I’m not mellowing with age, I’m getting angrier says poet Benjamin Zephaniah ahead of East Anglia gigs
PUBLISHED: 11:48 06 January 2018 | UPDATED: 13:20 12 January 2018
Internationally acclaimed poet and musician Benjamin Zephaniah, dubbed the people’s laureate, explains why he’s not mellowing with age; quite the opposite in fact.
You’re supposed to mellow with age, says Benjamin, who’s almost 60. If anything, he seems to be getting more militant; angry at the backward steps the nation, the world, has taken.
“In the 1970s and part of the 1980s it was difficult for black people to walk the streets, it was difficult for women alone to walk some streets, very few people said they were gay. There was a period in the 1990s where I thought ‘we’re going in the right direction’ and I imagined myself almost retiring and becoming a Rastafarian comedian, taking it easy.”
Suddenly race, gender and sexual harassment are big issues again.
“We’ve got rulers that want to take us backwards; they want us to put up borders. We were taking them down... I was talking to some youngsters, telling them about racism in the 1980s, The National Front, stuff like that. One of them turned around and went ‘wow, that’s the best history lesson I’ve ever had’. I thought ‘you think of this as history?’.
“I realised having lived so long, through so much; that I may take it for granted - but other people can learn from it. I think Bob Marley said ‘we’re the survivors’. I guess you’ve got to share your survival techniques,” laughs the tireless campaigner, who was a close friend of Nelson Mandela.
“I just couldn’t imagine we’d be here and that’s what I’m angry about. We’re fighting old battles. There’s nothing wrong with making mistakes; we’ve all made them... I was in Birmingham, I was involved in crime... I was sleeping with a gun underneath my pillow, things like this.
“One day I got up and went ‘I’m not doing this anymore; I’m going to follow my dreams as a poet’. I got into a little Ford Escort and I drove to London. That’s my proudest achievement, leaving the gang... I was going to end up doing a long prison sentence or end up dead and I just knew I could do better... the only problem with mistakes is if you don’t learn from them.”
It’s difficult to say why we’re more divided than ever. Look at how Britain votes nowadays, for example.
Benjamin has friends who say you shouldn’t be able to vote unless you have a qualification in politics; that it should be on the agenda at schools. Not to brainwash people one way or another, but so you’re able to at least understand it.
“I’ve always been against that, but there’s a part of me that thinks there’s something in i,” he says, frustrated to see people confusing Brexit referendums with general elections; even how often the latter are held.
“I mean, it’s like ‘argh’. The public really need to be educated in these things and that’s really sad coming from me, because I’ve always been ‘give the public a voice; power to the people’. But when you gave them a voice, look what they did with the internet - ‘p*** off home, blackie’ or ‘I’ll rape you if you don’t agree with me’.”
He thinks there’s a problem in this country in that it’s not cool to be intellectual, so we leave it to people who are very highbrow or those like him who are just struggling around, trying to work stuff out.
“This is the odd thing. You can go to Jordan and talk to somebody on the street very deeply about politics. Here? No. In the schools I went to, if you were interested in politics and social issues you were laughed at and mocked. We need to really understand that being an intellectual isn’t about how much knowledge you have.
“You can have a lot of knowledge, you can pass a lot of exams and have no common sense, no compassion. It’s the willingness to question, to think though things, have an opinion, be willing to put your position forward and then be willing to learn and change it.”
As a recent debate between a landlord and another audience member on Question Time he watched recently proved, we still have a way to go.
“They were discussing housing and he was talking about how he was trying to deal with the problem from his point of view. She said ‘you’ve bought up all the council places; that’s part of the problem’ and it got really interesting. Then this one politician turns round and says ‘it’s the bloody foreigners’.
“I said (to Nigel Farage on Question Time) ‘do you think your name’s English?’ Afterwards apparently they had a test and he’s French or something, then goes back to North Africa or something like that.
“I used to say this when I was small, right, and I still say it now. Imagine Star Trek and they’re going past the Earth and Captain Kirk pointed out Britain and went ‘what’s this rock here?’ and Spock goes ‘well, that’s the British Isles. For thousands of years it was uninhabited and then the Celts came, then the Romans, the Jamaicans, the Polish...’ Captain Kirk would go ‘that’s a great place; there should be no racism there’, only to land and find what’s tearing us apart should be bringing us together.
“The thing that makes Britain interesting is all the different tribes and people that came here, who contributed to our arts our culture. That’s why we have a little place called Coventry that can make such good music, that the Ska invasion took over the world. That’s why you get the Beatles, they had the ability to listen to the black music from America and come up with something unique. For a place that’s so small... if you look at us compared to America you’d think we’re just a speck... but we have such an impact.
“When people think of multi-cultural too many stop at black and asian. They don’t remember the place I come from, Birmingham, used to be called Beormingahām because it was settled by a tribe called the beormingas,” says Benjamin, born and raised in Handsworth.
