The People’s Poet: Benjamin Zephaniah

“As I’m getting older, I’m getting more radical. I’m more political, more angry – maybe because I think things should have changed by now.” Dr Benjamin Zephaniah speaks to Annie Ridout about his life, work and beliefs…

Though best known for his dub poetry, Dr Benjamin Zephaniah, 57, is now mostly writing novels, teaching Creative Writing at Brunel University and playing with his band. He famously rejected an OBE; making it clear that he doesn’t need royal recognition when he gets it from school kids, prisoners, every day men and women…

I walk into Benjamin Zephaniah’s office and notice a pile of leaflets for a Jacqueline Wilson event. She’s the author of my childhood, I tell him, expecting this to roll into a discussion about kids’ books but instead, Zephaniah moves the leaflets to show me what they’re hiding: a book called Fuck Life by a past student of his.

I ask what he thinks of the title and he says that while swearing shouldn’t be used gratuitously, with this book it does work. He then breaks into one of his poems about the Queen and Margaret Thatcher going to Africa, while the people say: why the fuck are they coming here.

“The audience laugh so much when I say ‘fuck’ that I have to pause afterwards. It breaks the rhythm, because I perform the poem with an African rhythm, but otherwise they won’t hear the next line. Sometimes it just works to swear. I love the word ‘fuck’ – it’s not about female genitalia, or race; it can be ‘yeah, feeling fucking great!’ or used in so many other ways.”

This impromptu recital is the first of a handful that pepper our interview; to emphasise a point, or to transport me somewhere in my imagination – like to the clubs of his youth, where there were frequent electricity strikes. Sound systems would have to pack up and go home, but Zephaniah would “drop into poetry and it was just like toasting”.

For those unfamiliar with the term ‘toasting’, it’s freestyle rapping over reggae: “a kind of poetry” – about current affairs, in the political and literal sense. So, he explains: “if a girl called Lorna just walked into the house, you’d say; ‘yeah sister Lorna, come on, you just come round the corner” – you’d incorporate it into your freestyling. “Or if something was happening in the news, you’d say: ‘Mrs Chacha, you better whatcha.’”

His strong Brummie accent appears unaffected by over 30 years spent living in London – and more recently, a Lincolnshire village. He speaks with a bouncing rhythm and tells me about his life as if he’s narrating a storybook, his tone warm and lilting; though the content is often dramatic, and sad.

I first heard Zephaniah’s mesmeric spoken word when I was at secondary school in north London, aged 11. He managed to silence a hall of 200 of us as he spoke about multiculturalism, politics, race, people, relationships – and then led captivating workshops, encouraging us to write our own poetry.

In fact, I have an inkling that it was the mention of this memory in my email requesting an interview that spurred him to agree. That, and the fact that he seems genuinely keen to know people, to talk, to teach and learn, to stimulate and rouse debate.

Kids were on the streets playing – bruised, with cuts. Packs of wild dogs would be roaming around too. I think it really toughened me up

He’s proud of his community work, of going into schools and inspiring young people. “School can be so monotonous, you know what your lessons are, then one day a poet’s gonna come and good or bad – you’re gonna remember that poet so I try and make it good. If between maths and geography you give them a really banging poetry session, they won’t forget it.”

This was missing from his own schooling, which, he says, was devoid of art and creativity. So instead of focusing on his studies, he spent his days “trying to get lost” on the cobbled streets of Birmingham. “We’d get lost then find our way home, can you imagine kids doing that now? I was seven years old. Your parents would be sent to court if they allowed you to just go out and get lost now.”

He lived with his seven brothers and sisters – including a twin sister – in a flat surrounded by bombed-out buildings. “It was unsafe. Kids were on the streets playing – bruised, with cuts. Packs of wild dogs would be roaming around too. I think it really toughened me up.”

He remembers the “gypsies” coming through. “A lot of people didn’t like them,” he says, “but I loved them because they were rough and they sang and had poems and they could fix things; if you had a broken bike they could fix it.”

You get the impression Zephaniah finds the good in everyone and every situation. He fondly recalls being bathed out in a communal courtyard: “We had these tin baths out there and everyone would wash in front of each other. All the families would be doing that. Two kids in, two out, next two in.” He makes it sound fun.

When he was about five, he developed a taste for rhyming. “I loved the sound of words. I was always doing little rhymes to my mum. And at school, I was really into kissing so I’d write poems for girls to impress them. It was just fun with words, I didn’t call it poetry.”

A few years later, a love of music developed from hearing his uncles’ ska, blue beat and jazz records, then as a young teenager he got more into reggae. “The thing you have to understand about Caribbean poetry,” he says, “is that it’s always linked to music, well it’s always linked to rhythm, so if it’s not accompanying music, the poem must be music.”

His first performance to a large audience was in church, when his mum asked him to get up and recite a poem. He was about eight years old. I ask him if this childhood of poetry, performing, ska and jazz was happy and he says yes, that “on the whole it was really good fun.”

Until one night, that is, when he was jolted from his sleep by loud noises and movement in the house. He went downstairs and found his mum crying. “I’d never seen my mum cry. I said: mum, why you crying. She said: dad just hit me with the frying pan. I said: dad, why d’you hit her with it, and I was told to go to bed.”

