I wrote this article in 1998 as a distraction from the stress of researching my university dissertation. I have not updated it here.
Levi Tafari, one of this country’s “most articulate Rastafarian poets,” was born of Jamaican parents in Liverpool in 1960. (Internet, 1997). He was educated in the city and went onto catering college, “from where he progressed into full-time catering.” (Zephaniah, 1989: 5). Although he DJ’d on a couple of Liverpool-based sound systems (Crasher Hi-Fi and Jah Quamina Hi-Fi) in his teenage years, the catalyst which started him on the road to poetry was the Liverpool 8 Writers Workshop which Levi attended in the late 1970s. The workshop allowed Levi to explore his ideas through poetry and by 1981 he had started performing.
Levi enjoyed his work in catering, but he loved poetry and made the decision to leave catering and concentrate on his performance poetry. This created tension, so the story goes, with his father who was naturally concerned that his son had quit a secure job to pursue the uncertain career of poetry. Benjamin Zephaniah relates the conversation which he was told took place between Levi and his father following Levi’s fateful decision:
FATHER: “Rhyme don’t pay.”
LEVI: “I thought it was crime don’t pay?”
FATHER: “Levi, son. I have read your work and that stuff is definitely criminal.” (Zephaniah, 1989: 5).
Whether this conversation took place or not, it is understandable that Levi’s father would be concerned that his son was being hasty. Remember, this was the early 1980s. There was a recession in the country and work was increasingly hard to find, not least for young black men living in Toxteth. Time, thankfully, was to prove Levi’s father wrong. In memory of his father’s concern Levi wrote a poem with the title “Rhyme Don’t Pay” and even called his third book by the same name (Published by Headland Publications, Wirral):
Some people would laugh
While others would say
Don’t get involved in poetry
‘Cause rhyme don’t pay. (Tafari, 1993: 43).
Despite what his family might think, Levi had found his destiny in what he was to call duboetry. In the poem “Rhyme Don’t Pay” he expresses this well:
My words become Dread
the rhythm was sweet
beautiful was the sound
thousands of years
that is what I’d found. (Tafari, 1993: 43).
For Levi, poetry was motivating, and from then he vowed, as he put it, “to exercise my mind,” and make poetry his life. (Tafari, 1993: 43).
Levi’s early performances were naturally focused around his own community in Toxteth and his Rastafarian faith. Through his poetry Levi was able to answer back, as Benjamin Zephaniah says, the rumours that were flying around about life in Liverpool 8 and the Rastafarian movement. (Zephaniah, 1989: 6).
Although very much a local man, with his homebase firmly rooted in Liverpool, Levi has always striven to broaden his appeal beyond Toxteth and the Rastafarian movement. Besides which, Levi has a different outlook on Liverpool, largely due to his faith and the fact that his parents are Jamaican. For example, Levi has reflected on the effect slavery had, and is still having, on the city of Liverpool:
“Liverpool had the biggest seaport once, and here all the slave trading took place. The slavery connection has put a tarnish on Liverpool, and that is what the city is suffering from now.” (Tafari, 1989: 9).
By using his poetry, Levi is able to vent the emotions which such oppression, both historically and contemporary, generates. Writing in the introduction to Levi’s “Rhyme Don’t Pay” collection, Muhammad Khalil (aka Eugene Lange) expresses what poetry means to Levi, and also to himself:
“Some of the most soul destroying experiences ever experienced by human kind, were converted into enriching and strengthening echoes of our past, by poetry such as Levi’s. This is how we fought this brutality traditionally. This is how we fight it now, with music, dance and poetry. Even in our poverty we are a creative people, brimming with artistry. Rich in cultural diversity.” (Khalil, 1993: 8).
Despite the harsh realities of Liverpool’s past and present, Levi is proud of the role of the black community has in Liverpool, and he tries to portray the community in a positive light, such as in his poem “Toxteth Where I Reside”:
So forget the ghetto mentality
because we are not ghettoites
we are a talented people
with a lot to give
the oldest black community in Europe
and we’re positive. (Tafari, 1993: 11)
Levi uses his poetry to fight against the damaging images Liverpool’s black community so often has in the media and in the public’s eye, and because of this he has become “an ambassador of the Black Community.” (Andi, 1993: back cover). Modesty would prevent Tafari from accepting this role for himself. His modesty is expressed well when he said:
“I would show these particular words that I’d written down on paper to certain people and they were telling me it was poetry. Still then I wouldn’t have called myself a poet. I just tried a thing basically.” (Tafari, 1989: 14).
