(1958 - )
is about how you behold
sister is a beautiful girl
legs are firm and strong
talk 'bout people in society who judge you by your looks, den,
sister is a beautiful girl
My sister is a beautiful girl
up yu mind mek some riddim cum in
up yu house mek de Refugee cum in
up yu Bank Account an spend
up de border free up de land
you can keep your money when governments about you
About the poet, you can see those sites:
Benjamin Zephaniah Interview
Benjamin Zephaniah in Malta
WEDNESDAY OCTOBER 31 2001
Melissa Katsoulis asks what has happened to the bad boy of British poetry
Saved by a will to create
Benjamin Zephaniah sits in the beautiful Pillar Room of Cheltenham Town Hall, addressing an audience of tweedy, middle-aged locals, alongside that most motherly of controversialists, Yasmin Alibhai Brown. Later, he will present one of the literature festival’s “family events”, where an even more Home Counties set will bring their blue-eyed offspring to be entertained by the author of Funky Chickens, Zephaniah’s prize-winning collection of poems for children.
What has happened to the bad boy of British poetry? Not so long ago, the Establishment was up in arms when it was rumoured that Tony Blair’s favourite for the vacant post of Poet Laureate was not that nice chap Andrew Motion but that mad bloke Benjamin Zephaniah.
For a while, new Labour depended on men like Zephaniah in their crusade for cool. Here was an uneducated dub poet with dreadlocks and a way with kids, who hated Thatcher, believed in social justice and had even done time for a crime he didn’t commit. Result! Before long, Zephaniah was snapped up by the then Education Minister David Blunkett and put on a consultative committee for arts in the national curriculum. The board was to redress the previous Government’s reliance on the three Rs, a subject close to Zephaniah’s heart which, to judge by our conversation over lunch in Cheltenham last week, beats more strongly for creativity and self-expression than anything else.
“We wanted to prove that creativity in school is really important, that it’s necessary for the minds of kids,” he says. “And not just in some wishy-washy way. How do we get our architects? How do we get kids who are dyslexic thinking in different, creative ways?” But after a few sessions it became clear to Zephaniah that the ministry knew what it wanted to hear, and would hear it at all costs. At the cost, even, of one of its most valuable members.
“Every time we had a meeting, Blunkett had his spy there, reading the minutes, commenting on them, and basically editing anything we were writing. I resigned. People called Thatcher a control freak, but Tony Blair . . .”
Is this a mistrust of politics generally, I wonder, or Blair’s Government specifically? Recalling his early career as an anti-Thatcher ranter, Zephaniah says that things seem to have come full circle.
“When I was naive about politics, I used to say that politicians care only about themselves. Then I got involved, back in the days when Labour used to be on platforms with CND, and there used to be the Left and the Right, and now here I am again saying that politicians are all in it for themselves. What new Labour has done for me is driven it home how self-interested politicians are, how short-sighted, how downright contradictory they can be.”
Which leads us indirectly to talk about air travel, a favourite subject of Zephaniah’s (whose fear of flying led him to investigate it) and also, according to him, the area in which political hypocrisy is most brazen.
“The Labour Party laughed at the Tories when they talked about privatising air traffic control, and now they’re doing it even more thoroughly than the Tories did. They’re going to hand it over to people whose only motivation is profit.”
Now Zephaniah is fuming. Not fuming in the usual shouty way that angry men do, but steaming with disbelief at what a dangerous, dishonest place the world is. Listening to him speak, you can’t help feeling like a disciple. Frequently, he says “It really is that simple”, and you believe him. But the one thing that he will not say is simple is the subject of his latest book and why he has come to Cheltenham to speak for the Refugee Council: the problem of displaced people .
Refugee Boy, the second novel he said he’d never write, is a book aimed at children as well as adults— closely based on a boy Zephaniah came to know in Newham. The boy’s father deserted him in a hotel in Reading to save him the trauma of returning to civil war in Ethiopia, and he subsequently endured years of interrogation from another Government that obviously wanted to get rid of him. The deeply moving novel shows Zephaniah’s talent at handling big subjects and making them manageable without diluting their intensity.
What comes across most strongly in the book (as in the man) is that he has seen with his own eyes not only the aftershocks of civil war — the pieces we in the receiving countries have to pick up — but also the war zones. Sometimes with the British Council, sometimes alone, Zephaniah has travelled the world, witnessing the kind of things that people “won’t go in to”.
One wonders what these things are, because the things he does go in to are almost unbelievable.
