This post was first published by The Croydon Citizen on 22/06/2018.
Peace Festival 2018: writing Croydon’s ‘Anthem for Peace’
“Music is like medicine, medicine for the soul.” Shaniqua Benjamin’s words about the power of music perfectly encapsulate the emotion in the new song for Croydon, the ‘Anthem for Peace’. The young poet from Thornton Heath and founder of Young People Insight wrote the lyrics for the anthem in several drafts, via brainstorming sessions and professional reviews, to create the song that was publicly released for the first time at the Croydon Festival of Peace. Benjamin shared her inspiration for the anthem with the Croydon Citizen and explained the process she went through to create the lyrics.
This interview has been edited for length.
What is the background of the anthem and how did it come to be?
“It was weird with the anthem because in the beginning, I wasn’t supposed to be the person writing it. It was supposed to be one of the previous Young People’s Laureates of London. Julia, one of the Mozart Players, called me and said that it didn’t quite work out with the lyrics that [the previous writer] wrote, and they saw my poem for Croydon’s London Borough of Culture bid and asked me if I’d be willing to write the lyrics for [the anthem]. I said, ‘Yeah, of course, I’d love to do that’, and then they gave me the information of what they wanted, kind of things like… how the world has been struggling… but it’s starting to heal and bring peace now.
It was really interesting to me… I had the previous lyrics with the beats put in there for the music, and I had the music sent over to me so I heard what it sounded like, but it was interesting because the old words were still with the music. I had to try to come up with lyrics while listening to the original music and the original lyrics, and also trying to get what they wanted and fit everything to the beat. It’s probably one of the most constricting tasks I’ve had to do as a writer, so that was tough for me.
Then I went to see the children of the Ecclesbourne Choir rehearsing… even after that, the composer of the music got in touch and was saying that he wanted to change some of the words around. Because at first, it was very poetic and because I’m a poet, it’s a bit different to writing a song. Obviously, a song would be a bit more to the point and less ambiguous. So, he spoke about that and I said, ‘Yeah because if I change it, I’m happy to do that but I’d love to do it myself because I’m precious about my art and my work’, so we talked about that and changed some of the words. Even then it was me learning it again, because writing a song is a very, very different thing, because I was continuing to learn. It was an interesting experience, different and difficult, but a rewarding and amazing thing to do. Now just hearing my own words being sung as lyrics is really funny for me, strange, but also nice at the same time.”
When you were writing the lyrics, what came to mind as you were creating them?
“I was fortunately on a poetry course at the time when I was doing it, so it’s actually helped me. I remember thinking okay, ‘peace, peace, peace’… I just wrote down about peace, and the things happening in Croydon and the world. I remember writing about the riots and things like that, and all the things that were happening… I just thought about different words such as ‘anger, sadness, unfair, chaos, need for understanding, world getting worse, disbelief, confusion, cry for help, selfish, injustice, a need to do something…’.
As I was looking at chaos, I was thinking about the world getting worse and gone mad and things crying out… As I was doing that, I was thinking about what makes sense of those things and thinking about crying and using different verbs that can lead to that. [I] was just thinking about, you know, how I was feeling when the riots happened, how people were feeling when the riots happened. A lot of it seemed to emerge from crying… how we want [Croydon] to heal, how we want things to get better, and stop the crying. A key thing is using music to heal ourselves… music is a big healer, so it’s taking up what I feel about things but also thinking about all the chaos. Chaos is actually the fundamental theme out of the whole of it, chaos and crying.”
Would you describe chaos and crying as things that would inspire people to find peace?
“If you see chaos constantly around you, I think that you’d want it to calm down and bring peace. I think in all honesty that we all want to have peace in the world, or within ourselves or our communities, but I think that it’s often lacking and I think that people see that and they cry a lot of [the] time. They don’t want to have these things happening or feel that pain within themselves, but if you’re, again, often crying, locked in these things, you’re not always at peace with yourself, so I think that it does lead to it. When we think about peace in our world, it’s usually people making peace… we talk about peace and we talk about ‘oh, there was a war and now we’re at peace’, but there’s more to it than that.”
It’s not a particularly long song, but do you think that you were able to capture everything that you wanted to say within these three stanzas?
“Yeah, I think that I was, simply for what I wanted to say. I think that what it needs to say is simple but… it says everything, and I think that’s just important for me. [It is] capturing that essence of how much pain there is, but again about how we can all come together and unite which is a really key thing I’m all about, everyone uniting, so I think I was able to say everything.”
What is your vision for the anthem and what do you hope it will accomplish in the future?
“I hope that it will be something that [others] can take as their own; not just something that I wrote or someone else composed. Anyone can take it, they can do it any different way that feels comfortable to them, which again is a unifying thing of itself. We’ve all got these words… but you can remix it as any way you want. I hope people just take it or run with it or rap it or sing it or mime it or do all these amazing things where, again, it’s just a way of us bringing peace, coming together as a community just for being bonded by this one, simple song.”
What does writing this anthem mean to you?
“It’s meant a whole lot to me… to even be asked to write something like this from someone like me who hasn’t been writing poetry for a huge amount [of time]. I’ve only been writing poetry for about three years now and [I’m] someone who’s not even really well known to be given such a big responsibility. To have someone like me who’s from Croydon to actually be able to write these lyrics… and be a part of that, I think, is so special. I was really happy about the festival because… obviously to commemorate the war and think of what we’ve lost, but to commemorate peace and think about that and how important it is.
[It’s amazing] to write about something very special and very poignant about a place where I have grown up, and also write about things that are important to me and… have this talent and be able to rise above the challenge that was set. To create something that is beautiful and that people seem to love and that people are seeing and being emotional about, coming to me and saying this is wonderful, this is amazing… I’m thinking, ‘I just thought I did something very, very simple’. Lots of things have happened because of this one anthem and it’s amazing to me how everyone has responded to it, which I find really strange, but it’s lovely.”