Many notable poets have visited and performed in Middlesbrough over the years, through events like Poetry Live, The Bare faced Cabaret, Writing Visions, KENAZ Live, The Electric Kool-Aid Cabaret and The T Junction Poetry Festival, inspiring audiences and helping to build on the local literary culture that remains sadly invisible to many, both inside and from outside of Teesside.
On 24th October as part of Black History Month Tees Valley Arts and Teesside University teamed up to offer a true highlight among all the literary happenings to have taken place here and one far from what many still expect of a poetry recital, with the vital voice of Benjamin Zephaniah.
Photos courtesy of Teesside University
The events began with An Audience with Zephaniah held in The Curve, at which Benjamin spoke to an avid audience of staff, students and local writers, artists and activists about his life, particularly of his early formative years, school and home experiences. Peppered by the occasional poem like ‘I Love Me Mudder’ and ‘A Policeman Keeps Kicking Me to Death’. He was genuine, sincere and humorous and covered some of his earliest exposures to personal and institutional racism, such as when he and his sister first attended an all-white primary school and the teachers had the other children bring in their favourite golliwogs and forced him to be captain of the cricket team, even though it definitely wasn’t his game. Moving on to his adolescence, domestic abuse within his family and his rebellion against what he was being taught and what he was expected to be Benjamin talked about slipping into petty crime and gang warfare, of slipping out of any security net, of being sent to an approved school and the abusive conditions he remembered there, and how, sometime later, he came to the realisation that the life he was leading would see him either dead or doing a long stretch in prison, and it was time to leave it. Escaping to London with the girlfriend of Astro from UB40 (having told her the band were going nowhere) he eventually became involved in the alternative comedy and performance poetry scene and quickly gained recognition through his hard hitting socially charged poetry performances. Through the course of the talk and the Q & A we were given an effective oral history of the performance poetry scene in the early 80s and how black and white united with Benjamin and Linton Kwesi Johnson joining their reggae-inspired poetry with the punks and ranters to fill out traditional music venues. He made clear how the alternative comedy cabaret of that time joined forces with poetry in a punk-do-it-yerself energy vortex that lead to the national explosion of spoken word as an art form that still inspires our own Electric Kool-Aid Cabaret today.
The small event was inspiring and full of hope and it fired up the audience for the bigger event Words n Dub later that evening at The Students Union.
Held in the cool Terrace Bar to an eager, bustling family friendly gathering of children, teenagers, students, writers, artists, cultural practitioners and refugees. The event began with an audience participatory drumming extravaganza led by drum-master Karim, which sent the blood pumping, palms tingling and charged the air with a primal energy, to chants to “Africa! Africaa! Africaaa!”
Then Benjamin Zephaniah took the stage for a more energised performance of his straight talking poetry than the more intimate rendering we’d seen earlier, performing poems such as ‘White Comedy’ and ‘No Problem’, some new work and ending with ‘Talking Turkeys’, to appreciative applause.
The next performance of the night was a set by Dennis Bovell, aka Blackbeard, the dub-reggae maestro, accompanied by a band which included Maurice Dezou on drum. Dennis has produced albums by a wide variety of artists including I-Roy, The Thompson Twins, Sharon Shannon, Alpha Blondy, Bananarama, The Pop Group, Fela Kuti, The Slits, Orange Juice and Madness. He has collaborated with poet, Linton Kwesi Johnson for much of his working life. The set was so deep in the groove it shook the foundations and quickly had everyone up on their feet pounding out the rhythms and riding the beats. And then Benjamin joined the band for an improvised jam (the first time he’d ever got to work with Dennis – although they were inspired by each other’s work). After the ecstatic groove of ‘I Ain’t Got No Blue Suede Shoes But I Really Wanna Dance.’ aware of the recent closure of our steel industry he hammered out a much needed message of union, hope and communal strength to the Teesside audience. You’ve never seen people dance and skank so funkily at a poetry gig like this. Not a poetry reading but a multi-cultural happening that was a truly uplifting occasion and a memorable highlight in the history of poetry in the area. You really had to be there! And thanks to Tees Valley Arts and Teesside University we all were, and to top it all, it was free!!!!
Unite in Middlesbrough’
Bob Beagrie & Andy Willoughby
Photos by Kev Howard, courtesy of Tees Valley Arts