Benjamin Zephaniah describes himself as a poet, writer, lyricist, musician, trouble maker, and vegan. Born and raised in Birmingham, England, he says he cannot remember a time when he was not creating poetry. He is also a novelist, a prolific writer of children’s books, the holder of 18 honorary doctorates and famously turned down a Government offer of an OBE. We caught up with him at Brunel University in West London and tackled him on a range of topics.
1. Veganism, what are the benefits?
You really want to start with all of the benefits for yourself. You have low cholesterol and you don’t have all the animal fats so obviously when it comes to controlling your weight you won’t have all those fatty deposits clogging up your arteries and your heart. Your head feels a lot clearer and your skin feels a lot better. You’ve got to be a healthy vegan because you can be an unhealthy vegan as well. Then there’s the benefits to the animals, it’s much simpler. They’re not killed. Then there’s the way you help the environment. Why put a cow in a field? A cow has all that space to move around in, then you grow all these crops in another field to feed the cow. Then you kill and eat the cow when you could have used the field that the cow was once moving around in to grow food.
I mean it’s uneconomical. The only reason we do that is because of big business. To be a vegan is a win win. There are no losers in veganism. For the animals, for the environment, and for you.
2. Poetry. What is it?
Poetry simply is putting words together. Giving words meaning and put them together in a way that is original. And that’s it. Some people think that some really strange obscure stuff is poetry and other people want their poetry to make sense. It’s all poetry. The point is, it’s not prose. If you’re walking, your just walking from one place to another. That’s prose. Poetry is to prose what dancing is to walking.
3. Government. What’s wrong and right with the system?
Hundreds of things are wrong with the system. Personally I don’t trust politicians. I think that if you give them the power to control us you will always feel the need to be controlled. I think that people should understand that they should be responsible for running their own communities and organising themselves in ways that benefit each other. It’s a strange concept. It’s only strange though because for so long we’ve gotten into this system where we kind of trust politicians. We give them our vote and we say we hate the government?
We think that’s the only way to go. It’s not the only way to go. It’s just the way we’ve gotten used to over the years. The problem with government is that it’s run by politicians and politicians have big egos.
The kind of people that should run government are exactly the kind of people that won’t run government because they haven’t got big egos. Because they don’t seek power. So we’re in a very strange position where the caring, the really compassionate people, are not the people that can seek power and the people that do seem to seek power are not really caring or compassionate.
That’s the main thing that’s wrong with government and with the political systems that we have all over the world. They are dominated by men in suits, or women that are trying to be better than the men in suits. They mark their progress by how powerful they are and how much money they have in the bank. Not how many people they’ve healed. Not how many people they’ve fed. Not how enlightened people are.
4. Do you think that their education, with a lot of them coming from private schooling has an impact?
Well yes. By definition they’re out of touch and they think of themselves as elite. They stay out of touch as they move forward through the education process and then they get in power. Then they’re constantly trying to tell us that they are ‘one of the people.’ They have to work harder doing that. They have their prisons camps and go to Notting Hill carnival to show that they’re down with the youths. They really have to work hard at it because they’re so remote in every sense of the word.
5. Barack Obama. Who is He?
He’s a politician. The president of America. I think too many people had too many big hopes for him. Black people thought he was going to be great, women thought that he was going to be great, gay people, straight people and Hispanic people thought he was going to be great. Everybody thought that Barack Obama was going to be great. He can’t. He’s just one person and he’s got faults.
The greatest speech I’ve ever heard Barack Obama make was when he said that he was going to close down Guantanamo Bay. Now he’s had two terms in government and he still hasn’t closed it down. That’s a promise he made to the world and it’s still not closed down. I mean that’s the saddest legacy of his. But he’s a politician. We’ve got to understand that. It’s not the politician that has the power. It’s all the people behind him that are manipulating him that have the power.
Barack Obama when he ran during the elections, he used social media in a different way to everybody else. He got funding from ethical people and companies. I remember thinking though about how long it would last. Because when he’s in power he’ll be dealing with arms companies.