From his own experiences under fire in Gaza, where he thought “several times” he was about to die, to those of his young friend who (he tells the audience at the “family event”) had to watch his father rape his dead mother and then be killed, it is obvious that Zephaniah is no champagne globalist.
How does he stay sane? How does he keep on track mentally and physically? Well, apart from a vegan diet and the home gymnasium he admits to having, it would seem to be the power of his will.
“In the Eighties,” he says, “when I was going to all these war zones such as the Lebanon, a lot of my poetry was really angry. But everyone I know who kept it up at that intensity is burnt out.”
So whence the chill pill?
“Actually, one of the things that really did me good was starting to write for children,” he says. “I kept the issues, but I had to find new ways of writing about it. I couldn’t just come along and shout “I don’t like Mrs. Thatcher!” I had to say “Once upon a time there was a lady, some people think she was made of iron . . .” I just had to be more creative.”
And the will to create, it seems, is what has been saving him all along.
When he wasn't getting into trouble with the police, Benjamin Zephaniah spent his childhood scribbling away. Now he writes novels for teenagers because, he says, the young make the best listeners
Sunday November 4, 2001
Benjamin Zephaniah talks like an Olympic athlete - he takes words and runs with them. At the end of more than two hours with him, I felt about to expire, even though I was only a spectator at the marathon. His rap poetry also seems to move - occasionally to its detriment - faster tthan thought; his superb novels for teenagers don't dawdle either. His latest, Refugee Boy, is a winner. And he is such a spellbinding performer that I realised he could be saying anything at all and I would be stopped in my tracks.
No wonder, then, that such a narrator should want to be in charge of his own legend. But Zephaniah has this difficulty: legends are created by other people. It is not easy for him to hold on to his version of his life - not least because there is no shortage of people who would like to subsume him, make him part of their story.
I was expecting Zephaniah to tower above me, rather as his writing, at its best, soars. In photographs, the length of his dreadlocks (which, close to, look like unused garden twine) suggested a giant. But he is of average height - slender and graceful, too.
At this point, I ought not to describe his face. For in his brilliant first novel, Face, about a boy who has to undergo plastic surgery, he warns against judging by appearances. He calls it 'facial discrimination'. But it is his face that holds the attention absolutely: it can look seraphic one moment, wicked the next. He is bad boy and holy man rolled into one, with a gap-toothed smile and an ironic gleam in his eyes.
We met in Newham in the East End of London, in the local bookshop, the Newham Parent Centre. It is run by Vivian Archer, who dotes on Zephaniah, and would appear to be his second home. He wanted me to know everything about it: the help it gives to the community, to parents, children and refugees. He told me he had met the Ethiopian refugees who inspired him to write Refugee Boy just round the corner. But before anything else, he wanted me to know that even the two cats in the bookshop are 'supported by the local community, who club together to pay for vet's bills'.
He has always been a man of causes little and large. He is ferociously critical about Britain but passionately attached to it, too. 'I gotta say I love this country, though I rail against it all the time. We all wanted a one-way ticket to Africa, but when I got there, I couldn't wait to get back.' He likes Britain partly because it is possible to criticise it.
His eloquence and sense of humour make Zephaniah attractive to those in need of a spokesman. Was there any danger, I wondered, of his becoming the equivalent of a glorious brooch for the white establishment to pin on its lapel? The thought has not escaped him.
The Labour Party invited him on a consultative committee for arts in the national curriculum but he resigned when he felt his words were being made to toe a party line. Earlier this year, the Metropolitan Police wanted to use a couple of lines of his poetry ('I love this concrete jungle still with all its sirens and its speed/ the people here united will create a kind of London breed') for a recruitment campaign. Zephaniah would not play. He complained that he was still stopped by the police, simply because of his appearance. Now he is less vociferous: 'I would love to see a day when I am able to work for the police. I'd be happy, because they pay well, I'm told.' He is never short of a joke. But he won't 'unite' with anyone unless his heart is in it.
Zephaniah was also poet in residence at the chambers of Michael Mansfield QC. He sat in on the inquiry into Bloody Sunday and on the case of Ricky Reel, the Asian student found drowned in the Thames. This collaboration was more positive and led to his latest collection of poetry, Too Black, Too Strong (Bloodaxe), in which he uses legal language as a satirical weapon. The best poem in the collection is 'Appeal Dismissed', about a Polish refugee sent home because rape was not considered by the judge to be torture. 'I don't really feel I wrote it. The judge wrote it for me. In a way, I feel sorry for the judge.'
