Poet, dissident, social commentator, musician, self-proclaimed revolutionary. These are all terms that have been used to describe the life and work of Benjamin Zephaniah. Born in Birmingham he moved to London at 22 to pursue a career in poetry. His first collection Pen Rhythm was published in 1980 which made his name. This decision to move came after a spell in prison where he realised he was not fighting the injustices he faced through crime. Instead he decided he would transform himself into an effective political tool. On leaving prison, he famously tells of the officer who told him he’d be back, Zephaniah replied “Yes, but then it will be political.”
He is currently promoting a tour that coincides with the publication of his autobiography titled The Life and Rhymes of Benjamin Zephaniah. The nationwide run of shows will include poetry, music and stories from his life. I remember my first encounter with Zephaniah reading ‘Rong Radio Station’ and being struck by his infectious energy and natural intelligence. Now at the age of 59, he says that he is not just still radical but that he is “more angry than before.”
His humour and shrewd optimism come across in the talk we have about his close relationship with Nelson Mandela, schooling skin-heads, racism, his youth, prison and his life that has been dedicated to expanding the realms of politics and poetry, as he says, “to everyone.”
Gigwise: You have done so much work as a creator and activist. I want to know where that comes from in a young person?
Benjamin Zephaniah: Well, I think that I always had a sense that things weren't right in the world. Obviously I knew there was racism, mainly in America, but I had my first racist attack when I was about eight. Somebody hit me with a brick and called me a ‘black bastard' and told me to 'Go home!' I was so confused. I went home to my Mum and I said 'I've come home! What does he want?’ And my mum had to explain to me that there were people who didn't like black people. And I said 'But why?' And she said 'Because they're black.' And I remember saying to her 'Does that mean I should not like white people because they're white?' She said 'NO! Don't do that! That's wrong.' So I couldn't understand why somebody would be a racist. And then, I watched television and saw things going on and I thought that if I grew up to be poet and talked about it, that I would change the world. It's kind of naive but I'm still trying to do it basically.
G: Were there times when you experienced racism as a result of your work?
BZ: Oh yeah. I mean, I was once attacked on stage. I was once attacked leaving the stage. And the reason I had the courage to do it was because we had racism here but in South Africa they had apartheid! The government were officially racist. Mandela made a speech once in court where he talked about the principles of anti-racism and says 'This is a principle for which I'm prepared to die.' And I think you have to kind of say that to yourself quietly. Is this worth dying for? Obviously I don’t want to die, I really love life and if I can avoid dying then I will. But I realised my cause is much bigger than me. And I'll tell you a true story...I got in trouble with the police as a kid, I did that a lot, there was one point where my Dad was trying to reason with me and he couldn't and he said to my uncle, who I really liked, 'You talk to him.' And my uncle got me and he said 'Look son,' he said, now remember this is in the 70s so he said 'You've got to calm down you keep ending up in the police station, this is not good, you’re going to end up doing a long time in prison blah blah.' So I said 'Yo, what do you want me to do?!' 'This is what you do,' he said 'get an apprenticeship’. (Black people weren't expected to go to university or college). 'Then you get a nice job, after you get a nice job you save up a little money, you get a nice Jamaican girl.’ Those were his exact words. 'And then you get married and then you buy a little house, you get a little mortgage, and then everting nice.' So then I said 'What happens next?' He said '...then you die.' I said 'What? You die?' I said no there's more to life than this. I said to myself 'I can take my poetry. Talk about these things passionately and that's my life. And if I die for that, then so be it.’
G: I'd like to ask a little bit about how you came to meet Nelson Mandela? And what that was like and what he represents to you.
