When I spoke to Benjamin Zephaniah earlier this week, he was between a BBC radio interview and two days lecturing at West London’s Brunel University.
The Lincolnshire-based dub poet, author and activist was then heading back for another radio broadcast in Birmingham, catching up with his Mum in the West Midlands before a trek up to Preston, my excuse for speaking to him.
Benjamin was set to headline the city’s Harris Museum & Art Gallery’s Picture the Poet Live event, one of six touring dates for this National Portrait Gallery exhibition.
While the Preston event is fully booked, the exhibition runs at the Harris until April 11, featuring around 50 living poets captured in high-quality photographs.
The live event, with backing from the National Literacy Trust and Apples and Snakes, also included performances by youngsters who have written work inspired by the exhibition, with musical interludes from slowcore folk outfit Horsedreamers.
Sharing the bill with Benjamin were ‘charismatic Mancunian motormouth’ Mike Garry, who previously impressed at Preston’s 53 Degrees with John Cooper Clarke and Luke Wright.
Then there’s fellow acclaimed performance poet Ali Gadema, described as a ‘hip-hop theatre practitioner and workshop facilitator’.
It’s not the first time Benjamin has been involved in a National Portrait Gallery project, having previously curated an exhibition with celebratory tie-ins to UK multi-culturalism.
But he told me: “This is a bit unusual because I’m not doing any poetry gigs at the moment. It’s more about TV and radio programmes and my students. This is a real one-off.”
Does he tend to flow straight back into the performance poetry though?
“If I try and think about what I’m going to do, I can’t do it. I have to step on a stage. It’s really weird, I don’t know what it is.
“Everyone’s got their own style, and half an hour is a very strange time for me. I usually do an hour or more.”
So will it be more like a greatest hits package at the Harris?
“I don’t know. I don’t really have any greatest hits!”
After more than 30 years on the road as a dub poet, author and activist, I put it to Benjamin that he must know the motorways and back roads of the UK pretty well.
“Yeah, every time I find myself in a city or town I don’t know, I’m really shocked – I thought I’d know everywhere by now. I’ve been on the road since I was around 22, driving around the country.”
Now and again, he turns up on our TVs too, last time as half-time and pre-match entertainment at the all-West Midlands FA Cup quarter-final between his beloved Aston Villa and rivals West Bromwich Albion on March 7th.
His Ode to Aston Villa and West Brom brought the hosts luck too in a 2-0 win. So is he on a high about Villa’s current run of form under new boss Tim Sherwood?
“I’m not sure if I’d call it a high, there are some tough games coming up, but it’s nice to see a new manager come in.
“I never believed managers could make much of a difference, but after Martin O’Neill I was really sad when he left, which was very sudden before the start of the season after some argument in the boardroom.
“It’s never quite been the same. But at the moment, it’s really good.
“There was an amazing atmosphere that night, and I think with the people running on to the pitch after it was more a relief of tension rather than anything else.
“I couldn’t leave the ground for ages, with people saying, ‘You brought us good luck with your poem. Come and do it again. We want a poem every game!’”
It may not be such a frenzy in Preston, but Benjamin certainly proved a big hit during a talk and book-signing session at the nearby County Hall in late September.
I’ve a photo of my youngest daughter and myself with Benjamin from that night, the launch of Black History Month and his most recent children’s novel, Terror Kid, one of many such signing sessions across the country.
What was the public reaction to Terror Kid from that tour?
“Every event was different, some concentrating on the terrorism aspect, some on the riots and why young people riot, some people talking about multi-culturalism, and the idea that you’ve got a Romany lead character – as Brummie as everyone else – and a Moslem girl who is a kick-boxer.
“I would sit there and talk about what I thought the book was about, but others found other things in there.”
On his official website, Benjamin is described as a ‘poet, writer, lyricist, musician and trouble-maker’, while various other labels over the years range from dub poet and playwright to political activist, animal rights campaigner and even ‘rasta folkie’. So which sits best with him?
“One that’s never used, actually, a West African word – griot. The traditional African griot is someone who goes from village to village performing or reading poetry or playing music, like an alternative newscaster as well as a political agitator.
“They may be making people aware of a bad ruler or an illness spreading, going to villages completely off the electricity grid.
“I see myself as that too, because griots express themselves through poems or songs, but no one in the audience has to ask whether they’re a poet or a musician. They just see them as someone creative.
“Whatever they want to express, they’ll find their meaning. The word bard doesn’t say it completely, and a troubadour is not quite the same, but griot … yeah, we’ll add that to the English language!”
