29 November 2019. I danced with Benjamin Zephaniah. It is a happy thought. I’ve never set foot in the British Library, not until tonight. How did Zephaniah end up playing a concert with his Revolutionary Minds in the British Library? He tells us that it probably all started when he planted a seed by donating the manuscript of his poem about Stephen Lawrence to the library and tonight was the tree that has sprung to life from that gesture. The place is impressive, the massive entrance hall surrounded by staircases leading to the various floors is the spot where the stage has been placed, set against a backdrop of layer upon layer of ancient, precious books with leather covers protected by glass. We can see them, but we cannot touch them.
The night’s proceedings start with a small discussion onstage chaired by poet Khadijah Ibrahiim trying to put on the map the importance of the Jamaican sound system contribution to the British identity and sound. According to the legendary Lloyd Coxsone, on the panel tonight, it all started with the Jamaican workers in the States bringing back the vinyl records they had loved in the American jukebox bars. They came back and started spinning records. The figure of the selecta was born, the person choosing personally and passionately each track played in a club, the person pouring over stacks of black, scratchy records, choosing the right track, feeding a mood, making the place vibrate. Legendary producer Gussie Clarke, on the panel as well tonight, added that he started as a drummer and incidentally the reason he does not like computer generated sounds is that the drum was created to follow our heartbeat and the Jamaican drum feeds the passions on the dance floor. This is what they were doing all those years ago, defying the cold and black ice of the English winter, as there was a proper winter in the UK in the 60ies and 70ies, you know? The sound systems put Jamaica on the map, they brought Jamaica on television. It is a pity that the night’s conversation was somehow spoiled by childish squabbling between the two illustrious guests. “We kicked the door in”, Clarke said. “If you kicked the door in, we paved the way for that door to be opened”, replied Coxsone. It was getting to the point where the audience almost lost their patience. They were promised an evening of music, reggae and dub, so where is the music?
The poet Benjamin Zephaniah gracefully obliges and with his Revolutionary Minds from Birmingham, taking over the library with his black England poems, spinning with dub vibes. Cool Down, young people, cool down. We are one tribe, he sings, and we will never be safe as long as women are treated as property, as long as people are judged by the colour of their skin. His knee-long dreadlocks are dancing gently in the air around his body; Zephaniah’s optimism and joy on stage is contagious. What he celebrates is not anger, it is the assertion of humanity, the celebration of diversity. And the diversity in the audience demonstrates his theory. Anybody from Luton? Scotland? Trinidad? – he asks. And the answer is always: yes. A girl screams: Pakistan, another China. The whole world in a room. Anybody from London, asks Zephaniah. Yes, the whole audience replies, from all over the world, but all Londoners.
At this stage Zephaniah jumps down from the stage to dance with his audience. He goes from side to side, one or two lines from the stage, sparing nobody on his dancing trajectory, and they are all eager to jump in, and hug him and dance with him. That is how I ended up dancing with Benjamin Zephaniah. Somehow I find myself at the end of his irresistible path. In a split second I see him heading in my direction, he is holding one person with each arm, dancing, moving towards me, and before I know it, I have his gentle arms around me and we are spinning round to the rhythm. Lightning fast and as gently as he had arrived, he then started dancing with a small boy who spent the whole concert in the first row with his family, taking selfies while Zephaniah was singing on stage. He pumped his fist with the boy and climbed back on stage to sing his poems, to spread his truth. A joyful evening, the library takeover, a lady taps me on the shoulder: “You got the best dance tonight, I am so jealous”. I almost apologised just for being there, in true British style. Thank you for the dance Mr Zephaniah. Thank you for the dance.