BZ: While he was in prison he was given some of my books and some cassettes. When he was in prison he had a little government in exile. So he had a minister of education, a minister of justice, etc. And I've met his jailer - the people who locked him up. And they said ‘Yeah, we never used to worry about them - other prisoners would nick all kinds of things but they never saw themselves as criminals. They would take our newspapers!’ To see what was going on in the world. And every now and again they would get a parcel from Cuba to see what was going on in Cuba. And they got this parcel from England and it had some of my work in it. I’d worked with The Wailers on a tribute to Nelson Mandela called Free South Africa. So he'd heard that and how it was banned in South Africa. When he got out he asked to meet me. It was on the day he was going to meet Mrs Thatcher and he wanted to meet really early and I was like 'No one gets me out of bed that early but for you, Mandela… I'll make an exception.’
The interesting thing was he kept on thanking me! By saying 'You're the son of Jamaicans living in Britain but you feel just like a South African.' I was saying 'No, come on. You've been the inspiration behind so much. Because if you'd just sold out one little bit they would have let you out but you stuck to your guns for twenty seven years!'
G: Was he almost a spiritual figure to you?
BZ: One day in my office I was talking to him on the phone and we had an amazing row and I slammed the phone down on him! And people in the office went 'You just slammed the phone down on Nelson Mandela!' And then I picked the phone up and I apologised and he apologised. We were arguing about a man who had been imprisoned in South Africa called Mzwakhe Mbuli who is a very famous poet. Me and Mandela were talking and we had this row. And so I never saw him as a God. When people said there was an aura around him and all that stuff I said 'I didn’t see it.'
BZ: No, I'll tell you the truth, I didn’t see it! I sat down with him and he's told me some personal stuff he hadn't told anyone else. And so I know he made mistakes while he was in political office. He didn't want to be in political office. When he came out of prison he just wanted to enjoy his grandchildren and live his life again but he also felt that South Africa needed him as a figurehead. But the greatest thing that he did was that gesture of forgiveness when he left prison. He was a great man. I'm so lucky to have been able to sit with him privately. And the last time I saw him, I'll never forget it. We were talking about shirts. He was telling me that my shirts were a bit too plain. He always used to wear these colourful shirts. And then I didn’t see him for about three years and then at the unveiling of the plaque at Parliament Square he came over to me and he went ‘Benjamin… you’re still wearing those boring shirts.' I was like 'What? You still remember that?' And he just carried on the conversation where we left off years ago. I couldn't believe it. He was a great person. He raised up his spirit to inspire countless others.
G: What are your views on Brexit?
BZ: I voted to stay but actually I want to leave. But I want to leave for revolutionary reasons. I want to leave so when I go and get my politicians and make them accountable I want to get them in London and Manchester. I don't want to get them in Brussels and Paris.
G: When was the last time you experienced joy?
BZ: Haha. The last time I experienced joy?
G: It feels like this is something that you experience quite a lot.
BZ: Well, you see. I do. And I'm trying not to give you an answer that’s going to make me sound weird.
G: Sorry. Haha.
BZ: So. Um actually. The last time that I experienced joy was just last week when Aston Villa played Wolves and we won 4-1. 4-1!!! And we're just trying to get into the play offs. I love my local team.
G: I know. I know.
BZ: So that's joy - because it's completely away from work. My first real answer would be kind of about two hours ago and yesterday morning after I'd finished my Tai-Chi practice.
G: So how important is discipline to you? In your life, what does it mean to be disciplined?
BZ: You know, when I was young there was a stereotype of the black, especially the Rastafarian, poet or musician. Always turning up at the gig late, slightly off their heads. And I was like, no. I turn up on the straight. And I'm on time. It was always my thing. Discipline. When I was 14 I lost a friend to drugs. And being in this business I've seen other people that have got lost because they've been undisciplined. I mean, I don’t drink, I'm a vegan, I don't smoke. I'm disciplined about what I put in my body. I'm disciplined about how I exercise. Before I go to sleep at night I literally go through the day and think 'do I need to apologise to anybody?' Because I like to clear my conscience with my meditation. I study marital arts. There's something slightly militaristic about me when it comes to discipline. When I was young, I mean it's very politically incorrect to say this, I started a little organisation called the IRA which stands for 'The Independent Rasta Army'. (Laughter.)
