A Rebel Rant with Benjamin Zephaniah: Multiculturalism or Muscular Liberalism?

Writing on the Wall Festival 2012
Tuesday 1st May 2012
St. George’s Hall

Reviewed by Pete O’Neill

St George’s Hall. A Grand Icon in our City. A history of many changes – some prominent, others hidden – civil uprisings, plans laid and written and complex matters of great ingenuity. The proof in the power of one man’s ability.

Benjamin Zephaniah presents all of these, all seeming to overshadow the great hall.

It was a masterful move on the part of Writing on the Wall, hosting this event as part of their programme within a grand design of gilt-edged decorations. The solidity of natural and formed materials, marble pillars, hardwood floors and a huge chandelier, lighting the room and reflecting rainbows. All of this was a fitting arena for the night’s event, a cacophony coming from the crowd as we waited in babbling anticipation

It was rumoured that St George’s Hall had been chosen for its double doors, guaranteeing easy access for Benjamin’s larger than life iambic pentameter. The lights dim and silence falls as the word wizard steps upon the stage. I steady myself – Kevlar earmuffs at the ready.

Multiculturalism was the theme of the evening and Benjamin began with a somewhat brutal story. The first ever racist attack he suffered as an eight-year-old boy:

‘I was walking down the road one day when a man cycled up behind, hitting me on the back of the head with a brick whilst shouting “Go home you black bastard”. After picking myself up off the floor I rushed home, my mother, shocked by the event, cleans me up and is trying to explain about the ‘colour bar’ (her term for racism) I kept asking “what is a bastard?” he said to me “go home” which I understood and have done, he called me “black” which I am, so when my mother explained to me what a bastard was, I couldn't understand why he called me that.’

This very personal account, recurrent throughout society in many forms and guises, became part of the starting point for the debate on culture and how it forms our own identities.

With the horrors of monoculture and insularity within human nature clearly defined, Benjamin proclaimed tongue in cheek that he was “always ready to add a little culture to any needy cause”. Comically he relayed the words of ‘locals’ from a small Irish village, where the lack of change and an envy of variety seemed to cause a sense of madness amongst the ‘locals’. “All we do is fuck each other n eat spuds, I am related to him n he’s related to me and they’re related to us”

Describing his own personal growth and awareness, he confessed his current religious viewpoint as “near Buddhism” but with “anarchy” as a ruling factor which came to form from experience and engagement with an ever changing world. Having travelled “more countries than I can count” and spending time living in Beijing and Lincolnshire, his distaste for bureaucratic autocracy and monarchic ways were clearly and peacefully laid out and greeted with spontaneous applause and shouts of encouragement from the audience.

A question and answer session followed but the crowd had been stunned into silence and only a few people tentatively spoke up. Finally Benjamin proclaimed, “Liverpool you are being kind to me! Why are you all so reserved? I expected more! Is this Civil Hall keeping you all subdued?” and then the questions came in abundance. With such themes as Revolution, Women’s Rights and a Matriarchal society, Black Royalty, Green Party voting losses with BNP wins, the final question of the evening relating to his first ever poem resulted in a rendition of My Mum, a finale appreciated by all with great applause and cheers.

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