Zephaniah has an extraordinary ear for poetry and, as the new practitioner of an ancient oral tradition, he has attracted the attention of Oxford and Cambridge Universities and lectured at both. Cambridge wanted to make him a fellow of Trinity College and he was considered for professor of poetry at Oxford. He was even tipped for poet laureate (though Andrew Motion got the job).
But his fan club is by no means all white. Nelson Mandela read and admired Zephaniah's poetry in prison; Bob Marley liked it, too. Zephaniah has returned the compliment, adapting one of Marley's songs in his poem 'I Neva Shot De Sheriff'. He has performed with the Wailers, too, after Marley's death. He told me he once met Marley in Earl's Court and was bowled over by him. 'He was a spiritual intellectual,' he concluded. Clearly, he aspires to something similar himself.
The Zephaniah legend (as I see it) is of a Rastafarian prodigal son, born in 1958 in Handsworth, son of a Barbados postman. He was dyslexic, attended an approved school but left at 13 unable to read or write. He got into trouble with the law, even spent some time in jail for burglary. But when I asked what crimes he committed, he hesitated, uncharacteristically: 'Everything. I was growing up nicking things from cars and people's houses, fighting with the police... but don't make too much of it. It is such a long time ago - and not how I want to be defined.' He learned more, he wanted me to understand (or 'overstand' - one of his favourite coinages) from 'seeing my mother suffer' when his father beat her up.
He has tended to seem, if anything, more nervous about being associated with poets than with criminals. Even in a light poem for children, his wish not to be branded is evident: 'I used to think nurses/ Were women,/ I used to think police/ Were men/ I used to think poets/ Were boring,/ Until I became one of them.'
When I met him, however, a new story emerged. He used to say that he composed his first poem in his twenties. Now he admits that his whole childhood was 'doing poems'. And although his mother is no poet, he said: 'Caribbean women are always doing poems... I remember my mother passing recipes on to my sister in rhyme.'
Then he told me that when he was only eight he got a friend to 'send in one of my poems to the BBC'. He invented a pseudonym, 'Wilfred Watson', and claimed to come from Kidderminster, which sounded posher than Handsworth.
Could he still remember the poem? He leant forward, fixed me with a look and began: 'Wonder wonder why I live,/ My heart and soul to life I give/ Upon the wetted grass I lie/ If death should call me/ If I should die/ In vain I strive for need and require/ No smoke can dark my burning fire.'
'It's mumbo-jumbo,' he laughed, but listening to it, I didn't think it was, entirely.
Nor did the BBC, which had its own view on the sort of man that had produced the poem. Zephaniah chuckled at the memory and impersonated the broadcaster who had speculated about Mr Wilfred Watson's character: 'Here is a man who is tired of life, a mature man...'
Zephaniah is a mature man now and anything but tired of life. Yet he has one overwhelming regret: he is unable to have children. For more than 10 years, he was married to Amina, a theatrical administrator. He is divorced now, although he says he 'hates the word'.
The greatest love of Zephaniah's life, it turns out, has always been his mother. You can find her in the anthology of love poetry that he edited for Bloomsbury, in a poem that begins: 'I luv me mudder an me mudder luvs me/ we cum so far from over de sea.' We're given a few tantalising details about her: she has big muscles, likes cashew nuts and cats. Her name is Valerie. But he has never given away much about her, let alone explained why she is so vital to him. Could he bring his 'mudder' into the room for me? I loved the way he answered this question, as if embarking on a novel:
'A boat called the Empire Windrush brought all the men over from Jamaica. The next boat was full of women in 1954, including my mother. She had seen the posters that read: "Britain, the mother country wants YOU".' When she arrived, she marvelled at the number of English people that seemed to 'live in factories' (because all the houses had chimneys).
'She is a strong Christian but realises that her children [all nine of them] are different.' Zephaniah is the eldest and has a twin sister, for instance, who is a 'hard-line fundamentalist Jehovah's Witness'.
His relationship with his mother, like many a love story, includes elopement: 'We ran away together [in flight from his father]. We had to knock on doors together; we were homeless. Sometimes, we'd be offered a room with a single bed and, as a teenage boy, I'd then have to share it with my mother.' She is 'large', he added, as if squashed by the memory. 'Whenever I am in Birmingham, I have to come and eat her dumplings. And I speak to her on the phone, every day, without fail.' She is delighted by his triumphs but: 'She keeps asking me, "Will you stop saying those bad things about the Government?"' Her proudest moment was when Ealing Hospital named a ward after him. As an ex-nurse herself, it was this that 'touched her most'.