6. Poverty vs. wealth. How is it divided?
Well that is the division in a way. People who are wealthy hang on to their wealth and people who are poor seem to be getting poorer. Now, there are opportunities for some people to cross the line but not everybody can do that. There are some people that are going to stay poor because of the side of town they’re born on, the school they go to, the kind of general environment they live in. They are not going to make it. Although it’s possible it’s not representative of everybody. Even somebody like me who’s not wealthy but has been successful in what I do. Sometimes people say, look at Benjamin Zephaniah, he’s come from a poor background, been to prison and then made it successful.
I know a lot of people that have as much talent as me and their still in prison. Not everybody can make it and I think that as long as wealth is strictly about the money in your pocket, you’re always going to have this big divide with the haves and haves not. The people that have it will hang on to it come rain or shine and they know how to invest it. Money follows money. What we’ve got to do is build societies where the amount of money that you have is really not that important.
How quickly can you get to the hospital? Are the people there going to look after you? Do you have to pull out a credit card? Are you going to get free treatment? Those are the things that are important.
7. Hip hop culture. Violent or empowering?
Like a lot of music you have a positive side and a negative side. The problem with hip hop culture is the problem with the media. They always show the negative. The record companies and the big broadcasters will always want to show hip hop as the big guy with the big car, the girl with the big boobs. They don’t really want to show conscious hip hop. I mean most of the conscious artists put their work out but you’ve got to search it out, you’ve got to know where to find it. It’s not in their, record labels, interest. Imagine a group of women or men going into a record company saying that they want to make hip hop that kind of challenges the status quo, that brings white and black people together, that’s thinks about the kind of capitalist system that we live in. The record company is going to look at them like they’re crazy.
If I’m standing in front of you saying that I’ve got these beats and these raps that big me up and big up my posse, rhyming about this and that girl and Adidas and Nike can sponsor me because I’m wearing their gear. You’re more likely to get a record deal.
8. Tell me about art.
Since the dawn of mankind, we have had needed to eat, to drink, to sleep. It seems that we’ve need companionship. Let’s call that love. It’s seems also that since the dawn of mankind, we’ve started telling stories to each other. We’ve started painting things on the walls. Representations of ourselves and our animals and our surroundings. We need art. It’s just a way of making life a bit more beautiful. It’s another way of telling your story. Whatever art form people like, there may be stuff that you and I don’t like, but people somewhere will like it. It makes life more interesting, it makes us reflect on life in a different way. Art is beautiful. Art can be ugly, but even ugly art can be good.
9. What frustrates you?
Knowing that before I die I’m not going to see real justice. That’s frustrating. When I was a kid I would fight against racism and other things and I thought that by the time I got older it would be over. So I look now, I look at organisations like the English Defence League and UKIP and I just think we’re going backwards. We fought against all those organisations, The National front and the BNP in the seventies and eighties. I knew there was going to be a new party that rolled up in Britain but I just thought it was going to be a party of love, bringing the people together. I thought it would be the complete opposite to what UKIP is doing.
10. I would like to know your reaction to the senate’s commemoration of the First World War that is now going on and whether it adequately represents the contribution of black and Asian troops from the common wealth?
I think that if you just look at it you can see that it doesn’t really represent black and Asian people. They have the token one every now and again. You have people that work in Black history month and those areas that have to kind of big up the black contribution. But I don’t give a damn. Black or white, war is a bad thing. The interesting thing about the way they commemorate war is that they don’t say let’s try to not make this happen again. When we talk about peace they call us wishy washy. They wear the red poppy. I wear the white one. They say what’s the white one for? I say, “the white one is the red one but saying something extra. Peace.” The people that wear the red one just commemorate then they keep on fighting.
Commemoration for me means very little. I don’t want to put down the soldiers and the working class people that go out there but I believe that some of them are misguided. The government said, ‘This was the war to end all wars.’ That’s how it was sold. It’s a very important thing. How many years later did we then have the Second World War? That shows you that this is no way to peace. Peace is the way. You can bomb the road to pieces but you can’t bomb it into peace.
