Spoken word review: Benjamin Zephaniah, Queen's Hall, Edinburgh

The literary gig, an 'audience with' with pretensions is a relatively new phenomenon, at least on tour, remaining rare outside of festivals. So few writers have the general appeal, stagecraft and wit to command an audience for any length of time, especially when plugging of the latest tome is fulfilled.

Benjamin Zephaniah
Benjamin Zephaniah

The Life and Rhymes of Benjamin Zephaniah, Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh ***

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The mercurial Benjamin Zephaniah is a case apart, however. His singular career has spanned poetry, music and activism, with detours into acting and academia. And he’s really lived a life less ordinary – from teenage jailbird to celebrity role model, embraced by the British Establishment, even if he hasn’t always reciprocated.

His scepticism about the necessity of his memoir, The Life and Rhymes of Benjamin Zephaniah, is unfounded, not least as the recent immigration row has highlighted the struggles of the Windrush generation. Focusing on the racism he suffered in his youth, his empathy for troubled young black men drawn into crime is particularly strong. The poems illuminate the biography more than viceversa. And Zephaniah goes right back to the start, declaring his love for his mother in verse written when he was just eight.

His relationship with his abusive father and the masculine model he inherited is more problematic, introducing a spikier tone that’s sustained through his thoughts on failing education systems, the Middle East conflict and any number of other issues, though he is warmly coercive in pushing veganism and wry on his spiritual travels. As an advert for his autobiography, the evening worked well. But with only half a dozen poems and the merest scratching of his relationship with Nelson Mandela for example, it ended too soon.