Gangsta Rap by Benjamin Zephaniah

There are times when you pick up a book and it is completely out of your comfort zone, not at all what you were expecting of yourself to select as a novel to read. This has happened to me a lot in the last year. Having not read for pleasure for such a long time I found that all the books I had and the type of books I was used to reading were not capturing my attention anymore. I have definitely spent a lot of time and money picking up books that are ‘out of my comfort zone’ as a reader, and the risk has paid off. And that is exactly what Gangsta Rap was.

So onto the review.

Spoiler alert!

“Let wordy great minds think alike, sweet Hip-Hop be our guiding light.”
Benjamin Zephaniah, Gangsta Rap

Gangsta Rap follows the story of Ray and his two friends Prem and Tyrone, three boys from East London that have been excluded from their school. The novel promises to tell the tale of students from poor backgrounds that overcome adversity to accomplish their dreams. It didn’t deliver it for me, not entirely at least.

Lets start with analysing the protagonist Ray. Zephaniah here delivers the stereotypical troubled youth, not only is he from an ethnic minority background, his family is struggling financially, his dad has bouts of aggression and the parents are always arguing and to top it off, Ray hates school and becomes violent towards teachers. Zephaniah then gives this particular character a passion for Hip Hop/Rap, which in my opinion can be a highly intellectual interest (Hello, Kendrick Lamar?!), however, it is seen by many as a lesser art form sadly. The issue isn’t that Zephaniah made the character a stereotype, he didn’t really have a choice if he wanted to write a story revolving this particular gentleman, Ray had to fit the part and so he did. He turns his life around in the novel, he achieves his aspiration of becoming a rap artist with ease. Ray even overcomes the call of gangsta life, when he purchases a gun but with the support of his friends decides not to use it and gets rid of it. My issue with the character is that he has some unresolved emotional issues, he never quite mends his relationship with his father and his girlfriend is killed as well. Even though Ray seems on top of the world, he is an emotionally damaged character, and I feel that Zephaniah didn’t quite conclude his story. Where is his love for his mum and sister too? Ray is so far detached from his needs as a human being that he never really gets closure for anything that happens in his life.

Then we have the issue with Tyrone! Why did we never hear anything about the abortion? I felt so disappointed that we never got anything more than Sam lost the baby! We need to know if all the threats were playing with her pregnancy. And what about the fact that she was an adult and Tyrone a minor? Why was none of this expanded? Then what about the fact that Prem’s mother is a traditional Indian woman? Where was all the cultural conflict? That would have been so interesting, and made the character of Prem much more three dimensional. We also have to consider the fact that if Prem and Tyrone were meant to be Ray’s closest friends and confidants, who too were excluded from school. Surely that meant that they were primary characters of importance, with stories of conflict also meant to be explored? So why weren’t they? It seemed like Zephaniah included all the tropes of a difficult life to all the characters, but he failed to explore two of them largely, which made them seem superficial even though they are a huge part of the story.

The character that to me screamed Zephaniah was Marga Man. The typical Jamaican man, fond of food, good music and the poetics of life, Zephaniah captures him ideally. He did what he does best and played with phonetics to portray the strongest Jamaican accent he could in writing. Marga Man was probably the more believable of the characters, a foreign man with talents and skills above the job he has. He was everything I wanted him to be and more, a perfect father figure, not afraid of making and admitting to his mistakes, but always caring for the three boys.

Zephaniah is one of my favourite poets, and I was really curious to read the novel, expecting to love it like I have loved so many of his poems, but I didn’t love it. I enjoyed it, and from the eyes of a Young Adult, I would have probably loved it. However, from the eyes of an adult, a fan of his poems, I wanted more. Still, I would suggest that this is a great novel for you to give to your children, break the stereotypes etc, live in another person’s and culture’s shoes. Overall, a good purchase and investment to celebrate World Book Day 2018.



Gangsta Rap is available for purchase on Amazon, Foyles and Waterstones –  at least as far as I have seen!

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