Zephaniah does not know whether having his own children would have held him back, stopped him from being a black Pied Piper. I told him I see him as an honorary father to an extended family too populous to count. He often talks to kids in schools. 'When they ask me what the fuck is education for?, I can tell them, cos I ain't got it.' He added: 'I tell kids all the time the education system measures intelligence in only one particular way.'
Once, he was working 'with young black kids in trouble with the police'. He slumped in his chair to show how unimpressed his audience was with him. What made them sit up was the moment when he was introduced as 'Doctor Benjamin Zephaniah'. 'Have you got "Doctor" on your driving licence?' they wanted to know. And: 'Have you ever been stopped by the police? And: 'Could you ask the police to call you doctor?' Zephaniah replied: 'Yes, yes and yes.' The kids went wild: 'Rasta doctor! That's bad, man.'
He finds it easier to talk to young people than to adults because their minds are 'much more open'. Children are quick to pick up, he explained, the irony of being told incessantly not to fight while those in power promote extravagant wars.
Had he written about the bombing of Afghanistan? Or was the war too formless? 'And shapeless,' he replied. He then volunteered: 'When it happened, I was so surprised that so many people were so surprised. America is the bully of the planet and I know the laws of the playground. If you bully people, they are going to come back to you.'
He thinks the West is playing into the Taliban's hands. 'All the things the Taliban have told them about the West, they're now doing.' Slowing down, he said he had a message for Bush: 'I say to him: if you keep giving an eye for an eye, you end up in a world of blind people.' The light went out of his voice as he spoke. It was quite a moment.
He would like to take me to the coffee house down the road, he said, next to the mosque, where Afghans, 'mainly older men', meet. They are 'really angry', he said. But he impressed me by adding that he doesn't write about the war now because he 'might be wrong' in his views. The thing is 'too massive' to be sure of anything.
In spite of Zephaniah's success, there remains an insecurity about him. He needs his fans, and, I think, to tell me about them. Yet it was impossible not to feel moved by what he had to say. When I asked him what his proudest moment had been, it was an even contest between meeting Mandela and receiving a letter from an unknown Asian woman. The woman, in her late thirties, had suffered 'facial disfigurement after her husband had poured boiling oil on her for daring to look at another man'. Since then she had not left her house. But she wrote: 'After reading your book [Face], I'm going out shopping. I'm going to buy myself a new dress.'
Letters like these put Zephaniah beyond criticism. No quibbles apply. Overstanding is everything.
Dreadlocks aside, Benjamin Zephaniah is almost spookily unhairy. He doesn't have to shave. Plucking at the skin on his arm and holding out his hands ("girl's hands!"), he says in his incredulous Birmingham drawl, "I didn't grow pubic hair until I was 21." It enables him, at 46, to preserve an illusion of youth that would be creepy in other men but in Zephaniah is just part of his overall, dopey persona: he still rides his bike like a boy, bum in the air, weaving up and down the pavement with the kids in his east London neighbourhood. Out of a window last week a woman told him off: "Benjamin, you're a revolutionary poet - you should know better!"
There is, of course, a small but vociferous number of people who find Zephaniah genuinely offensive. His refusal of the OBE earlier this year inspired a run of articles all hinging on the word "gratitude", and the implication, unspoken, that he owed slightly more of it to his elders and betters than the average white Briton did. He has been labelled haughty and annoying. Zephaniah talks about the "oppressed" about the failures of socialism - "they want us all to be equal, but they want us all to be equally poor" - with such unfashionable zeal that even Trevor Phillips, chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, has invited him to grow up and join the "real" world. The poet replies that this isn't his job. Zephaniah's revolution seems to involve him running into the room, yelling "Knickers!", and running out again, then absenting himself from the ensuing hoo-ha (he doesn't have a phone) with the retort, "How should I know? I am only a poet."
Dis poetry is not Party Political
Not designed fe dose who are critical.
Dis poetry is wid me when I gu to me bed
It gets into me dreadlocks
It lingers around me head
Dis poetry goes wid me as I pedal me bike
I've tried Shakespeare, respect due dere
But did is de stuff I like.