In a sense, I get the feeling that Benjamin is a poet and writer for those who don’t seem to think they do poetry or books.
“The majority of people that listen to my poetry will say to me, ‘I don’t really like poetry’, because of the relevance and subject matter.
“One guy came up to me at a university in Manchester and said he didn’t even like my poetry, but said, ‘I love what you say, and I love the content’. And I like that too.
“I can’t expect people to take everything I say in, but they remember little bits, and when I mention people like Marcus Garvey, they might remember that and find out who they were.
“One of my favourite intellectuals of all time is the American, Noam Chomsky, one of the most quoted too. But no one knows when they’re quoting him.
“When they look him up, they realise he’s done so much, in politics, linguistics and much more.
“If he books to do a talk in London or wherever, it sells out within half an hour, like a big rock concert. And that’s for a professor!”
That coming from someone classed as a professor himself these days, the Handsworth-born 56-year-old a key part of the creative writing course at Brunel University, and back in 2008 included in The Times’ list of Britain’s top 50 post-war writers.
Yet this is a man unlikely to wallow in academic circles, and he’s just as quick to quote comic genius Spike Milligan as an influence as Chomsky.
It seems fitting too, as Spike probably introduced many of us to poetry without us realising it.
“He was a lovely man, so genuine. I get emotional just thinking about him. When he wrote his children’s poetry, he didn’t really write it to get it published, he just wanted to impress his daughter. I liked that about him.
“Also, his war poems were anti-war poems, about what it was doing to him and to other people.
“I met him once, while making this really weird, independent film by a girl straight out of film school.
“He came along and came over just like one of the crew, and when he spoke to me he spoke as if he’d known me for years.”
That’s good, I tell him, because it’s not always a positive thing to meet your heroes.
“No, sometimes I’ve been really been let down by that experience.”
So how come this West Midlands lad who made his name in London, travelled in Palestine and recorded with Bob Marley’s backing band The Wailers in Jamaica, ended up living between rural Lincolnshire and Beijing?
“I don’t think you should really be surprised. I’ve always gone on about multi-culturalism, and multi-cultural Britain means I shouldn’t just have to live in areas that are seen as multi-cultural.
“I have the right to live in a small village, even if I made a few jokes at first, saying I was the only Black in the village.
“I was watching a TV programme about Smethwick in the 1964 election (Channel 4’s Britain’s Most Racist Election), following the story of how immigrants moved into that area and local people tried to get them out.
“Go there now and everyone gets on with one another, but someone had to do it first.
“I’ve been in this small village just outside Spalding for some time, and often meet people who say – if they’re relaxed enough around me – I’m the first Black person I’ve met.
“There are people there who have never been out of the area. I have a close friend who does my handiwork who’s never been out of that area.
“He’s a hard bloke and you’d want him on your side in a fight. But if you suggest going to London to him he’d get so nervous.
“The other thing being there has taught me is that people tend to think those that live in the countryside are all rich and privileged. But rural poverty is brutal, probably even more so that inner city poverty.
“If the lights go out, you can meet on the corner in an inner city. In the countryside it really goes dark, and places really close. If you miss a bus, you’ve had it!
“There are lots of suicides too, lots of quiet drug problems, and real issues.
“As for Beijing, I believe we should have a multi-cultural world, so I can go and live there too.”
Benjamin’s folks were among the earliest to arrive in the UK after the initial post-war MV Empire Windrush sailings, but with Smethwick in the ‘60s in mind, I put it to him that – for all the race relations problems in the decades that followed – his parents arrived in a very different Britain to the one we know now.
“I remember my Mum jumping out of her seat one day and celebrating, and I asked why, and she explained who Enoch Powell was and how that night a woman had thrown a drink over him.
“I didn’t quite get it at the time. When people tried to explain to me how some people hated you because of your colour, I didn’t get it.
“I could understand someone hating you if you’d stolen all their biscuits, but surely not because of the colour of your skin.
“And these were adults, supposedly responsible people. Weird!”
Benjamin’s Mum still lives in Birmingham, but he doesn’t seem to mention his Dad so much. So was he around to see his success and how he turned around his life after troubled early adult days before he headed to London?
“My Dad passed away a few years ago in Barbados, having been separated from my Mum. But he just didn’t care about my work at all.
“I was so proud when I took my first book to him, but he just said, ‘What’s that?’ as if it was a piece of trash. It was really embarrassing as well, because I’d gone with my girlfriend, and he just felt it was worthless.
“I went to visit him in Barbados not long before he died, and it was probably the best time I ever had with him. He had a new lease of life and I wanted to make my peace with him.
