- Headland Publications
Levi Tafari was born in Liverpool.
He is the author of three poetry collections: Duboetry (1987), Liverpool Experience (1989) and Rhyme Don't Pay (1998). His new collection, From the Page to the Stage, is forthcoming. His plays have been performed at the Unity Theatre and the Playhouse in Liverpool, as well as at the Blackheath Theatre in Stafford. He has also worked on educational projects running creative writing workshops in schools, colleges, universities, youth centres, prisons and libraries.Levi Tafari's musical projects include work with Ghanaian drum and dance ensemble Delado, the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and with his own reggae fusion band Ministry of Love. He has also played with Urban Strawberry Lunch and Griot Workshop and has recently worked with jazz musician Dennis Rollins.
He was Writer in Residence at Charles University, Prague, and has toured various countries, including the Czech Republic, Singapore and Jordan. He has also appeared in many television programmes including Blue Peter and Grange Hill, and made a well-received film about Rastafarianism for BBC television's Everyman programme entitled The Road to Zion.
Beginning with Linton Kwesi Johnson's groundbreaking work in the 1970s, a new generation of Black and politically conscious performance writers began developing a hybrid form of poetry containing elements of both mainstream English and Black cultural references. Levi Tafari is arguably one of its leading exponents. Indeed, while his self-described 'urban griot' approach has much in common with the African-inspired oral tradition found in the work of storytellers such as Jan Blake, he is often paired alongside Benjamin Zephaniah, with whom he has been friends since the early 1980s. According to Mike Storry, Tafari has 'raised the profile of Rastafarianism and promoted the interests of ethnic minority groups' (British Cultural Identities). That said, he is equally influenced by the Merseyside poets of his native Liverpool – British 'beats' such as Adrian Henry, Roger McGough and Brian Patten, whose work was published in The Mersey Sound (1967). Furthermore, much of Tafari's early poetry was shaped by the Thatcher era of unemployment which hit Liverpool especially hard, a testament of which is his poem 'Liverpool Experience': 'Yes living inna Liverpool / is living in hell / especially if you are / black as well'. Another of his poems, 'Toxteth where I reside', is an exploration of the (largely immigrant) neighbourhood in Liverpool where Tafari's family had moved from Jamaica in the late 1950s. Toxteth, of course, was the setting for the infamous riots of 1981, where a generation of black youths rebelled against institutionalised racism and poverty – a sentiment clearly evoked in the poem:
'Now checkout Toxteth my dwelling place
Can you believe your eyes
There are beautiful houses on elegant streets
I know you'll be surprised
Because the media paint a picture
Of the people in a negative light
They magnified the rundown places
And ignored the ones which are out of sight
So forget the ghetto mentality
Because we are not ghettoites
We are talented people
With a lot to give
The oldest Black community in Europe
And we're positive
Now I admit in Toxteth
That things they can get rough
But if you lived down here you would overstand
We just don't get enough
So we need the opportunity
To make a positive contribution
So we can feel good in this neighbourhood
And improve our situation'
Though Tafari originally trained as a chef, he began attending the Liverpool 8 Writers Workshop in his early twenties and began to hone his craft. His wide reading included Langston Hughes and he made his first forays into the dub scene where Linton Kwesi Johnson was performing in the late 1970s. One of his first major publications occurred when his work was included in The New British Poetry (1988), an anthology edited by Fred D'Aguiar, Ken Edwards, Gillian Allnutt and Eric Mottram – which showcased a diverse range of poets ranging from John Agard and Linton Kewsi Johnson to the current Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy. Tafari's collections of poetry to date include: Duboetry (1987) published by The Windows Project, Liverpool Experience (1989) published by Michael Schwinn Publishers, Rhyme Don’t Pay (1998) published by Headland Publications and his most recent, From the Page to the Stage (2006), also from Headland. He has also written a number of plays which have been performed at Liverpool's Unity, Everyman and Playhouse Theatres as well as at the Blackheath Theatre in Stafford. Aside from this, Tafari also works in education: running creative writing workshops in prisons, schools and universities.
While usually pegged as an ambassador of Black British culture, Tafari has toured his work extensively both in the UK and abroad – tapping into the common cultural links that extend across the Black Atlantic, from the African coast, to the Caribbean, as well as to the Americas. This has been a part of his acknowleding his mixed heritage and upbringing, an experience which he defined in the following:
'Do you use this tri-cultural aspect a lot in your poetry?
I use it in my everyday living, and the three elements guide me through life. I also use them in my poetry. I sometimes write poetry in the Jamaican nation language, sometimes it might have a kind of West African rhythm and a reggae beat, or even hip hop rap style, which I know is American, but also part of the African-American experience.'
(Interview with Canan Marasligil, Brussels, 28 February 2008)
As described above, Tafari's lyrical but sharp observations of contemporary urban culture are indeed heavily influenced by his love of music. Initiated into this tradition by his father's Ska and reggeae records, Tafari has occasionally worked with funk, soul and reggae bands – most notably with his own fusion band, The Ministry of Love. In 2001, Tafari toured Europe and South East Asia with Urban Strawberry Lunch. He is currently working with German guitarist Ekio Falkenburg – who once collaborated with Linton Kwesi Johnson, and with Tafari himself in Urban Strawberry Lunch. His other musical projects include work with Ghanian ensemble Delado and jazz musician Dennis Rollins. Tafari was also a poet in residence with The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra.
Tafri has also participated in several television programmes and in 1992 made a cameo as himself in BBC One's Grange Hill. In 1997, Tafari wrote and produced 'The Road to Zion' – an acclaimed documentary for the BBC’s 'Everyman' series, where he travelled to Ethiopia to examine the roots of his Rastafarian faith. He has also collaborated on educational programmes for Channel 4.
André Naffis-Sahely, 2011