“I don’t know where I get the energy; I’m just passionate about these things” – Interview with Benjamin Zephaniah
Words: Ben W. Walker
There is a section on Benjamin Zephaniah’s website rather wonderfully entitled ‘CV type thing’. It makes for impressive, or for an interviewer, scary reading. Amongst the never-ending list of awards and honorary degrees is the fact he came third in the BBC’s poll of the nation’s top ten favourite poets. Nestled between John Donne and Wilfred Owen, he’s the only one on the list who is still alive. He was offered an OBE (which he declined) and was a personal friend of Nelson Mandela.
So: where to start? Of course, status is not what the political poet is about, I thought, just to calm the nerves. Sure enough, I was to find out any focus on the stellar CV is to miss the point. Ahead of his band, Benjamin Zephaniah and the Revolutionary Minds, headlining Sheffield’s ‘Migration Matters’ festival he chatted freely about why technically he should be from Sheffield, what Shakespeare thought of migration, how music and politics are necessary bedfellows and why he’s known as reggae’s Mick Jagger. Spending half an hour in the company of the ‘people’s laureate’ was a delight and his message is more relevant than ever.
I read that your band told you last year that they wanted to go on tour again and you were thinking about it at first. What convinced you?
It’s a bit of a cliché but it really was demand. People are so hungry to see you and nowadays there are more ways of telling you! Nobody wants to feel left out. It really doesn’t matter where you are, you can walk on stage and go “Hello Mansfield!” and they just feel so great that you mentioned Mansfield. It’s a really British thing. But it’s more than that. When we were in Norwich the mother of a little boy asked me to meet him, saying he really loves you, and I met him before the show. He happened to be autistic and couldn’t make eye contact. I wondered whether he was listening to me. Then he started to recite my poetry word for word from memory and I was just blown away. It just humbles me. I can be at home complaining about my plumbing or whatever but then remember my poetry means so much to people like this little boy. That makes me want to perform.
You obviously know Sheffield well. Having travelled all over the world, how does it compare?
I know it very well! Technically speaking this is where I should have been born, it’s just that my mum got a job in Birmingham. She settled there literally having arrived from Jamaica and I still have family in Sheffield. I’ve always found it a really cool, laidback place with the multi-culturalism of London but less of the tension. I always tell people Sheffield is the only place in the world that has my poetry as part of a building in a public place, the window grilles on Rockingham Street.
The ethos of Sheffield’s ‘Migration Matters Festival’ is really interesting and the programme looks amazing. Why is it important to you to play there?
It’s in the title. Migration matters because the human race has always been doing it. It’s impossible to stop and it’s a matter of survival. We moved to higher ground when an area was going to flood. I was in Sheffield when it was announced as a ‘city of sanctuary’ for refugees, when the mood was getting a bit hostile. All our ideas of nationality are kind of fake and invented. Shakespeare, in a little-known poem, pleads to the people of England to be more understanding of the poor refugees coming to this country with nothing and who are suffering discrimination… it was the Huguenots coming from France at the time. Apart from the slightly archaic language, it could be today. We’ve got to get away from nationality and realise that we’re one race, the human race, but those in power seem to be saying the complete opposite. As someone who’s lived through and seen the end of apartheid and thought ‘yeah, we’re going to start pulling together’, it’s like we’ve taken one step forward and three backwards. So, it’s great Sheffield is doing something like this… I’m there, man!
Many people describe the current society in the UK as the most divisive yet. Would you agree and why?You can’t deny that Thatcher was a divisive figure. But in terms of our relationships with each other, I don’t think we’ve ever been more divided. There’s Brexit but all the stuff that led up to it too. The ‘make Britain great again’ and all of the flag waving. We never used to do that, we didn’t have to remind ourselves every day that we were British. Families are divided and I know young people who tell their parents, you’ve messed up my future. European borders are irrelevant to my students. One’s boyfriend is in Holland, and she goes to see him every weekend. “Now I’m going to need a visa?” she asks. Some go to Paris clubbing for a night and come back the next morning!
