Caribbean influencer: meet Shaniqua Benjamin, Croydon's poet laureate
In April last year Croydon became the latest London Borough of Culture, a title it will hold for a year, and which was secured with the help of Shaniqua Benjamin, the south London borough’s first poet laureate, a role she has held for the last three years.
I saw Shaniqua perform in November at the Croydonites Festival, three weeks of events showcasing new and established artists. The Front Room is a small, thriving venue, hard to find on a dark, wet evening but well worth the journey.
Shaniqua performed Love Warrior, a one-woman show in which she invites her audience to “get comfortable sitting in the uncomfortable that comes with love, change and challenging perceptions”. On entering the auditorium, I found a wax crayon and two small pieces of card waiting on my chair. I was surprised how threatening these harmless objects could seem, and settled uneasily into my seat, knowing that some form of audience participation would be required. Despite being distracted by the crayon, I was quickly drawn into the mood and atmosphere Shaniqua created with her calm, quiet presence and invitation to join in with the lyrics she was repeatedly singing whilst waiting for the room to fill.
During the piece, she asks (and expects audience answers to) questions such as: “What's the point of a beating heart if not to feel?” 'and “What happens when love does not take you to your happy place?”
This was an immersive piece of spoken word, exploring love, change and challenging perceptions which had been years in the making, originally as a 10-minute piece in Apples and Snakes’ show Rallying Cry in 2018.
It was evident from the skilful and comfortable way Shaniqua drew the audience into this performance how she has been so successful with past projects in engaging and empowering the young people she has worked with.
She used her passion for making a difference to found, in 2019, Young People Insight CIC to give a voice to young people through monthly poetry nights, discussion groups and a blog. Shaniqua wrote the lyrics for the London Mozart Players' Anthem for Peace and a specially commissioned poem for their Oratorio of Hope which opened Croydon’s year as London Borough of Culture in 2023. She also wrote a poem for the 2022 One Young World Summit, read by Leigh Anne Pinnock, Ebinehita Iyere and Shaniqua. She has been published by Ink, Sweat & Tears and Magma.
In 2023, Shaniqua worked with the Museum of Croydon and National Portrait Gallery on Citizen UK: Croydon's Caribbean Influencers in her role as Croydon poet laureate. Citizen UK is a National Portrait Gallery project that works with local communtiy members to explore local and national archives and collect people's own stories and memories to create new artwork. Working alongside graphic illustrator Kyam, Shaniqua created the poetry for the exhibition using individuals’ oral histories, written interviews and archive material from over 30 people to tell their individual stories and pick out recurring themes identified by the wider Caribbean community.
Shaniqua attributes much of her development as a poet to the support and mentorship received from fellow poet Zena Edwards, and has previously declared “I want my future to be full of poetry. I truly love working with others and helping them to find their voice and create their own poetry.”
This is something Shaniqua is certainly achieving. She has an impressive portfolio for such a young and talented poet. The outer London boroughs’ cultural activities often get overlooked and being the London Borough of Culture has brought some valuable funding into the Croydon area. It is good to see that Croydon’s arts scene is thriving, with poet laureate Shaniqua playing a lead role.
Her work is currently on display - and can also be heard - at the National Portrait Gallery as part of Citizen UK: Croydon's Caribbean Influencers, until 12 February
PHOTOGRAPH: LUKASZ IZDEBSKI