Ode to a dyslexic philosopher: How Benjamin Zephaniah advocated for self-belief

i.m. Benjamin Obadiah Iqbal Zephaniah: 15 April 1958 – 7 December 2023
Poet | Performer | Presenter | Professor | Dyslexic | Novelist | Actor | Anarchist | Humanist

I’m not sure when I first encountered Benjamin Zephaniah – I think it might have been on TV in the 90s, larger than life, making words fizz and bounce – but I remember well when I was first lucky enough to meet him.

It was 2005 when I was an artist in residence at Abbeydale Grange School in Sheffield. The school (now demolished) had a bad reputation, but I loved that place and its kids, and there were some really sound teachers. One such English teacher encouraged students to write letters to Benjamin to ask him if he’d come and visit. And Benjamin, being who he was, obliged.

I doubt there was much (if any) money involved, and after an assembly performance and classroom sessions, Look North came to do an interview with him. At the time, I’d just started working on Cube, a Sheffield journalism and magazine project for Y10s/11 on work placement, and Benjamin said he was happy for students to interview him for it. What I remember most about that day was how he kept the Look North interview short so he could give more time to chatting to the students, and the way he spoke to them with authenticity and humility. There was no hierarchy, no I’m mega important, just a genuine interest in engaging them in great conversation. As a result, it was an excellent interview.

Among the many gems of wisdom Benjamin shared that day, he talked openly about his difficulties at school and how, when he started to make a name for himself, he was signing contracts that he wasn’t able to read. He spoke passionately about how education (and self-educating and autodidactic learning) can liberate us, and about how someone’s difficulties don’t need to hold them back from learning. He said:

“Being dyslexic doesn’t measure intellect. Some of the most creative people I know are dyslexic. What it made me do is compensate in other areas.”

And compensate, and in fact, innovate, overcome and ‘‘overstand’ is what he did. Like Benjamin, I’m from a generation where, at school in the 80s, neurodiversities were not picked up and teachers, rarely understanding the difficulties, had less tolerance for pupils who were struggling. For one, it wasn’t seen as struggling, but rather about laziness or not being capable. Incredibly damaging stuff in our formative years, and you’ll often hear this if you talk to dyslexics, (diagnosed or not) from older generations, about the effects on their life choices and self-belief.

And this is how Benjamin Zephaniah first inspired me, simply to – keep doing what I was doing – working with young people to enable them to say, out loud or through creative means: I can. Being from a working-class background and leaving a dysfunctional home life at 15 – this was something that didn’t come easy to me back then. I knew the value of encouraging others from the lack of this in my own life. In truth, I still had a chronic lack of self-belief, but like Benjamin, I knew, deep down from being a kid, that I had a lot to offer. His words were a well-timed reminder to me of the fruits of tenacity, integrity and the creative act. Not long after that, I started to move from visual art, back to the first love I’d shied away from – words.

From then on, Benjamin always seemed to be there, somewhere, cheering me on in some way. I remember contacting him for a quote about Cube a few years later when we were in a funding crisis, and again he obliged. And then, Sheffield’s Off the Shelf Festival of Words invited Benjamin to guest curate in 2012. He said, if he was to perform he wanted it to also be a platform for young people. Specifically, young people from backgrounds and groups often underrepresented. Cue – the Youth Word Up, a project I’m proud to have run for the festival to its 10th birthday.

In keeping with what Benjamin set up, over the years it ran, the YWUp consisted of yearly outreach writing workshops, vibrant publications that gave a voice to many in print for the first time, and saw hundreds of young people, especially those who thought they couldn’t write, or weren’t meant to be heard, represented and performing along big-name poets: Holly McNish, Joelle Taylor, Andy Craven Griffiths, Mark Grist & Vanessa Kisuule. Benjamin always retweeted in salute of the project.

A little later in 2012, I reached out to Benjamin again. At Off the Shelf Festival the year before, there had been an event discussing dyslexia. It got me thinking of how there was nothing around at the time about dyslexic writers, and how inspiring it would be to hear from them, given we are actually many. I thought about how I may well have found my way back to words sooner, had I seen how people like me could write. Hearing Benjamin speaking to the students that day had never left me.

And so – as is often the case for neurodivergent thinkers, when we see a hole that needs filling, you can bet we’ll try and solve the puzzle to fill it – I approached the Off the Shelf Festival for support to make a film about dyslexic writers, and they, rather brilliantly, thought it was a great idea and agreed to help. And, of course, I asked Benjamin if he’d be interviewed. Without hesitation, he said yes, and I met him in a local library (shout out to Jenson Grant (cameraman on the project) and Spalding Library for opening up just for us to do the interview!) He knew we were on a shoestring, but asked for nothing and gave us so much of his time.

Cue – Dyslexic and Loving Words, the resulting documentary (2012/2013). Through interviews with Benjamín and six other brilliant wordsmiths, the film highlights how it’s possible to overcome dyslexic issues, or work around the challenges they present, if you have a passion for words. But it’s not just for dyslexics, it’s for anyone with an interest in language, creativity, and the wonders of our brains.

I’m very proud of the film – not only because it’s really insightful and inspiring, especially for young dyslexics nervous about ever pursuing words creatively – it’s also an act of neurodivergent creativity in itself. Even now reading the comments on YouTube, I beam with pride. You know, the kind that marks that a difference, however small, has been made in the world. Benjamin had, and helped create, many of these moments in his lifetime. He was instrumental in the film and its impact, but his words also helped me to believe I could make it. Skip forward ten years and I eventually became the writer, editor, and mentor I once couldn’t have imagined.

On his passing, poet and director Martin Glynn said of Benjamin that he was “never an establishment person”, but “got into spaces” where he felt he could be heard. My experience of him was exactly that. And those spaces were schools and festivals and conversations with everyday people that left them changed. Glynn said Benjamin was a humanist, and I believe he was, simply by living his humanity in his art and activism, and through wonderful human connections like the ones I experienced with him – connections that will continue to ripple out in my work for years to come.

Rest in dub power Ras Zephaniah.

You can watch Dyslexic & Loving Words here
BBC Radio interview 11.12.23 with Hive young poet Lalla Waddington (starts 2hr+14mins)