[Dis Poetry, 1992]
I meet him in a room above a bookshop in Newham, the area where Zephaniah has lived since moving down from Birmingham as a young man. "If you want to write about working-class people working hard in a working-class place, that's Birmingham," he says. "I love it. It has some beautiful places. Aston Park. Aston cemetery. Aston Villa. Heah, heah, heah. And I love the accent. Have you ever made love to anyone with a Birmingham accent?"
No, I reply.
"It's fucking good." He laughs, wide and deep.
Zephaniah has written his third book for teenagers, a novel called Gangsta Rap, which he says "tells it like it is". His writing style derives in part from the tradition of Jamaican oral poetry, which he listened to on records while growing up. There is a crossover with rap, or "toasting" as he used to call it when he was young, and his work has been influenced by his dyslexia, which made it easier for him to write down words as they were spoken than as he learned them from books. Like the protagonists of his new novel, Zephaniah was expelled from school when he was 13 and, after being convicted of burglary, was sent to a residential school for young offenders.
"I felt like a pretty intelligent kid," he says. "Certainly when it came to dealing with the world I was a lot smarter than, probably, my teachers. I wasn't good at writing maths down; but I was good at seeing maths. I knew when something was out of place. I had a great eye for things. But no one ever came to me and said, 'What do you want? How do you see things?' I once said to my English teacher, 'Miss, do you like poems?' because I wanted to show her mine. And she went, 'Ugh, no. I just do them because it's part of the English course.' So I put my poems back in my pocket."
Education is Zephaniah's big thing; he is passionate about how good it might be if teachers were only released from, as he sees it, the straitjacket of targets and league tables. Things are certainly better than they were in his day ("If they weren't, I'd have given up and moved to Moscow by now"). On school visits he reads the kids Romantic poetry and asks them to locate it within the framework of modern music lyrics. "We might have a discussion in which a kid says, well, I think Keats would be like a Morrissey figure, moaning and groaning about how ill he is. And Shelley would be like Jagger, smashing up hotel rooms, and Byron would be like the misogynist, like Eminem, with a limp, hee hee. I'm trying to get the kids to think how to be poetic. Or I might say to them, you're a bad motherfucking gangsta rapper and you're in love with this bitch. Now I want you to write a poem without using any of those words. And don't use the word love. Simple things. They're not academic. They're instinct."
Zephaniah doesn't mind kids seeing him as cooler than their regular teachers. He does mind being seen as "cool" by adults, however, sensing an air of condescension that often attends praise of his work. In the early days, his poetry was rapturously received for its wit and energy and also for its novelty value; it reported on a world not often visited by poetry. He wrote poems about being a vegan and in Bought and Sold, about black people selling out when they accepted OBEs, which is why he was so annoyed to be offered one; he deduced that the offer had nothing to do with an appreciation of his work, and everything to do with his demographic. "Well respected in the black community, quite well respected in the white community, he's done a bit of work for the BBC, he's worked for the British Council. He must have mellowed down a bit now, over 40. And they want more black people, so it's kind of cool to have Benjamin Zephaniah."
Before accepting a literary award or honourary degree, Zephaniah asks the panel why they are giving it to him. If the word "cool" comes up - as in "we thought it would be cool to have you on board" as one university (he refuses to name it) told him - he rejects them. "The way I write, the way I see the world, is part and parcel of my dyslexia and my getting kicked out of school, and I get people coming up to me and saying, 'Oh, you left school at 13 and you're dyslexic and you have 10 honorary doctorates and isn't that wonderful! That's so cooool!' Yeah, really cool to be black and oppressed, innit, so you can write all those angry words." He frowns, then rolls his eyes and laughs; his attitude to life in miniature.
The detention centre, what would now be called a pupil referral unit, that Zephaniah was sent to at 13 was in Shrewsbury. He got into pickpocketing and burglary because, he says, he needed cash to keep him in cups of tea and turns on the slot machine. Back then he thought all white people were "the system". He laughs. "I didn't know what 'the system' was. I felt that stealing from the guy down the road was all right because he had insurance. I didn't think of him as a working-class guy who'd worked hard to get his car or whatever."
On his first day at the unit, a fellow inmate warned Zephaniah about one of the teachers: "He said, you're going to have a test by this guy and at the end of it he'll move over to you and put his hand on your knee and he'll say if you ever have any problems come and see me. And exactly that happened. We spent most of the time - not so much us, but the white boys ... " He tails off. "They never used to touch the black kids for some reason."
What, there was abuse?
"Yes," he says. "Sometimes in the night you'd see a little kid get up and go, attending to one of the members of staff and then he'd come back half in tears."
