Legendary poet redefines Black History Month – the Benjamin Zephaniah feature

History Maker: Benjamin Zephaniah at County Hall (Photo: Denis Oates Photography)

History Maker: Benjamin Zephaniah at County Hall (Photo: Denis Oates Photography)

It made perfect sense to invite legendary dub poet and writer Benjamin Zephaniah to launch Lancashire’s Black History Month celebrations.

But somehow there was no real surprise that the star attraction was soon questioning the validity of the event he was booked for.

That said, in so doing, this 56-year-old from the West Midlands made the message behind the ethnic awareness initiative all the stronger.

“Although this may sound like a contradiction, I want this country to reach a place where we don’t need a Black History Month.

“The history of black people should be integral. We’re not there yet, but that’s what we should be working to.

“I’m fed up of going to people with an idea and being told we can’t do something now, but may do it in Black History Month.

“It becomes a little ghetto for black people. The history of black people is not just important for black people.

“When I was younger I wanted to read Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X and all these writers. But there was something missing.

“I wanted to know the real history of white people too, of the working white people’s struggles, fighting for what we now take for granted.

“It’s about the history of all of us, getting to a place where we don’t need a Women’s History or Black History Month, just a good rounded history of everybody.”

Question Time: John Gillmore and Benjamin Zephaniah (Photo: Denis Oates Photography)

Question Time: John Gillmore and Benjamin Zephaniah (Photo: Denis Oates Photography)

Answering a further question from a young woman from East London about how far things had moved on in the last few decades, the star guest took a similar stand.

“Two years ago I understand there were more black people in prison than there were in higher education, which is very sad.

“The other day I got stopped by a policeman. I had a hat on, and he opened the door and said, ‘You were on a mobile phone’.

“I said, ‘Are you sure?’ OK, here’s the deal. I am inviting you to search me and this car. You see if you can find a mobile phone’.

“He blamed my hat, said it was the way it bulged out. Then his friend joined us, saying,‘I’ve seen you on the television! Can I have your autograph?’

“Now if I was a young black man, 18 or 19, just hanging out, the end of that could have been very different.

“It’s hard for a lot of people to understand. They don’t know our reality. Things have changed since the 70s and 80s, but not enough.

“We need to do more in terms of campaigning, organising ourselves, and education is so important.

“Racism is so deep-rooted in the culture here. Sometimes you can see it in the way people celebrate Empire, you can hear it in the language, you can see it in the media.

“There really is institutional racism, and it’s going to take years and years to dig it out.

“How did Barclays Bank start? Slave money! Where did the Queen get most of the jewels in her crown? How are you going to deal with that stuff?

“That’s why the history of black people is for everybody. Once you start to realise that, you can start to really attack the racism we have today.”

Council Chamber: Benjamin Zephaniah faces his audience at County Hall (Photo: Denis Oates Photography)

Council Chamber: Benjamin Zephaniah faces his audience at County Hall (Photo: Denis Oates Photography)

The County Hall guest, who famously turned down an OBE in 2003, certainly proved a natural with the microphone, responding candidly to questions from his Q&A session host, BBC Radio Lancashire presenter John Gillmore.

And the same applied when he was quizzed by the audience, which included lots of local schoolchildren, and members of Preston’s ethnic communities.

Benjamin has worn many labels over the years, from dub poet and writer to musician, playwright, political activist, animal rights campaigner, and even rasta folkie.

He prefers trouble-maker though, and told a packed Council Chamber, “My mum still says I’m just a naughty boy!”

Yet while his birth name suggests he’d make a perfect ambassador for the world’s conflicts, he’s not so sure.

“My full name is Benjamin Obadiah Iqbal Zephaniah, which is Christian, Moslem and Jewish. So people think I should be head of the United Nations.

“But it just means I get stopped at every airport in the world – someone’s always got a reason to stop me!”

While raised in Birmingham and making his name in London, Benjamin divides his time between rural Lincolnshire and Beijing these days, the latter location where he has written most of his novels.

His Lancashire drop-by also involved a number of school sessions, part of an on-going bid to inspire children into the kind of reading this dyslexic Brummie never managed as a youth.

getimage_195_300_c1_center_center_0_0_1He was also publicising his latest novel, Terror Kid, and there was certainly a long queue for the book-signing session after this event.

The new book – dedicated to the late Tony Benn – follows a teenage computer whizz-kid of Romany extraction.