This led to Zephaniah and his mum going on the run, staying in a series of bedsits where he’d be told which name to use before entering. He didn’t mind, as long as he could then go out to play football.

I’d make it mandatory that all British school kids go abroad and experience another culture: not France or Germany, I want them to go to Iraq, to India, to Jamaica, Ghana, China

His siblings remained in the care of his dad, which is a source of tension to this day. Some of them, he says, revere their father for being able to raise seven kids alone, not acknowledging the way he and his mum were treated. He feels his father had it in for him because while the others would run and hide to avoid a beating, Zephaniah would stand up to him.

However, he says it wasn’t the abuse he experienced in those formative years that led to him dabbling in crime during his teenage years, but instead the people he was hanging around with. “I got kicked out of school when I was 13 and I think that’s when I started doing petty crime. When I was 14 I went before the courts and I was then put into care”.

But he was also framed for crimes he didn’t commit. “A policeman told me once that if I didn’t do anything wrong, they were gonna frame me up anyway,” he says, “I remember once there was a boy the police didn’t recognise so they asked me his name and I said I don’t know, he’s new. They said ok, we’ll find out. I said how you gonna find out? They said, we’ll just arrest him and give him a record. That’s what it was like for black kids.”

Zephaniah later spent some time in prison for stealing, then moved to London in search of work and wound up wowing the capital with his dub poetry, soon being called into youth centres, businesses, schools and prisons to recite his rousing, political work – often referencing multiculturalism and race.

“Race, multiculturalism: it’s on my mind all the time,” he says, “which is a shame really. I often say if the world was perfect and there was no suffering and race issues and police brutality, I’d like to be a comedian. I‘d like to be a Rastafarian Russell Brand with manners. A sexy, funny, poet kind of guy. But nah – there’s other priorities in life.”

Unable to have children of his own, Zephaniah has surrounded himself with young people – nephews, nieces, friends’ kids, school kids – but likes to be on their level, rather than an authority figure. “I don’t let them call me uncle,” he says, “Why? It sets up a hierarchy, they can’t open up to me then.”

I wonder how different his life might have been, if he’d had children of his own and he says that it’s difficult to imagine a negative: “you can imagine a life without children when you’ve had them but what would my life have been like with them? I don’t know.”

“I’m not into presents, Christmas. If I had a kid I’m not going to get them a Christmas present. No, fuck ‘em. I’ll give them some money sometimes and they can do what they like with it. I’m not going to say: ‘Happy Christmas’ – I don’t believe in Christmas.”

Friends have suggested that while people usually become more conservative as they get older, Zephaniah is exempt: “as I’m getting older, I’m getting more radical. I’m more political, more angry – maybe because I think things should have changed by now.”

He makes it his duty to travel frequently to challenging parts of the world. It is this, he tells me, that would inform his policies were he made Education Minister. As well as greater access to the arts, which “have been scientifically proved to get kids to open up; to express themselves”, he’d ensure all school kids travel to somewhere outside of Europe.

When I lived in London, my golden rule was: I don’t travel in the rush hour

“I’d make it mandatory that all British school kids go abroad and experience another culture: not France or Germany, I want them to go to Iraq, to India, to Jamaica, Ghana, China – places where people eat differently, go to the toilet differently, get married differently. Because when you get kids understanding other people’s cultures, in the long run it will lead to less conflict.”

Again, this feeds into his need to nurture people from all walks of life. He talks of recognising streets in war-torn countries on the news that have just been bombed and feeling a profound sadness. “I see these streets I know and they’re bombed to pieces. And I see houses where there were people I knew and I wonder what happened to those people.”

So it may be an expensive policy for the government to implement, he says, “but if you look at the budget overall, you’d save a lot of money because when you send bombs, every cruise missile is over a million pounds. For every soldier – even when they’re not fighting, just for keeping them – you get something like four or five teachers. So this would be investing in peace.”

Travel has always been a priority for him and he emphasises the importance of doing everything you dream about, so as not to have any regrets. “This friend of mine, he used to look after people as they were dying. He says the slowest deaths are the people going: I could have been this, I could have been that. I’m very grateful to be doing what I love every day.”

Most people, he says, are getting on a train, “going home with people they don’t like. Just in time to watch some soap opera, then they go to bed. If they’re lucky they have some sex then they wake up the next morning and do it again.”

So, what’s next for Zephaniah; what does he envisage for the next few years? “I don’t have any great ambitions really – I’m ‘living the dream’.” He feels safe in the knowledge that if he decides he doesn’t want to work in Britain next year, he can tell his editor he wants to work abroad for the next couple of years.

“And that will be that – I’ll just tour abroad. How good is that? When I lived in London, my golden rule was: I don’t travel in the rush hour. So BBC or whatever had to work around me. Imagine saying to your boss: I don’t travel in the rush hour.”

At this point, a student knocks on the door. He offers to come back another day but Zephaniah tells him he definitely wants to see him and has time: “make sure you wait, I’ll just be five minutes.” He returns to his seat, happily answers my last questions and then we agree to end the interview.

As we say our goodbyes, he tells me he’s going to a school that evening to give out awards. Many writers with Zephaniah’s level of success might have given up on community engagements by now, but he remains fervently engaged with the masses. That’s what makes him the people’s poet.