G: You've been busy. You've always been busy.
BZ: I mean there were only three of us! Ha-ha! But the idea was, Bob Marley had a song that said 'Who is going to stay at home when the freedom fighters are fighting?' So if we were called to fight - we should be able to. I remember being with a group of people who were saying 'Yeah we'll fight for freedom.' And I looked at them and remember thinking 'You need to fucking eat... You can't fight!' (Laughter). So we trained. We were physical. Just in case. And it was so remote the chances that there was going to be a military revolution in Britain. But we were prepared for it anyway.
G: What do you think is a good way to encourage young people to be more politically conscious and active?
BZ: Umm…(Takes a deep breath). It depends on what their interest is. But first of all, I would tell them, to join with like-minded people. Personally, and I think this is very unfashionable at the moment, I think we have to think in a revolutionary way. I think, and this is not a criticism of the right and this is not a criticism of the left, or the centre, it's a criticism of all of them. They are all failing. And I think, and this is what I would tell young people now, what you have to do in the future...I don't believe it has a name yet. So if you are looking for terms like socialism and capitalism, you are looking backwards. If you are talking to someone who is steeped in the tradition of left-wingism and you say to them 'How do you see things changing?' They kind of talk about workers putting down their tools and things like that. Well most workers are not in factories anymore. Most people are behind computer screens or they are cleaning hotel rooms. So, it's not going to be like a trade union, calling all the workers out and the workers unite. If you look at, and regardless of whatever you think of him, if you look at the Corbyn campaign recently, I think this is a good example of showing you how we can live in the same space but in two separate worlds.
If you follow the mainstream media, you would have been pretty sure that Corbyn got a hammering at the last election and Theresa May was going to go forward and represent the overwhelming majority of the electorate. I knew differently because I could see on the internet, I could see young people who were organising, I went to a couple of Corbyn meetings in Yorkshire in small villages and it was like Martin Luther King had come to town. I mean, it stopped traffic, it was like a rock star had arrived. But it wasn't reported in the mainstream media. I'm not making a party political broadcast because I have criticisms of the labour party but I'm just saying that if you had followed the mainstream media you would have missed it altogether. And so when the results were announced it was shocking. Corbyn was very close behind May. My point is, maybe the next revolution will start online. We've seen what happened in the Arab Spring for example. Again I'm not saying it will. I'm saying we don’t know. And what I would say to young people is that you shouldn't be looking at the old ways. You should learn from history it's really good to understand your antecedent but we've got to find a new way of doing things.
G: What does a kind of British revolution look like because it's not really in our historical vocabulary. And I have a suspicion that we as a people are afraid of even small degrees of change?
BZ: Of change, yeah. We are a conservative country.
G: How dangerous is that? And also what do you consider to be dangerous in general?
BZ: The most dangerous thing for us right now and I think its playing out right now with this Russia thing is believing our media. I don't know if you've heard my poem 'Rong Radio Station' I think that is still relevant now. The media keeps saying something...they say it so often and then we start to believe it. We started to believe that we, as individuals, are really bad. That’s the dangerous power of the media. Once upon a time when you wanted a revolution you'd go and get the president string them up in a local square. Now, one of the first places they go now are television stations and radio stations. Once they've got control of the media they've got control of the minds of the people.
G: So how do you encourage an individual to think for themselves?
BZ: I would say, look at other people who think for themselves. For me, one of the greatest minds living is Noam Chomsky. And one of the things I really like about him is that he reads the newspapers that he doesn’t like. It's not enough to stick within the echo-chamber. So read the stuff you don't like and I say to people 'try to understand why people are the way they are.’ There is a poem of mine which goes:
'If you get uptight and you want to fight,
Fight dem, not me.
And see things not right,
See dem, Not me.