Was there a scandal about it?
"There was, years afterwards. Someone grew up and complained. I saw it on TV and was like, I knew that guy! There were different members of staff who had different techniques. A lot of these kids didn't have parents and if they were shown some affection they - I was going to say, 'allowed' but that isn't the right word - they were easy to abuse."But he escaped; more than escaped. We return to the subject later and he says again how lucky he was. "Very lucky. I mean, I had an affair with one of the staff."
I make incredulous noises. At what age?
"Thirteen, 14. I was bonking this woman. So when they wanted to kick me out, I wanted to stay in."
Eventually, he got an education at night school. He moved to London. He got married, and divorced. He could only live with someone again if they "were exactly like me," he says, laughing. He hasn't mellowed at all. Zephaniah goes on a long rant about Blair and the war. He talks about his disappointment in this country's black politicians. "I think there are some white politicians who have done more for black people than some black politicians."
He means Tony Benn. He quite admires Diane Abbott - "she's got a bit of balls" - but beyond that, he says, "I've met all the rest, and I won't say names but most of them have become Blair babes and they're in it for themselves. They'll turn up and make their statement; but they're not with us in the struggle."
He is vague about what "the struggle" entails, mainly because he likes his politics local - he doesn't have a grand philosophy. That's why he doesn't go on TV panel shows like Newsnight Review. "I ain't got the language. I ain't got that pose-y kind of smarm."
Being political does not, he says, mean voting once every four years and sitting on your arse in between. He has campaigned for an inquiry into the death of his cousin, Michael Powell, who died in police custody. He eloquently details the small, weird instances of racism that crop up every day: the wrong number who, before hanging up, says to him "You're bloody black ain't you, I can tell from your voice"; the woman who moves seats to get away from him on the tube (to be fair to her, he admits later on in the interview that he has never believed in deodorant: "That's one thing I learned in prison; if you've got a smell, don't cover it up, find out what smells and get rid of it.") He has been repeatedly stopped and searched by police on the street and is always pulled aside when going through customs at Heathrow. "If I'm with a white person, they're always really embarrassed."
I ask why he's so critical of black politicians; doesn't he think that, while they number so few, it's almost impossible for them to be "representative" - rather like Margaret Thatcher's estrangement from the women's movement, or from any woman, feminist or not, while there were so few women in politics.
"I don't think it's about numbers. I think it's about commitment from individuals. I think if all the black politicians now just dropped dead, hardly anybody would mourn. Nothing like they're mourning for Bernie Grant. Not from the black community. The suffragettes was never a big mass movement. It was quite a small group of women; but they were dedicated."
I ask him what he is reading at the moment. "Chomsky", he says. "I am always reading Chomsky."
I tell him I find Chomsky hard work. "Really?" he says. "Really? That's cos you ain't got a Birmingham accent." And he throws back his head and brays like a donkey.
Gangsta Rap by Benjamin Zephaniah is published on September 27 by Bloomsbury, £5.99. For information about a forthcoming series of An Audience with Benjamin Zephaniah events, visitwww.celebrityproductions.info.
May 2, 2009
Benjamin Zephaniah speaks out
He is the people’s favourite who refuses to be Poet Laureate, preferring to think of himself as an ‘alternative newscaster'
In case you were still wondering — no, Benjamin Zephaniah has not changed his mind about the role of Poet Laureate. After ten years of service, Andrew Motion stepped down this week; even as we go to press, the Culture Secretary, Andy Burnham, is gearing up to announce a successor. One thing is certain though: it won’t be Zephaniah. “They could throw a million pounds at it, and I would still say no!” he tells me, in his agent’s offices in Soho, Central London. “It’s an antiquated role, and it’s anti what a poet should be doing. A poet should be a free agent; free to criticise the Royal Family even.”
Zephaniah made it clear that he would never be laureate as early as 1999, in Bought and Sold, a poem about the corrosive effect of “Smart big awards and prize money”: “Don’t take my word, go check the verse / Cause every laureate gets worse”. He turned down an OBE in 2003, because of the word “Empire” still stuck in the medal. But he is such a popular, charismatic poet that people will not let sleeping dogs lie: “They say, ‘You’re already the people’s laureate — why not make it official?’ F*** off! Leave me alone! I just want to be a poet! I discovered the other day that the bookies have me at 20 to 1 to be laureate, and then I saw somebody write on a website that he had bet on me. That was crazy — I’ve ruled myself out! I feel like personally offering this person a refund.”