Levi might not see himself as a spokesman for the black community in Liverpool, but he has been appointed to this role by the people. Through his performing – whether on stage or in schools, colleges, or even prisons – Levi the ambassador is spreading positive images about Liverpool’s black community and about the city in general.
For Levi, however, Liverpool can be a contradictory experience, both “adventurous but dangerous” as he says in his poem “The Liverpool Experience.” (Tafari, 1989: 69). In this poem he speaks of how the city is corrupt, vicious and full of sin. He speaks eloquently, but with such simplicity, of the poverty and the struggle to make ends meet:
Some work from nine to five
to stay alive
and still them find
it hard to survive. (Tafari, 1989: 72).
Liverpool has so often been notorious for its religious intolerance, its sectarianism and, in “The Liverpool Experience,” Levi writes of this damaging side to the city’s nature:
but people it is plain to see
Protestants and Catholics
there is no Christian unity
although theres two cathedrals
inna the city. (Tafari, 1989: 73).
Levi Tafari is, of course, a Rastafarian and Rastafarianism is more a way of life than an organised or institutionalised religion. Levi’s words here are therefore more a criticism of institutionalised religion and sectarianism, rather than a criticism of reigion of spirituality in general.
Tafari matured as a poet during the Thatcher era of British politics, and during a period when Liverpool was going through social, economic and political upheavel. “The Liverpool Experience” was written during this period, a period the city of Liverpool might sooner forget – a period which Levi sums up in a few simple lines:
Living inna Liverpool
is living in hell
look pon the places
where we have fe dwell
them have we under
a political spell
and the depression as well. (Tafari, 1989: 69-70).
“The Liverpool Experience” may appear negative, even fatalistic, but the poems’s very last line, “Deliver us JAH!” , as ‘chako’ Habekost argues, is a signal that we should not accept the city’s woes, that it is “threatening rather than fatalistic,” a call to deliverance from the hell that living in Liverpool can be for so many of its people. (Habekost, 1989: 13). The line may also stem from the belief held by Rastas that Jah, or God, will one day deliver them back to Africa, from where Jah exiled their ancestors into slavery in Jamaica.
As Levi was beginning his performing career, the city of Liverpool – as were other English cities – was engulfed by riots and social unrest. In Liverpool the riots centred around Toxteth, causing not only material and physical damage to that community, but seriously compromising the positive aspects of the community, of which Levi was one.
Levi later wrote about the riots, in more than one poem. One such poem is called “Nuh Blame Rasta,” a poem which not only asks that the blame not be placed on the Rasta and their community, but one which also warns against oppression and warns that the community will stand up against such oppression:
Forces of babylon yuh better beware
‘Cause the youthman a fight fe them livingshare. (Tafari, 1989: 83).
Babylon’ is the Rastafarian term for the white political institutions that has been holding back the black race for centuries, whether through slavery in the past or through poverty, illiteracy, inequality in the present. More specifically, the poem lays the blame for the riots onto the police:
We did warn them not to arrest our friend
Them never have nuh reason
Suh we warn them again
But reinforcement what the police them send
And now look how situation end. (Tafari, 1989: 83).
There is no more respect fe the policeman
Them don’t love the right
Them do what is wrong
It is them that is victimising everyone
And now it has caused a riot on the land. (Tafari, 1989: 85).
A consequence of the Toxteth Riots – as they inevitably became known – was the appointment of Michael Heseltine to the position of Minister for Merseyside, and the conception of the idea for an International Garden Festival in the city, which became a reality in 1984:
a garden full of roses
thirty million quid
down the drain
while people in the ghettos
feel the pain. (Tafari, 1989: 75).
Tafari, in “City Full of Roses,” is scathing about what he sees as another crazy decision by Mrs Thatcher’s Government, the madness of spending thirty million pounds on flowers when his community in Liverpool 8 is suffering so badly. He reflects back to the 1981 riots:
them was rioting
fe the right fe live
and just look what
the government give
and yet still
people are made redundant. (Tafari, 1989: 77).
The poems I have used in this article are examples of how Levi’s poetry reflects real life, his community, faith and emotions. They show that he is not afraid to speak out or even use controversial language, such as comparing Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet to Nazis, in the poem “The Conservative Blues”:
Lets stop Margaret Snatcher
and her Nazi crew. (Tafari, 1989: 57).
Levi speaks out against injustice and oppression, both at home and abroad and in history or the present. Writing on such issues is, of course, not new. Indeed, many poets and writers have struggled to find something new to say. Levi, however, “does not bother to try and desperately find something new to tell.” (Habekost, 1989: 9). The example Habekost uses to express Tafari’s simplicity, is the poem “Apartheid System I Don’t Like”. The opening lines, like the title, are simplicity in the extreme:
When I checkout
de system inna South Africa
I don’t like de way
it a run. (Tafari, 1989: 10).
