Benjamin Zephaniah, outspoken word artist

Be nice to your turkey this Christmas

Benjamin Zepahaniah (1958-2023), British Carribean dub poet, actor, recipient of no fewer than 16 honorary doctorates, professor of poetry and creative writing, left us yesterday. Already gone. But his work lives on. He encouraged people to read and he made people listen.

He has always provoked surprise and reflection when I have shared his poetry in class. Now may be a good time to pass this on. The following description is of one 50-minute lesson from the English as a Foreign Language classroom with an optional development. The original lesson was part of a sequence on British Carribean voices, but I have reworked it a little in view of the poet’s passing. The idea is to give students the keys to Zephaniah’s work – origins, language, style, tone – so they will be able to continue exploring it for themselves.

Screenshot from

Born in Handsworth

If you want to invite your class into the world of Benjamin Zepahaniah, then play this reggae song gently as people come into the room. Turn it up a little when you’re ready to start and want people to focus on it. Let the comments and the questions come. Invite interpretations of the sort of place the music suggests. Then turn the music down and think of a way to share some of the following :

This is a reggae song, and makes us think of the Carribean, or specifically Jamaica. This may conjure up images of a beach and palm trees, or something more urban with guns and Kingston gangland scenes, a shantytown, or Rastafarians with their dreadlocks. In fact, this song was released by Steel Pulse, a British-born reggae band, in 1978. They were from Birmingham, the UK’s second city. More specifically, they were from the city’s Handsworth district where a large proportion of the population were of Carribean descent. Steel Pulse had just played support on Bob Marley’s UK Tour, which was big news. They would have been the children or the grandchildren of the Windrush Generation, but Handsworth had a long history behind it connected to the Industrial Revolution through the great Scottish inventor, James Watt, who lived and died in Handsworth. The song is called Handsworth Revolution and says that the world may crumble and fall, but Handsworth will stand strong. 1978 was the year of another release : a young man of Carribean descent was released from prison for minor crimes, one more time, and he decided enough was enough. His name was Benjamin Zepahaniah. 2 years later, he decided to leave Handsworth at the age of 22 for London to become a full-time poet. He started by writing and performing for adults, but gradually realized that poetry could reach people of all ages.

Talking Turkeys

Talking Turkeys 1

Get ready to show this video of the performance of one of his best-known poems, and typical of his light seriousness. The video was posted in 2012, but the poem is from 1994. Introduce it as a Christmas poem – we are in December, after all. Maybe anticipate ingredients we expect find in a Christmas poem. Here’s a selection : turkey, Christmas dinner, Christmas TV, family meal, giving presents, sharing with others… Depending on your class, this may give you different things. Show it once to the class and and get them to see if he mentions any of the Christmas things suggested by the class. Follow this up by asking for impressions of the performance, the poet’s attitude and say who he may be speaking to.

In fact, in the video, he is speaking to children in a literacy project called Literacy Evolve1. Benjamin Zephaniah spent a lot of his life spreading the word about poetry to people who might never come across it otherwise, not only youngsters but also people in prisons who never learnt to read and write properly. He gave out dictionairies, ran writing workshops and encouraged others to speak out about their feelings and experiences through poetry.

Pick out things which tell you he may be speaking to kids. This could be a number of visual and non-verbal elements – facial expression, exaggerated body movements, deliberate rhythm, mysterious tone – as well as verbal ones – words are clearly enunciated, he wants to be understood.

Reading Zephaniah

Give out copies of the text which you can download here.

Let the class read it through silently and then ask volunteers to read aloud verses one and two. Some students are surprised at how easy they find it to read the text – It flows, is how they put it. Spelling will inevitably be mentioned. Get students to pick out things which surprise them in the way they are written. In one class, these observations came up : christmas with a small c is funny – Yu is the spelling used for you and your like in a rap song Yu is cool because it highlights the u which is also the sound of the word itself when you say you And is never and but always an, reflecting the pronunciation of the trailing d at the end – Have loses an e in hav like it does in a text message

Poetry is language under pressure, pushing language to new places. Showing the text after hearing the poem performed prevents the observation that the author can’t spell, and invites people to notice that, far from being full of mistakes, this text reveals a new system of spelling. Zephaniah himself suffered at school because he was dyslexic and always found himself at the back of the class with bad results, but as a poet he makes his own rules.