“Even then he just didn’t get it. But then he started this business driving tourists around in beach buggies around the island, and during a break he realised two people were reading my books.
“An adult was reading a poem and a younger one was reading a novel. He said, a little surprised, ‘That’s my son!’
“I heard from him and someone else who was there that these people told him what I meant to them and to the country, and it was the first time he went, ‘Damn, I didn’t realise’. That was just before he died.”
Does the 56-year-old Rastafarian think he’s more or less political now he’s reached such a relatively grand age?
“Not only am I more political, I’m more militant! I was told I’d get more mellow as I grew older, but I’m not.
“God knows what I’d be doing now if I didn’t have my poetry as an outlet and that platform to express myself on TV, radio and so on.
“And I am angry! We’ve come so far but still have racist groups and elections where we’re still talking about immigration and race.
“We’ve got governments of various colours and banks that have messed up and we’ve got to pay for it, and all of them are privatising the National Health Service slowly.
“Sometimes I just look at young people and think, come on – get angry! The angrier they are in their poetry, the better it will be.
“I have to teach my students to put something in their poetry. They all have some fine words but isn’t there something they really feel passionately about?
“It’s all kind of love stuff. That’s alright, but what about the love of humanity, a real love of your country and your people?
“Sometimes it takes a bit of time, as they think I’m their university tutor while the protest stuff I do is outside university.
”And with performance poetry you have to have something to say and have to be passionate about it, otherwise you may as well just be up there reading a book.”
Is Benjamin quite rigid in the way he writes? I can’t imagine him having too structured a day.
“I’m useless! I’ll say I’m going to write from nine until one and then decide I’m going to play football.
“I wish I had the discipline of some writers, but quite frankly a lot of people I know who write like they’re in a factory really don’t understand the realities of life, because that’s all they do.
“I think it’s really good for a poet to have other interests, like me in football and classic cars and clubbing. I can’t just write like I’m in a factory.
“When I got the deal for Terror Kid, I was offered a multi-book deal and said no. Everybody, including my agent, said, ‘What? This is what people dream of!’
“But I don’t want to be forced to write a book, I want to be able to feel like it, when I feel the political and cultural need to do it, I’ll do it, but not just because of some contract.”
Some of the issues raised in Terror Kid seem to have been replicated lately in the real-life stories of the Londoners making their way to Syria via Turkey.
When Benjamin last visited Preston, he talked about a teenage friend in London who headed to Syria, initially to fight Assad, but was quickly disillusioned by the reality of the conflict. Any word from the family since?
“I haven’t spoken to the parents for a while, but last time there was no news. I’m just hoping the feeling in the press about terrorism and people’s reasons for going out there is changing again.
“Some are just misguided and misled, and this lad went out there thinking he was going to be part of a liberation movement but then got in with people far removed from that, and wanted out.
“But he was scared of coming back because he thought he may be treated as a terrorist.
“It’s quite surprising just how many people have gone out there from this country, but – and this is the thing about the propaganda here – quite a lot go out to fight ISIS, and the guy who got killed the other day was seen as some kind of hero.
“I think that’s something that would just inflame the situation. They tell people in this country not to take sides, but if someone takes sides against ISIS we don’t seem to have a problem with it.”
Benjamin dedicated Terror Kid to the late, great left-wing stalwart MP Tony Benn. Why was he such an influence?
“He was a bit of a mentor to me, and sometimes if I had problems thinking something true I’d ask for his opinion.
“When Terror Kid was just an idea, I talked to him about it, asking about the use of computers in Government and how realistic that was.
“It was a slightly different story then, but he never lived to see it published. Yet he was the one who said I should write it, a long time before my editor.”
So what’s Benjamin working on at the moment?
“There’s a musical album that’s almost finished, although I’m not sure of the release date. And the new book’s in my head. I haven’t yet started committing it to paper.
“And I’m also off to China soon to do some kung fu.”
That’s another great passion for you, isn’t it?
“I’ve been a kung fu lover all my life, and can’t start the day without that. I’ve always been into kung fu, yoga, tai chi …
“I’ve never done drugs. I get high on learning how to breathe, I get high on pushing my body to the limit, I get high on learning how to be strong without using my muscles.”
Are you a family man as well?
“No. I’m tempted to say that one of the next things I want to do is … well, my Mum keeps saying it’s time for me to get married, and I think it’s about time. But who knows.”
Form an orderly queue, everyone.
“Oh, I don’t know about that!”
For the very latest from Benjamin Zephaniah, head to his official website here.
And for a writewyattuk feature covering Benjamin’s last visit to Preston in late September, 2014, head here.