Walking into the alumni room in the school of English, I was greeted by the huge smile of a woman sitting casually on one of the sofa chairs, to which I couldn’t help but smile back. It wasn’t for a few moments that I realised that the smile belonged to dub poetry legend and MBE Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze herself. After much shuffling and an awkward, not so fun game of musical chairs, a huge dirty belly laugh emanated from the front of the room – someone had just informed Jean of the recent UKIP calypso song. ‘Eh mista black man, go home!’ Safe to say Ms Breeze was able to put a packed room completely at ease within minutes, and began casting her spell over us all with her first poem ‘Walking to the rhythm of the heartbeat,’ a reggae-rhythmic piece, somewhere between a song and a poem.
This was followed by anecdotes of her childhood with her grandparents, painting beautiful pictures of sun soaked Caribbean life. This was not however, by any means the extent of the evening’s journey. She explained to the audience that she wrote in ‘voices,’ and went on to inhabit a number of personas, including the starkly moving yet humorous tale of a girl being sent at the age of seven from Jamaica to England, who, after the stirring realisation that she could not remember her own mother’s face, promptly announced that she needed a wee. Perhaps the most stirring was Breeze’s ‘Third World Girl,’ the title poem from her latest collection, from the perspective of a young woman born of a country marred by effects of colonization and later tourism – ‘my paradise is merely your hotel,’ ‘you’ve stolen all my treasures, to build your ivory tower, where I am now housekeeper,’ ending ‘love at first sight only happens to the free.’ Such strong words, from such a warm and inviting character, made the evening one of reflection and fun, a mix not easily achieved.
A particular highlight of the evening was the question and answer session. She was asked about her reaction to being made an MBE, after her poem ‘Old Warrior’ inhabited the voice of a hexagenarian Trinidadian man in London who bluntly states his entirely dishonourable intentions should he come across Her Majesty. After expressing some tongue in cheek concern over whether the lady in question had read the poem, the issue of Benjamin Zepheniah’s rejection of his MBE was raised. She calmly laughed her way through her response, saying that the Queen reminded her of her own mother – ‘just an old woman with severe problems’ – and ended by remarking that she was ‘very glad she has time for Caribbean poetry.’ Because after all, the MBE is not the most impressive thing about Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze. Her subtle combination of hard-hitting opinions, wit, charm, and, of course, that warm, disarming smile enchanted the full room.