He also grew up in a Caribbean community in the UK, because his father was a postal worker from Barbados, and his mother a nurse from Jamaica, so Creole would have been familiar to him. In Jamaican Creole, words with a th which is pronounced /ð/ in standard English, such as the, they, them, get the same sound pronounced /d/, and Talking Turkeys systematizes this in its spelling by having a d written instead of th for all occurrences of /ð/. His written style reflects the influences of dyslexia and Creole, while also being a written representation of his performative oral style. For Benjamin Zepahaniah, his poetry reflects who he is, and the words on the page seem to be just waiting to be performed.

Check out the photo of the board as an example of what a class can said about the use of language from such a quick reading of Talking Turkeys.

Comparing performances

Finally, it’s important to underline that, although he reached out to children with his work, he also performed for older audiences. Here’s a second performance of the same poem. Identify the differences.

In this second performance, we see the confidence of the artist on stage in front of a live audience at the Hay-on-Wye Book Festival 2007. Zephaniah announces that this will be his final number.

Talking Turkeys 2

He knows they know Talking Turkeys. In this second video, there is a different tone to the way he says the poem, more irony in his words as he plays with the audience and they respond. As one student said He slows everything down, he’s acting out the poem, he wants people to understand every word. Another student commented on the slowing doan by pointing out that in this second performance He even says because and not cos. I hadn’t noticed that.

This is great entertainment, but entertainment with a message, which is : Don’t eat turkey this Christmas. And Benjamin Zephaniah, turned vegan from the age of 13, means every word.

An outspoken word artist

This viewing of two videos explores something of Zephaniah’s life and the character of his work. If you’re reading this as a teacher then, following this, why not send students on a web search to find out more about the poet, his life and his work? They could report back with a poem they liked or something he did in other fields such as music, acting or even politics.

Benjamin Zephaniah was a familiar face and an important cultural figure in the UK who was politically outspoken. He refused to accept an OBE from the Queen in 2003. And he refused the prestigious title of Poet Laureate in 2018, saying it would make his poetry bad if he had to be part of the Establishment. He was his own man. He made us laugh and he made us think. And now he has been released. Sweet release, Benji, sweet release.

Rong Radio

And if people still need convincing, play them this video of the song Rong Radio. It tells you how someone can stop believing the message which tells him he can’t succeed and starts believing in himself. In Benjamin Zephaniah’s case it’s about when he stopped being one more mixed-up, juvenile delinquent and started to raise his voice to become a spoken word artist. Or I should say, an outspoken word artist.

And be nice to that turkey this Christmas. Benjamin is watching. And he seize all.

  1. Literacy Evolve has changed its name and is now called Wordsmith. ↩︎

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  1. Gerry Kenny

    I didn’t mention that Benjamin Zephaniah played Jeremiah Jesus in Peaky Blinders. But you knew that, didn’t you? Logical, when you think about it. He already had the accent naturally.

  2. brigitte ARNAUD

    Thank you for this article. I remember teaching “Talking turkeys” it was quite a success. So sorry he died…

  3. Gerry Kenny

    Thanks Brigitte. His work deserves to be more widely known.

  4. Jean-Pierre Perez

    Bonjour Gerry,
    Je dois avouer que je ne connaissais pas cet artiste. Je dis « artiste » car dire « poète » serait réduire son art à cette seule forme d’art, la maîtrise du verbe et la maîtrise du rythme, tout comme dire : «interprète » ou « acteur » reviendrait à couper une ou plusieurs des cordes dont il se sert pour s’exprimer, mais aussi donner vie à sa culture, à ses origines et nous faire vibrer à l’unisson ! Merci Gerry pour cette découverte.
    P.S. Je n’ai pas consommé de dinde à Noël !

  5. Gerry Kenny

    Bonjour Jean Pierre. Bravo pour la dinde non consommée! Benjamin Zephaniah fait partie d’un groupe de poètes de langue anglaise qui se sont appropriés la langue sans demander la permission. Heureusement que ces artistes du verbe existent. Dans la même veine, je recommande également John Cooper-Clarke, Jean “Binta” Breeze et George the Poet. Tous ont en commun le fait d’avoir débordé le cadre poétique pour toucher à l’art et la musique au sens le plus large – ou parfois d’être venu à la poésie après avoir exploré d’autres formes d’expression. Et pour les désigner – il faut bien mettre quelque chose sur sa demande de passeport – l’anglais a adopté le terme “spoken word artist” qui laisse la place à leur liberté de création.

  6. Gerry Kenny

    Good news! Mural tribute to Benjamin Zephaniah in Handsworth, his hometown.


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