Habekost is amazed: “That’s it! No artificial lyrical construction, no superfluous metaphorical paraphrase…” (Habekost, 1989: 10).
Tafari’s poems, like many of other dub poets, are constructed in very plain form. They often use a repeating catchphrase, or chorus “which serves equally as an introduction, a conclusion and and transition between the different strophes.” (Habekost, 1989: 10). Such form is an echo of centuries of black poetry and song, the so-called call and response style.
Such poetry is at its best when performed, and in the hands of a skilful performer like Tafari, such simple-looking poetry can be transformed into breathtaking poetic performances: “Some poems might look simplistic and raw in written form, yet they really become sophisticated pieces when performed or read aloud.” (Habekost, 1989: 10).
One occasion I saw Levi live was at a performance held at Birkenhead’s Glenda Jackson Theatre in January 1996 and organised by Wirral Metropolitan College’s Student Union and the college’s INK group of student writers. The attendance was small – around twenty people – but Tafari’s performance was no less enthusiastic for this. Indeed, the intimate nature of a small group allowed Levi to shun the prepared microphone and peform his work more directly to the audience.
Audience participation is very important to any performance poet, and at this performance Levi encouraged participation by asking the audience to join in at certain points, perhaps with the chorus or a key response line, or else the audience clapped along in rhythm to his performance. His combination of poetry and rap, plus the active audience participation, invigorated the performance and helped to bring his simplistic and raw poetry alive.
Levi, in his desire to spread his message far and wide, has performed all over Britain and Europe. He has also appeared on various television shows, including Black on Black and Grange Hill, as well as numerous radio programmes. He works “enthusiastically with collaborative partners – from schoolchildren to the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra.” (Internet, 1997).
Levi’s continuing success and popularity, after seventeen years of performing, stems from his approachability, from the fact that he still performs to small groups and still undertakes workshops in schools and colleges.
‘Chako’ Habekost speaks of the “unprejudiced friendliness with which he responds to all the different people he meets.” (Habekost, 1989: 13). Despite success, Levi has remained firmly tied to his roots, both in Jamaica and Liverpool, and he has not lost touch with his roots. As Levi once said himself:
“I’ve got to have a homebase. I mean you could go and live up in the hills – as they say – and cut yourself off which I have tried for a little while. But you’ve always got to come back somehow.” (Tafari, 1989: 8).
His friend Christian Habekost explains Levi’s firm rooting in his community in Toxteth:
“This is where he was born, where his people live. where he gets his inspiration from, where after long journeys up and down the country, he can come back and feel the vibe. (Habekost, 1989: 8).
Tafari has been through many experiences in his life: DJ, cook, confectioner, workshop teacher, musician, poet, performer, even playwright. (Habekost, 1989: 14). Through all these varied experiences, poetry has remained the one constant, a way for him to document the time in which he lives and a means to pass that on to other people and communities. (Tafari, 1989: 14).
Tafari has gone many places and met many people in many different walks of life, but he will no doubt remain what he is perhaps best at being – a dub poet, and “a seasoned live artist who will make you laugh … and make you think.” (Internet, 1997). If you have yet to read any of Tafari’s poetry, then why not check out one of his collections, or better still find out where he is next performing and experience his poetry in the way they are best enjoyed – performed live.
Andi, S. (1993), “Biographical Notes” in Tafari, L. (1993), Rhyme Don’t Pay , Headland Publications, Wirral.
Habekost, C. (1989), “Introduction” to Tafari, L. (1989), Liverpool Experience , Michael Schwinn, Neustadt, West Germany.
Helmond, M. V. and Palmer, D. (1991), Staying Power: Black Presence in Liverpool , National Museums & Galleries on Merseyside, Liverpool.
Internet (1997), Events Diary for the 1997 Lancashire Literature Festival, published on the internet at the address: dspace.dial.pipex.com/town/estate/yg45/ litfests/lanc/events.htm
Khalil, M. (1993), “Introduction” to Tafari, L. (1993), Rhyme Don’t Pay , Headland Publications, Wirral.
Tafari, L. (1989), Liverpool Experience , Michael Schwinn, Neustadt, West Germany.
Tafari, L. (1993), Rhyme Don’t Pay , Headland Publications, Wirral.
Zephaniah, B. (1989), “Levi Tafari Biographical Notes” in Tafari, L. (1989), Liverpool Experience , Michael Schwinn, Neustadt, West Germany.