined another gang. This time it was with creatives like Dawn French and Rick Mayall.”
Removing himself from a toxic environment is what changed Zephaniah’s life, leading to a successful career ranging from live performances to book and music album deals.
“If you want to write poetry you can be a banker or a cleaner – do it because you love it, to express yourself and because it’s good for your mental health,” he told students.
“If you want to make it a career out of it you have to be original. Be true to yourself and don’t follow trends. The greatest thing a man or woman can do is to think for themselves.”
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Zephaniah also gave career-minded students advice on the importance of tailoring performance poems for the written page, hiring a great editor, being prepared for the business side of it all, understanding how to read a contract and learning how to protect your work in the public domain.
Drama Studies and Creative Writing student Jack Wilkin attended the talk, saying: “I got to see Benjamin Zephaniah in my first year at DMU, so to see him in my final year has rounded off my university experience.
“He is so inspiring and fascinating that it has given me a refreshed perspective on what we, as creative makers, can do.”
Creative Writing and English students Lydia Bell and Andre Cowen also left feeling inspired.
“The advice he offered about learning to think for yourself is not just good for writers, it’s good life advice. I feel really uplifted after his talk and I enjoyed getting to know the person he is and how he got to where he is now,” said Lydia.
Andre said: “It was good to hear that you don’t have to be from a privileged background to be talented and have success. He has been an idol to me since school, so finding out how down to earth he is was really nice.”
Posted on Monday 26th February 2018