And yet, if, as Motion suggests, the laureate should be a passionate ambassador as well as a world-class poet, Zephaniah fits the bill perfectly — his latest initiative, the poetry reciting championship Off by Heart, is proof. He is quick to point out, though, that this kind of evangelism is not the sole preserve of the laureate: “Andrew Motion might think it’s very radical to bring poetry to the people, but I’ve been doing this my whole life, since starting up poetry gigs and slams in London in the 1980s. That’s my mission, and I don’t need a royal stamp — in fact that kind of endorsement would hinder it.”
Judging Off by Heart — which involves contestants from 1,500 schools and culminates in a public recitation in Oxford and a 90-minute film revealing the winner, to be screened on BBC Two this month — is part of that mission. I ask Dr Zephaniah — he holds more honorary doctorates than you can count on the fingers of both hands — whether he thinks that the memorising and reciting of poetry is an endangered art. As a matter of fact, he doesn’t.
“There is a school of thought that says that young people are not memorising poetry any more, that they’re not teaching it in school like they used to — and I think that is true, to a certain extent.” His tone is measured and careful now, as if he does not want to cause offence. But then he becomes more animated. “But that’s not the end of the world,” he says. “Now more kids are memorising their own poetry. They may not be doing it in the classroom, but in the playground they’re rapping to each other, doing poems for each other, they’re chatting up girls and guys by dropping them lyrics.
“A long time ago, when most people were illiterate, more people memorised poetry. They had to. The irony is that having education and books made us memorise poetry less. The oral tradition in Britain has died because of publishing and formal education. What we should be excited about, and what the statistics don’t reflect, is the number of kids who say, ‘I want to tell you about my life in Hackney, and here’s my rhyme,’ the kids who go to poetry slams. You can go any night of the week to venues in London, Manchester, Birmingham; you can see them having competitions and freestyling — and, yeah, some of it’s not great poetry, but it’s their lives. It’s relevant to them. And out of it you’ll get some good poets of the future.”
Zephaniah is passionate about the causes he believes in — whether literature, political equality or animal rights — but his conviction is distinguished by that rare quality, hope for humanity. Born of Jamaican parents in Birmingham 51 years ago, Zephaniah came to public notice at 22 with his first book, Pen Rhythm — he was one of the poets who flourished outside formal education, having thrown in the towel at 13. But by that time he had been performing his own work in public for nearly three years; by 15 he was well known in his home patch of Handsworth as a young poet who would speak out about issues affecting his community.
His work erases the boundaries between poetry and music; Tam Lyn (retold), his version of the great ballad Tam Lin — recorded with The Imagined Village and Eliza Carthy — won a Hancock Award last year; he was the first person to record with the Wailers after the death of Bob Marley. This was a musical tribute to Nelson Mandela, who heard it in prison — and soon after his release he requested a meeting with Zephaniah, which resulted in the poet working with children in South African townships and hosting the President’s Two Nations concert at the Albert Hall in July 1996.
Zephaniah has published poetry books for children (Talking Turkeys was the first) and adults (Too Black, Too Strong in 2001; We are Britain the year after). Recently his career as a novelist for teenagers has taken off: Face was the first, in 1999; Teacher’s Dead appeared two years ago. He has been a campaigner for police reform since one of his cousins, Michael Powell, died in police custody in 2003. He has travelled Britain speaking to audiences of all ages and all classes; he has lived around the world — he now spends part of every year in China. He believes that anything is possible as long as people are willing to talk to each other.
When I ask him why he wanted to live in China his reasoning is clear. “It was wanting to go somewhere that I’d heard so much propaganda about and find out what it was really like. I remember when I was younger being told that Russia was our enemy, and I just got on a plane one day and went to Moscow. I wanted to see for myself. I wanted to talk to housewives and pickpockets and just everybody — and see why they hated us. And I found out that they didn’t hate us, they just wanted to get on with their lives. I’ll never forget talking to one woman, and saying, ‘Come on, what about your bread queues’ — this was in the 1980s — and she got up and brought back a picture from a newspaper and I thought it was a bread queue. I said, ‘Yeah, there it is!’ And she said, ‘No, that’s your dole queue.’
“When I got to China I found I was being challenged in really interesting ways. For instance, I always believed that everybody in China had only one child. But I kept meeting people with six children. And it’s challenging being a vegan in China, like I am — but the best vegan restaurant I’ve come across in the world is in Beijing.”