I came, I saw, I live here and I have my tribulation to
If you live in a kitchen and you can't afford chicken,
Blame dem, not me.
If the tax you pay is high and you’re living in the sky,
Feed dem, not me.'
And it was addressed to the National Front in the 80s. And I used to enjoy sitting down with them and they used to say ‘Oh, you're black you took all our houses.' I said 'Come on I'll show you how the blacks live.' And I'd literally showed them and they went ‘Shit!'
G: There should definitely be a larger dialogue between opposing political points of view and individuals. How do you think this can be achieved?
BZ: I'm not a politician but a poet, but in my poetry there is politics. Not so long ago someone said to me would I do a performance for The Federation of Small Businesses. At first of all I went 'No' because they're all very right-wing leaning people and then the person said 'Well actually they would really want to hear from you.' And I thought 'Actually yeah of course.' And one of the things that I encouraged someone to do the other day was someone who didn’t like Jeremy Corbyn was to go and listen to him and stop following what's being said about him on the television. I think that if you were in an organisation or if you have a political project, or if you are involved in some kind of politics or campaigning, try as hard as you can to take it to people that are opposed to you. As long as it's non-violent. If they're open minded, and even if they're not. But it takes a certain amount of bravery. And because you’re going into the den of the enemy essentially.
G: How do you overcome heartbreak? I know I’ve taken a bit of a detour here.
BZ: Well..no. I usually go for a run. It all depends on how my heart's broken. But I usually go for run, go punch a punch bag and meditate…(pauses)…and eat cake.
G: What does the society that you would like to live in look like?
BZ: It would be anarchy. I mean beautiful anarchy. I don't mean people going crazy. We'd use local resources. We would be modern. Money wouldn't be the thing that would measure our wealth. Most importantly. We would measure our wealth by how long we live, how good our children are.
G: What do you think of the myth of the doomed poet who dies young and troubled? Paul Farley and Michael Simmons Roberts have just written a book implying the myth begins at the death of Chatterton dying alone in his garret at seventeen.
BZ: For thousands of years there's been a tradition in Africa of a Griot. Griots would go from village to village doing poetry. They were poor, usually fed by the people they meet. And they die in poverty a lot of them. Some of them don’t. Baaba Maal is now an international superstar but he comes from a family of Griots. With all respect I think they're taking a very euro-centric view of this issue. I do think it's a bit of a myth of the poet living in poverty, doing their poetry, that no one understands them. There are some poets that are like that and some poets want to be like that. But there are other poets that travel the world. My favourites are the Romantics, Shelley and Byron and Keats.
When I do my teaching at university I say ‘I'm going to teach you how to do an hour show.’ If you do an hour show anywhere, you should be getting paid for it. Because people are paying to come in and see you and if you’re not getting paid, somebody else is getting paid, so you’re being robbed. That's the bottom line. So you shouldn't be starving.
G: What is the singular idea that could change our society for the better?
(Thinks for a long time)
BZ: The idea that we could be attacked by aliens.
G: That is a fantastic answer and a fantastic end to the interview.
BZ: Then our races wouldn't matter that much. Our borders wouldn't matter that much. Then we'd know what was really important.
Benjamin Zephaniah is on tour. Tickets are available directly form each venue's website
May 6 – Bath Theatre Royal
May 12 – Southampton Turner Sims
May 20 – Liverpool Philharmonic
May 23 – Bury St Eds Apex
May 27 – Hove The Old Market
May 31 – Lincoln Drill Hall
June 1 – Milton Keynes Stables
June 2 – Norwich Playhouse
June 8 – Edinburgh Queens Hall
June 9 – Gateshead Sage
June 10 – Nottingham Glee Club
June 14 – Shrewsbury Theatre Severn
June 15 – Birmingham Town Hall
June 16 – London Union Chapel
June 17 – Cardiff Glee Club
June 23 – Manchester Royal Northern College of Music
June 26 – Leicester The Curve
June 30 – Ledbury Festival