Shaniqua Benjamin: from a college dropout to Croydon’s first poet laureate

Benjamin standing in front of a shop front advertising her and her work
Pic: Shaniqua Benjamin

When Shaniqua Benjamin dropped out of university in 2013 she never thought that one day she would become the first-ever Poet Laureate of Croydon.

After working in her community and using her self described “God-given gift” for writing she has accomplished so much at only 28-years-old.

Her warm and kind nature was evident within the first conversation; regardless of what she has achieved Benjamin is still very humble and is adamant that is the way she would like to be remembered.

“I cannot specify enough that there is no ‘e’ at the end of my name.  Also, phonetically, it is pronounced with a ‘ca’ sound rather than a ‘kwa’ sound.” The comment arose when asked what she would like people to say when mentioning her name.  

After clarifying that in fact, she would like them to say it correctly, she said: “I’d really like them to say is ‘she’s a really lovely woman with a warm, caring heart.’”

‘Hurtful struggles’

Benjamin was born into a religious family in Thornton Heath, South London. Shaniqua spoke fondly about the area that she “loved” living in. She grew up around the church with parents who exposed her to things that broadened her horizons.

“My parents opened my eyes to art and culture by filling our lives with music, taking us out to eat, watching sports and also taking us on holidays out of the country.”

Benjamin also claims that her dedication to achieving her goals was a skill instilled in her by her parents. Her unapologetic determination allowed her to strive for what she wanted.

She said: “I’m also someone who has always been determined to do what I wanted to do and aim for aspirations, even if I didn’t see anyone who was black in those roles.”

However, Benjamin began experiencing “hurtful struggles” in her youth with friends, which essentially caused her to develop low self-esteem and trust issue among her peers. When looking back on her youth, she shared a piece of advice she would give to her 12-year-old self.

Benjamin performing on stage last year
Pic: Shaniqua Benjamin

“I would tell 12-year-old Shaniqua to hold on, to not lose her confidence and to not seek validation in people. To keep talking to God and to keep writing.”

Her interest in writing was present from a young age. She described herself as “a little girl who stayed in during playtime in Year 1 to finish a short story based on ‘Where The Wild Things Are’.”

Praying for inspiration

Her self-confessed God-given gift allowed her to turn her passion into a career that not only creates beautiful pieces but also positively affects her community.

Her inspirations come from various aspects of her life, such as basketball, music and human emotion. Her relationship with God also helps with her creativity. She said: “I also pray a lot when I need to find inspiration for a specific piece that just isn’t there yet.”

Her journey of growth and discovery was kick-started after dropping out of university in 2013 after studying Fashion Design and Development at London College of Fashion and having to be on Jobseekers, which she described as “not a pretty or kind process.”

She said: “ [I] can’t emphasise enough how much I’ve grown as an individual, leader and creative over the past 6/7 years, especially after my confidence, self-esteem and self-belief were completely shattered after dropping out of uni… I’ve come so far with the love, support and guidance of so many, who are all part of my wider story of becoming the woman I am today.  God’s plans for me have really gone beyond my wildest dreams.”

Benjamin described the process of becoming Poet Laureate as “intriguing but straightforward” as well as something she did not quite expect. After a string of performances at Croydon Council events and writing poems for Croydon’s Borough of Culture bids, she began to be referred to as “Croydon’s Poet Laureate” by the previous leader of the council, Tony Newman.

It later became official as part of the 2023 Borough of Culture bid. Croydon’s Borough of Culture is a bid put forward by the council to celebrate the boroughs rich heritage as well as pushing the boroughs inclusivity through various events.

“They asked me to be the first, because of the poems I had written for them and also because of the poetry-related work I had done through my organisation, Young People Insight [a community interest company created to empower young people’s voices]. 

“I’m also very active in the Croydon community as a whole, as well as being active in the cultural community and having ties to the corporate sector,” Benjamin said.

Making a difference

After having a chat about how Shaniqua became the woman she is today, she spoke with great passion about her future.

She said: “I want my future to be full of poetry, with books published, spoken word shows being performed internationally and workshops facilitated with a wide variety of individuals, because I truly love working with others and helping them find their voices and create poetry.”

But poetry is not the only thing Benjamin is looking to be full of; she also wants to be involved in the community, as well as ministry work.

“I have a number of dream projects that are in the pipeline, starting with my one-woman spoken word show ‘Love Warrior’, which I will start developing and working on again later this year. 

“I also want to start working on a project with young men, specifically young black men, which has been in my heart and mind for a very long time, so hopefully I can bring that to life sooner rather than later,” Benjamin said when discussing her dream projects.

Her love for writing and compassion for the community are traits she exudes.

In fact, the motto she lives by says it all: “Show love to all, serve others and make a difference in the world.”

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