But surely we’re all interested in China now? He sighs. “I think one of the saddest things about the way we’re engaging with China is that it’s all about capitalism, it’s all about making money. Of course we get a bit frustrated when they do capitalism better than us! But it’s not really about trying to understand them. I knew Poland very well and part of the old Soviet Union, and I saw them going, ‘Yes, we are free, capitalism, wow!’ But now I see them going, ‘Hmmm . . . not everything in capitalism is so good’.”
Zephaniah is no old-fashioned Marxist. He’s resistant to any ideology, even multiculturalism. The problem with multiculturalism, he says, is that “it’s got so tangled up with race, now, and the war on terrorism and Muslim culture, that we’ve forgotten that multiculturalism was in Britain a long time before black people got here. The culture in Lincolnshire was very different from the culture in Devonshire or Cheshire — and then there were the Huguenots, the Angles and the Saxons and the Celts . . . ”
Lincolnshire is where he lives when he’s not touring or in China. Now it’s a magnet for people from Eastern Europe. “It’s interesting that people talk to me about these people like I’m not a foreigner,” he says. “Like, ‘What do you think about all these foreigners coming and working in our fields?’ You know, they’re like the people of my mother’s generation. My mother and her sister saw a poster advertising jobs in England — and my mother said, ‘I’m going,’ and her sister said, ‘I won’t, that country’s too cold!’ And that’s why I’m here and my cousins are in Jamaica.
“That’s happening now with people in the countryside. The Government is telling us to eat locally grown fruit and vegetables. But if it’s locally grown someone has to pick it. Young kids in this country are watching television, they’re watching people in bands, they are watching people working in IT, and they want some of that. When you say, ‘Do you want to go and pick potatoes?’ They go, ‘Do I f***! No way.’ ”
I am not surprised by how incisive he is, whether he’s talking about immigrants or the G20 protests (“Anyone who’s been on a demonstration will know that the only thing that’s unusual about what happened at the G20 is that people caught it on camera”); I am, however, surprised at how self-deprecating he is. “Let me be really frank,” he says at one point. “I’m not a very intelligent person. Honestly. I don’t consider myself an intellectual. What I can do, I think, quite well, is express my experience and go see how other people are living and say something that will connect with them — sometimes. And the only way that I’ve been able to learn is by travelling and by talking to people . . . And the people I most want to talk to are the people who don’t agree with me. I have no problem in sitting down and talking to the BNP. When I see somebody who’s a member of the BNP, who wants all black people to go home, I think, ‘What got you there?’ I suppose deep down I want to say, ‘I’m as angry as you, you know. You can join me. We can do this better together, I want to try to get to this point’.”
I wonder what he makes of Barack Obama — whether he thinks we’ll have a black prime minister. “I find it really interesting when people here jump up and down and say, ‘Great, Barack Obama,’ and I say — ‘But we couldn’t do it here, could we?’ We could have a black prime minister; but we couldn’t have a black head of state, because our head of state is hereditary.” In any case, he can’t see any likely candidates. “I think a black PM is possible, but not with this lot. Just like in the States, it wasn’t Jesse Jackson who made it — it was someone who could get rid of that whole baggage and come with a fresh perspective. The thing about Obama being black, yes, I celebrated for an hour or two, but after that I didn’t really care. I don’t care what colour the person is, what gender they are — I just want them to bloody stop fighting. Stop thinking they can bomb their way to peace. But no, I didn’t think in my lifetime I’d see a black president in the States, I must say.”
There is a restlessness about Zephaniah that is part of his appeal; it is an expression of his curiosity. “I feel I am a British griot,” he says, using the West African term for the travelling poet who is the repository of a culture’s tradition. “I feel my job is to go from city to city being a kind of alternative newscaster, starting debates, getting people to think. Connecting with people in a different way to the mainstream propaganda machine. And trying to do it in a way that certainly, when I’m on stage performing, is entertaining.
“I know you’re not meant to say that, but I don’t have a problem with it. I think if someone has paid £10 or £15 to come to see me, when they could be having sex or ramraiding or committing credit card fraud, I should give them something that isn’t just standard boring poet reading from a book. I should be able to make it come alive.”
I leave our meeting simply hoping that the primary schoolkids who learnt Daffodils by heart will take the next step and see Zephaniah make his own work — and our sense of possibility — come alive.
Off by Heart is part of the BBC’s Poetry Season and will be broadcast on BBC Two, May 25, 9pm.
The interview: Benjamin Zephaniah
Read this interview here