Politicians have got to realise that this is no way to solving our disputes. If you make a mistake, you’ve done something wrong, there’s nothing wrong with that. But you’ve got to learn from your mistakes. The bad thing is not learning from your mistakes. Yet you have politicians year after year that are just not learning from their mistakes. I mean that’s outrageous. If we were in a primary school together and we had a fight the teacher would turn up and say you shouldn’t fight, this is no way to solve your problems. If we have fight in this university, staff are going to come, security is going to come and say, that’s no way to deal with your problems. If you have a fight on the street people would come and say that this is no way to solve your argument. Find another way of doing it.
When politicians have a dispute they send us to fight. Could you imagine me and you having an argument right now and saying stop. “John” and “Peter” you can fight on our behalf. It sounds crazy. They build up the argument and then when it comes for the time to throw the punch they send off some other people to go and do it. Those lessons are not being learnt. I’m really not impressed by the remembrance of war because we’re not dealing with the real problem if politicians keep dealing in war.
11. Prison. Private or state?
State. I mean I’ve been in prison as a prisoner and I’ve performed in American prisons as a poet. It depends on who owns it. In some prisons it’s a case of where your locked and chained up for twenty four hours a day more or less and I’ve been to other prisons in America where they’ve got a rock stadium in the prison. People and bands come in because those prisons are owned by organisations where the bosses like rock music.
The state sends them to prison so I think that the state should be responsible for running the prison service. Giving the prisoners books and thinking about how to rehabilitate the prisoners not just lock them up. They need to make a system that ensures that when they come out they are better human beings. How to get back on the straight and narrow.
Most people in prisons are there because of crimes of poverty. Seventy percent of prisoners are dyslexic. Most women in prisons are there because they’ve been mislead by a man. The prison system we have now, both private and public, are just kind of holding places really, even for a short time, then they just let them out.
12. I’ve been reading a book about prisons. It states that when a private company owns a prison it’s primarily because of capital profit. So they want to keep people incarcerated and want people out there committing crimes. It also talks about the basic services that prisoners aren’t receiving like medical treatments etc.
If you own a prison and you’ve spent millions of pounds building a prison the point is you’ve got to have people in it. If you’ve got a thousand prisoners and then you’ve got nine hundred and then you have eight hundred and then suddenly you’ve got one hundred and then fifty, you need more. Otherwise our investments gone. Even if you have a regular amount of people in the prison, you don’t want to spent too much on their education. It’s like a company. You’ve got to look at how many diaries and water you’re giving them. I think private prisons are completely wrong.
13. Tell me about what it is you teach here?
Well teaching is the wrong word really. I give lectures and devise the university module called Writing Poetry for Performers. I concentrate on the spoken word. Students get graded by their performance not on what they’ve written down. How they can perform the poem, how they can bring it to life. That’s the important thing in my module. I love doing it. I have someone that does the day to day teaching and I come in every now and then to do a lecture and watch how they’re getting on. I’ve done it for four years now and it’s been really successful. I’ve also done some guest lecturing, like what I’m going to do in a moment. I talk about my experience in primary school on poetry and how it’s affected me. It’s better then most positions. Most professors are here because of their academic background, I’m here because of my experience.
- What are your favourite books?
Red Shelly. It’s by somebody called Paul Foot about Shelly the poet. Shelly was a revolutionary poet. First I just thought of him as another dead white poet. But when I read Shelly I realised that this guy was a revolutionary, he was really fascinating. Also the philosophies and opinions by Marcus Garvey. That made me realise that black people can walk with pride. His thing was that after slavery if we’re not careful we just go from physical slavery and chains to the mental slavery of the brain. That was quite liberating.
Interview by Joshua Cooper
About the author:
Joshua Cooper is a regular contributor to KIX Magazine www.kixmagazine.org.uk and has interviewed a wide range of movers and shakers including 2Pac’s first manger and his mentor Leila Steinberg https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gM673FRuFEA and actor Colman Domingo – movies include Selma and Lincoln http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0231458/.
His personal website is www.rorschachpublication.blogspot.co.uk