Has the current political situation changed your approach to writing or performing poetry or music?Unfortunately, it’s the same as always! You just have to step it up more because being a political poet used to be a minority thing but now people are more politically aware. My principles are simple and remain the same. I’m an anarchist, basically, who truly believes in localism and that human beings can live without government. They haven’t always been here and we lived for years and years without them. I’m pretty sad I have to keep on doing what I’m doing. There’s a part of me that wanted to be a comedian or a footballer but I’m a political poet because I think it’s necessary. I thought by the age I am now, 61, I could just have my feet up cracking jokes and watching my football team! Another reason is that I am inundated with requests for a media appearance or to perform whenever I return to the UK. There are so few politically engaged people, especially black people, in the public sense, that when I disappear people notice. It’s sad but it’s the reality.
Sometimes it seems bands are reluctant to mix music and politics. Do you understand that at all?
Nelson Mandela personally told me that if anyone asks you whether music and politics should mix, “Tell them to come and talk to me”. Why did he say that? Because he knew the importance of music, poetry and the arts to his political struggle. At first people weren’t engaged in the anti-apartheid movement. It was only when the musicians got involved and ‘Artists against Apartheid’ took off that he knew that things would change. When Bob Marley was asked why he wrote such political songs he didn’t understand the question. He was writing about the conditions he lived under. Even a love song like Is This Love? is political, “We’ll share the shelter, of my single bed”. As a kid I used to read poems about the local park. Whenever I went into the park I got stopped by the police! I had to write about that. It’s not that I want to be political, I’m forced to be. I don’t want to offend anyone but if you have a platform through music and decide you’re not going to be political, that’s a luxury I don’t have. Of course, I sometimes just joke around in my work but a lot of the time I feel it’s necessary to talk about my condition.
You have been described as a spoken word legend and the nation’s third favourite poet of all time. Has this status affected you, or how you are received, over the years do you think?
I’ve turned down more awards than I’ve accepted. I get stopped by people in the street and they tell me a poem I wrote about women’s rights or mental health meant so much to them or “I was really depressed and thinking of committing suicide and then I read your poem and thought, oh wow, I want to live”. My trophies are every time I get one of those or just get a member of the public coming to one of my gigs, not things sitting on my shelf at home! I was walking through London with someone much more famous than me, a real superstar. He got lots of attention but said “the way people approach and speak to you, it’s so heartfelt”. I never take my listeners or readers for granted. My book signings are always longer than my gigs because I talk to people, maybe about a problem they’re going through or racism or sexism they’ve experienced… it’s more like a surgery. If somebody devotes one night to come and see you I am always humble; we only live once as far as we know and you’re never gonna get that night back, but maybe that’s just age talking! [laughs].
You don’t seem to be mellowing at all, even in your 60s. Why do you think?
I thought I might be worrying about pensions and land prices, stuff like that, but I’ve got more revolutionary in a sense… I don’t know how to explain it. Some old activist friends say “I don’t do that anymore. My heart’s still there but I haven’t got the energy”. Sometimes I see people worn down or they have families they get involved with. They say “I’ve given my time for the struggle, now it’s time for me”. I can understand that. Whereas I’ve just got more fired up. I overheard someone saying “He’s 61 and bouncing around the stage like an 18-year-old!” As Bob Marley said, “One good thing about music, when it hits you, you feel no pain”. They call me reggae’s answer to Mick Jagger: energised and all over the place when that music starts! On demonstrations I shout like I did when I was 18. I don’t know where I get the energy; I’m just passionate about these things.
When you were younger was there a point when you had to choose between music and poetry?
I come from what academics now call the ‘oral tradition’. They’re no different. When I write poetry I hear the music behind it. I knew what I wanted to do from being a kid. I remember being in the Boy’s Brigade, like the Scouts, aged eight and this really old fashioned soldier guy came and asked us: “Boys, what do you want to be when you grow up?”. One boy said policeman, another fireman… all these manly jobs. I said, “I want to be a poet.” He shouted “A poet? When was the last time you saw a poet skin a rabbit?” [laughs] I answered, “I wouldn’t want to eat a rabbit, sir!”
Ah, so, already an active vegan, like you are now….
Exactly. So, I had a vision of exactly what I’m doing now even though there was no one around doing that, no performance poetry scene, no Lindsey Kwesi Johnson figure to look up to. So I kind of imagined it and made it happen. I knew it wasn’t going to be the kind of dead poetry I read at school. It would be nightclub poetry. I knew it would be on TV and radio, to be taken off the bookshelves and put into people’s lives.
Benjamin Zephaniah and The Revolutionary Minds headline the Migration Matters Festival at The Leadmill on Friday 21 June. His autobiography, The Life and Rhymes of Benjamin Zephaniah, was published in May 2018.