Benjamin Zephaniah: “I can make people think and change their minds”

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We convene virtually to chat over Zoom on a late Tuesday morning. In typical Zephaniah style, Benjamin is laid-back, smiling and ready to chat. “You’re the first person I’ve spoken to all morning so forgive me for going on,” he laughs. 

Zephaniah’s canon is exceptional, and he is widely known for his dub style inspired by reggae and oral tradition. His method of delivery has prompted widespread critical acclaim and won him audiences in places previously untouched by poetry as he goes on to argue. I can begin by asking him what poetry really is and means for him. 

“Poetry is simply taking everyday words that we use and arranging them in a way that touches people. You do have poets who want to show o! their education and use big words but that’s not my school of poetry. I may use words that come from the street of Jamaican Patois. I remember writing a poem and using the old-English term word ‘pelf ’ which means to hoard money – I have to confess, I found it in the dictionary! For me, poetry is about taking words that people recognise and arranging them in a way that is beautiful or can be recognised.” 

Zephaniah then turns to himself and out loud asks “Why do I write my poetry?” 

“For my love of words. It was not until I realised some of the negative things in the world that my poetry became a bit more serious. I first started writing around the time of the Biafra War when I was appalled by the subsequent racism black kids faced. I remember misunderstanding the premise of the Miss World contest. Even though I was very young, I wanted to write poetry that changed the world and made people think.”

“Part of my attitude is that I can make people think and change their minds and that is why I do my poetry.” 

Throughout his career, Zephaniah has been hailed for his unique talent to reach people in their living rooms and community centres who have never previously had contact with poetry before. 

“When I published Pen Ribbon in 1981 and people were talking about me on the television, I would get congratulated by people in the street who said they didn’t even read books! My audience wasn’t even readers. 

“I realised I wanted to take my poetry onto television and perform in places where people never previously would perform – community centres, pool halls, barber shops. I wanted to take poetry to people. I would appear to deliver a poem during the new Channel 4’s commercial breaks. I wanted to bring poetry into the living rooms, sports halls, and community centres.” 

Zephaniah notes that his urge for writing stemmed from what he experienced when growing up.

“As a person of colour, dealing with racism was an urgent priority. You could not get away from it. I remember being told by my mother to always go out with my brother. We had to always think about how you were getting home. You couldn’t rely on the police because they would beat you up! That is why our poetry was so political. We weren’t academic politics students; we were people being beaten up! My poetry wanted to address this as it was urgent.” 

I would get congratulated by people in the street who said they didn’t even read books!

As a learned figure whose been on the performing circuit for over 40 years and has seen immense societal change from the 1981 Race Riots to the celebration of Black History Month today I ask Zephaniah how society has evolved. 

“It’s a mixed bag. I used to say that I was sick of seeing only white faces behind a camera and that has definitely changed. We’ve made lots of progress there.” 

He highlights how he remembers being one of the first black-British poets. Recalling the hit Talking Turkeys, Zephaniah’s poem which is now staple of every primary school’s poetry lesson, he notes “that is progress”.

Inevitably, we then move onto politics, in which Zephaniah is a self-identified anarchist. “What we’re seeing today illustrates to me how democracy and the status quo can be manipulated in a way that superficially seems like it works for you when it does not represent you.” 

“I knew more than half of Blair’s first Cabinet and likewise for Mandela’s. Most of them were from London and Islington.”

“His first minister for Culture was my best friend, we all used to hang out,” he adds so casually. 

“Dali Tambo’s father used to organise my gigs. I saw them all go back [to South Africa] and become corrupted. People can write about anarchist theories as much they like but there are places that live without government and live peacefully and happily. A lack of power means people of course aren’t fighting over it and the main objective of society is to look after each other”. He says simply with a smile. 

Zephaniah is keen to reject the cliché that he gave ‘a voice to a generation.’ 

“I don’t really think that’s true. I was one of the voices who was in the mix of shouting about what was wrong at the time. That was it really,” he says in a very matter of fact way. 

“Although I was a protest poet, it was not just about the protest, there was some humanity. I could laugh as well hence the humour in my work. Many poets fell away after Mandela came out of prison and Thatcher went. They had nothing else to write about so disappeared. I began doing children’s poetry. 

“I’ve never compromised my political views, but I’ve never insulted other people’s views. As Tony Benn taught me, you attack the policies, but you don’t attack the person – one of the greatest things I’ve been taught.” 

I knew more thanhalf of Blair’s first Cabinet and likewise for Mandela’s. Most of them were from London and Islington”

Keen to leave a parting note of advice for myself and all students, Zephaniah adds: 

“People love honesty. I’ve been in trouble in the past, but I’ve been very open about it. I’ve always volunteered the information in fact! People are surprised but if you want to know about me, the real me, then you have to know the truth. In a very strange way, people like that honesty. Even if they disagree you, they think at least you’re being true to yourself.” 

“Try not to follow trends – especially when writing. The trend may very quickly become unfashionable and then you are left defending it. If you have been true to yourself then at least you can own your actions and say it was your belief at the time.” 

You attack the policies but you don’t attack the person”

We wrap up our conversation by of course discussing Peaky Blinders in which Zephaniah stars as a mad preacher. 

“I had to do it, I’m from Handsworth! My character is based on a real figure who was a Jamaican preacher living in Birmingham and became a slightly off-his-head preacher who was preaching hell and damnation for fornicaters. It was almost as if the part was written for me.” 

With a look at the watch he says, “I’ve got to go and check on my sweet potatoes in my patch!” 

Image: David Morris via Wikimedia Commons

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