“They were seen as slightly odd because of the food they ate and in the centre of their settlement they had a thing called the bull ring where they kept all their bulls, which is why we have the Bull Ring shopping centre. When I look up place names around Britain, if you study them; they’ll tell you something about the place. Some people just think there’s an Anglo Saxon white man that was the original one and we should go back to that, that’s our default position; no.”
Given our chat so far, it seems silly to ask if he now regrets turning down an OBE in 2003. Never one to write to impress governments or monarchies, the answer is not at all.
“I’m against empire, so why would I take something that has empire and add it to my name? An OBE would do nothing for me; it would embarrass me... to be honest, the places I work, accepting it would ruin my credibility. I’ve met a lot of the royal family but I don’t bow down for them; they’re just people. I will never disrespect them individually, it’s the institution of monarchy I’m not keen on, so I’m not going to accept a gong from the institution or any government, left-wing or right-wing.”
Benjamin’s fine with being tagged the people’s laureate, though.
“A couple of days ago I was walking down the road and a guy ran out of the barbers shop and he said ‘I was in and out of prison and the last time I was in prison I read your work and decided I wasn’t going back and I’ve got this little business here’... Another guy said to me in the middle of Piccadilly the other day... there’s a play I wrote for Radio 4 called Listen to Your Parents... he said ‘I listened to that play, it made me stop beating my wife, it made me get counselling’. Those moments are my reward.
“I got an email from a 16-year-old girl saying ‘I like your poem; I’m looking at racism and xenophobia and everything and your work is carrying me through. I think about what’s going to happen to us in the future and I just want to tell you your poems give me hope’. That’s what I’m passionate about; that’s where my heart is.”
The internationally-renowned poet and musician’s autobiographical theatre tour The Life And Rhymes Of Benjamin Zephaniah visits The Apex, Bury St Edmunds, on May 23; and Norwich Playhouse on June 2.
It’s his first solo UK tour in eight years and coincides with the publication of his autobiography of the same name, published by Simon and Schuster on May 3.
“I’ll be sharing stories from the book when I’m on the road. I wrote my autobiography gradually, over six years, and wanted it to be a social history of Britain. It charts the struggle for racial equality in Britain, how I connected our struggle to global events, my friendships with the great and the good, and the cool and the bad, and, oh yes, my life as a poet.”
He’s looking forward to the tour, because it’s different. A big part of it will be taking questions from the audience; it’s no holds barred, you can ask anything - from political questions to really personal questions or questions about art.
“I haven’t really got anything to sell, apart from me. I want to share my experiences and hopefully that will inspire people. It really is as simple as that,” says Benjamin, who has fond memories of the Ipswich Caribbean Centre. He used to date a girl from the town.
“She was a real biker. She used to put me on this great big Hells Angels type motorbike and taught me how to ride. I have some really great memories of Ipswich.
“People can come away saying ‘it’s entertaining’ or ‘it’s thoughtful’ but it’s just my life and sometimes it can be emotional, sometimes it can get trivial, sometimes it can get really heavy.”
Presented with the book deal, he had a simple request - no contract and no deadline, it’ll take as long it takes.
“I wanted it to be partly my mum’s story as well. She was literally walking down the street in Jamaica and saw a poster that said come to the mother country, we need you. Her sister went ‘I’m not going there, it’s too cold’.
“When my mum came here, there was a climate that was very difficult. We all know about the ‘no blacks, no Irish, no dogs’, all that kind of stuff. That’s the world she came to. She found some very good friends but realised there’s lots of places she wasn’t welcomed in.
“Growing up, when I got trouble with the police, what was going on there, what youth clubs we were and weren’t allowed into, what music we listened to.... I wanted it to be about the zeitgeist, about what was going on at that time. It would be a bit fake to just write about me, my gigs, meeting famous people,” says Benjamin, whose musical career has included collaborations with Sinead O’Conner and The Wailers.
Context, he says, is really important. He loves the poet Shelley, but when he was first given some of his poems to read by a teacher he was completely put off.
“They said ‘I’ll talk to you in half-an-hour and you can tell me what they mean’. I couldn’t understand it. Later on in life I read about Shelley and the context he was growing up in; the politics, the power structures.... then I went back to the poems and went ‘wow’, this guy was revolutionary. Some people have said ‘what do you think about having you work taught at school’. I say it’s fine as long as people talk about the context I grew up in. You’re missing half the story otherwise, if you don’t get that you’re getting an ego trip.”
Benjamin’s very at peace with himself. A meditater and vegan, he takes care of his body; exercise to him isn’t hard work.
“I’m at the age now where every week somebody I know has died, a lot of people I know that used to misuse their bodies; especially when you’re into the music and culture scene. Some of their minds have gone and I think you didn’t need to do all that.
“They claimed to be having a good time back then and they’re not having a good time now. I’m having a good time, I’m almost 60, I’ve played for under 30s foorball teams because I can out-run all of them. My mum still loves me and I’m not in prison.”