In rallying against the injustice of foreign wars, famine and political corruption, Benjamin’s protagonist somehow gets embroiled in a terrorist plot, then has to deal with the aftermath of those actions.

“One of the inspirations behind this was a kid in New Zealand whose parents thought he was upstairs in his bedroom playing on his computer, when he was really robbing banks all over the world.

“It fascinated me how much kids often know more about computers than their parents.

“Sometimes young people are enthusiastic, but that enthusiasm can be abused by adults in lots of different ways.

“It’s partly about the power of the internet, but also about an enthusiastic young person with nowhere to go who gets himself in trouble then has to consider if he’s guilty or innocent.”

There was a personal link to the issue too, something further discussed by the author on the night.

“I left London around seven years ago, when a friend of mine there was around 13 at the time. I called his parents the other day and they told me he’d gone to Syria.

“I asked if they’d heard from him and they said they’d only had one message. This was just a kid I used to play football with. He was very passionate about things, but not particularly religious.

“His mother said one of the main inspirations for going there wasn’t jihadist, it was the British Government saying ‘We must fight Assad’.

“He then got caught up in something else. We think he went to Syria to fight Assad but realised he’d just be killing other Muslims.”

Think On: Benjamin Zephaniah (Photo: Denis Oates Photography)

Think On: Benjamin Zephaniah (Photo: Denis Oates Photography)

So how did this established author and performance poet end up where he is today, not least when you take into account his own troubled teenage years.

“I’m just a creative being, so any way I can express myself … I wasn’t trained or educated in literature. I’ve been really lucky to meet people.

“And as it’s Black History Month, it would be hypocritical to come here and not talk about what I’ve come through to get here.

“Driving down today, I remembered in the ’70s and ’80s – as a black man driving in England – three or four times a night being stopped by the police, sometimes stopped and beaten up.

“If you weren’t stopped by the police it would be the National Front. We had no black politicians speaking for us, and I remember one television programme where an academic came on and his title was ‘an expert in black people’.

“I wanted to use my art to express my feelings and my experience, and it just so happened that experience was also common with lots of other young black people.

“It really was as simple as that. Sometimes people say my poetry and my work is political, but I consider it anti-political.

“A great Jamaican poet, Elean Thomas, said ‘I am not one of those people that say I don’t deal with politics. Because if I don’t deal with politics, poli-tricks will deal with me’. And that’s so, so true.

“And using my art was necessary, otherwise I could have gone down a different route.”

Benjamin went on – with John Gillman’s encouragement – to share a few examples of that journey to fame.

Heavens Above: BZ searches for answers as John Gillmore looks on (Photo: Denis Oates Photography)

Heavens Above: BZ searches for answers as John Gillmore looks on (Photo: Denis Oates Photography)

That started with his formative days, the son of a Barbadian postman and Jamaican nurse in Handworth, which he has dubbed ‘the Jamaican capital of Europe’.

“My mother says as soon as I was using language I was using it poetically. Apparently the first word I learned was Mummy, the second was Daddy, and the third word was money!

“I used to love rhyme. I didn’t call it poetry. I was playing with words. I loved the way you say something and depending on the way you say it, it could have a different meaning.

“My first performance was in church, in someone’s home in Aston. The priest would invite members of the congregation up, and one day my Mum invited me to speak.

“I’ve a very good memory for words, and I learned the Bible the same way people learn the Koran – by heart.

“So I went through the books of the Bible … Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers … And when I finished, they said ‘Praise the Lord – we have a prophet among us!”

That love of rhyme ensured he soon made a name for himself in his community, and in time word spread.

“I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a poet. I knew that deep down.

“I got involved with sound systems, illegal dances and raps over instrumental music, Jamaican-style.

“What was very different was that I started speaking about what was happening in England, and what was happening in Handsworth.

“If something was in the news last night, I’d be free-styling about it. I made a name for myself because I was doing something very Jamaican but making it very British.

“My hero was Big Youth, but most of the stuff we were singing along to, we didn’t really know about.”

County Call: Benjamin Zephaniah with Lancashire County Council chairman Kevin Ellard (Photo: Denis Oates Photography)

County Call: Benjamin Zephaniah with Lancashire County Council chairman Kevin Ellard (Photo: Denis Oates Photography)

It probably helped that he UK was in the depths of recession and industrial strife at the time.

“Some of you may remember the electricity strikes, and I remember being in a party where they were playing music and then there was a black-out.

“If that happened, people would walk out and they’d lose money, but I’d say, ‘Stop! I can do this without music’. I’d do my poetry, and impersonations as well.”

It wasn’t as simple as that though, and Benjamin admitted that he ‘got lost’ along the way. A long spell on the wrong side of the law followed.

“When I got kicked out of school, my teacher said ‘you’re going to end up dead, or doing a life sentence. And she was almost right.”

His turning point came later. But before then he spent a spell in prison, and struggled to stay away from crime on his release.

John Gillman asked what kind of crime he was talking about, and this time he seemed a little more reticent to elaborate.

“I don’t want to go into too much detail – there’s still people looking for me, man! It was petty crime, then it was burglary, then it got more serious.

“We started to do robberies, although I never really hurt anybody forcibly. It got to a stage where I went onto a managerial role, managing a gang of kids who would go out, open the boots of cars and take out the tools. Then I’d sell them on.

“My gang went onto the territory of another gang and one got shot. And then one of them shot somebody else. And so on. That was the turning point.

whatsgoing“One night I was lying in bed, with a guy at the door protecting us armed, while I was in bed with a gun beneath my pillow, listening to Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, thinking about what that teacher said.

“I was no expert statistician, but the law of averages said if my life carried on like this, it’s going to happen. What’s so special about me?

“That next morning I told everybody, ‘That’s it – I’m finishing. I’m out of here!’ They begged me to stay, but I said no, got in my car – or somebody’s car, a Ford Escort, part-way through being re-sprayed – and drove to London.

“And I was really fortunate I met some other people who were being creative.”

That group just happened to include performers coming through on the alternative comedy circuit, including Rik Mayall, Alexei Sayle, Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders.

“I was really lucky. Within a year, Channel 4 had started, Margaret Thatcher was in power, and there was such a feeling in the community.

“I went on a programme called Black on Black and did a poem, Dis Policeman Keeps On Kicking Me To Death, and all over the country the black community identified with it.

“The next day I was walking through Piccadilly and people kept stopping me. One guy actually stopped his bus to talk to me.

“I was very good at organising, making a plan, even when I was on the other side of the law, I was always on time! I had confidence in myself.”

1554996Fame followed, and in 1982 he became the first person to record with The Wailers after the death of Bob Marley, with a musical tribute to Nelson Mandela on his Rasta album.

“Family Man, the bass player, had heard my tribute to Nelson Mandela, who was still in prison at the time. I wanted to record one song again in a more Jamaican style.

“When Bob Marley died, his band went to war with each other, because Bob never did contracts with them, with counter-claims over who helped write which song.

“But they looked at the words of this song and decided to come together ‘to do this for Mandela’.

“It was almost like they called a truce, made the recording, then went back to war.

“It was a real honour though, and the reason why was because I wasn’t trying to be a Bob Marley impersonator, I had a message, and they really respected Mandela.”

Asked about some of the poets that inspired him, Benjamin cited Jamaican poet Michael Smith and the late Maya Angelou, ‘a dear friend whose poetry was great’.

He went on to tell us about her legendary night owl reputation, recalling a past meeting in a hotel they were staying in during the Hay Festival, when the author was in her 70s.

“She’d lean on the bar and sink whiskey after whisky. That night we took over the lobby of a hotel and got talking until it got to around four in the morning.

“I went to bed, but forget something and went back at seven, and she was still talking!”

Asked about his most meaningful piece of writing, Benjamin seemed to be stumped at first, but then illustrated how it’s all important to him.

“I was making a film with Beryl Reid once, and this big tall Nigerian came back with a book of mine, the only one I don’t really like.

“I said as I was signing it, ‘This book is not my best’, and he went crazy, saying, ‘I love this book – this book saved my life and brought me back from the dead!’

“It may mean something to you, but something else to others once it’s in the public domain.

“Imagine you’ve a beautiful girlfriend and you go to her Dad to say you’d like to take her hand in marriage, and he says, ‘She’s alright, but I’ve got a better one here’.

“All my books and all my poems are my children, and I love them all equally.”

Signing On: Benjamin Zephaniah poses with the blogger and his youngest daughter (Photo: Malcolm Wyatt)

Signing On: Benjamin Zephaniah poses with the blogger and his youngest daughter (Photo: Malcolm Wyatt)

So what was the first poem he had published? Apparently it was Fight Dem Not Me, printed in a local newspaper, and he gave us a rendition.

He added: “This group of racists called the National Front would go around the country beating up black people. And I couldn’t understand why they would attack us.

“They said we were taking their jobs and their houses. I wrote this poem, saying us people, we live in bad housing and live in bad conditions. You’re the same.

“So stop fighting with each other and let’s go and deal with the politicians who cause all these problems. Black and white, unite and fight!”

There was another answer too, with Benjamin moving on to the first poem of his aired on TV, in the days when an announcer would read a poem before closedown.

“I wrote one and sent it in. I was living in Birmingham, but told them I was Wilbert Smith and lived in rural Evesham, just wanting to prove a point.

“It was a load of rubbish, but it was read out on the BBC!”

And before Black on Black, it appears that Benjamin had an earlier appearance on the small screen, albeit in bizarre circumstances.

bbc1_1982_still_pebble_millAmid giggles from himself and the audience, he recalled the day he was taken – while in custody – to the Pebble Mill at One studios in Birmingham to receive a prize for a design competition from none other than Cliff Richard.

Evidently, the officers released him from his handcuffs just before his big moment. What’s more, he revealed how he was heavily influenced by Angela Davis and the Black Power movement at the time, with his civilian clothes matching that look.

So who influenced Benjamin’s love of literature?

“I didn’t really read much. I was dyslexic. But one of the reasons I do school visits is that I think it’s really important that young people get into the habit of reading at a young age.

“I didn’t really have that habit. The poems I liked were the ones I heard, like those by a poet called Louise Bennett from Jamaica. I started to collect poetry and make poems, but struggled to read.

“One of my favourite poets is Spike Milligan. I loved him because he wasn’t writing for money, or for an audience, but for his children. On the other hand, he did some very serious war poetry.

“But when I was growing up there weren’t many poets to look up to, so I had to create my own style.”

Did he have a book that changed his life?

“I have two, for completely different reasons. The first was The Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey.

“That is important for any Rastafarian or any person of colour, especially back then when we were struggling with identity and black history, coming out of the slavery of chains and going into the slavery of the brain.

Mighty Influence: Marcus Garvey

Mighty Influence: Marcus Garvey

“Marcus Garvey liberated us from all that. That was very important to me. That’s when I realised as a black person I could have dignity, walk proud, accomplish all kinds of things, and that I come from a people who have accomplished all kinds of things.

“The other book is A Book of Nonsense by Mervyn Peake, which is absolutely brilliant. It was crazy, but what I loved about it was the rhyming. He was a serious poet but he could rhyme all over the place.

“So one of those books was about taking my place in the world and pride itself, and the other was the love of rhyme and the love of language.”

But Benjamin was at his most open when further quizzed on past gang membership by one youngster, using that question to further press home his belief in following your own path.

“It was just pressure. I wanted to be a poet, I wanted to be an intellectual, think about life and question society, but around me people wanted to rob and fight.

“I didn’t really know anybody with the love of poetry and literature I had. So it was just peer pressure that made me join a gang.

“If you weren’t in a gang you wouldn’t have people to back you up and you’d be on your own.

“But once I liberated myself from the gang and was able to get away, I could be who I wanted to be.

“That’s my message to young people. Never deny yourself. If you really want to be somebody who’s different from everybody else, then be different.

“It’s the different people that change the world. Blessed are the cracked, for they let in the light!”

Terror Kid is published by Hot Key Books, priced £6.99 and available from all good bookships and online.

With thanks to event organisers Jake Hope, SilverDell of Kirkham and Lancashire Libraries, plus Lancashire County Council media officer Greg Bowen and Denis Oates Photography for use of some of the photographs used here.

And for more detail about Benjamin Zephaniah and his work, head here.

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About writewyattuk

A freelance writer and family man being swept along on a wave of advanced technology, but somehow clinging on to reality. It's only a matter of time ... A highly-motivated scribbler with a background in journalism, business and life itself. Away from the features, interviews and reviews you see here, I tackle novels, short stories, copywriting, ghost-writing, plus TV, radio and film scripts for adults and children. I'm also available for assignments and write/research for magazines, newspapers, press releases and webpages on a vast range of subjects. You can also follow me on Facebook via https://www.facebook.com/writewyattuk/ and on Twitter via @writewyattuk. Legally speaking, all content of this blog (unless otherwise stated) is the intellectual property of Malcolm Wyatt and may only be reproduced with permission.
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One Response to Legendary poet redefines Black History Month – the Benjamin Zephaniah feature

  1. Pingback: Picture the poet, greet the griot – the Benjamin Zephaniah interview | writewyattuk

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