The interview: Benjamin Zephaniah

Dub poet, author and activist Benjamin Zephaniah
Dub poet, author and activist Benjamin Zephaniah

Dub poet, author and activist Benjamin Zephaniah headlines Picture the Poet Live at the Harris Museum & Art Gallery tomorrow. MALCOLM WYATT caught up with him ahead of his Preston return

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.

In poetry you have to have something to say, and be passionate about it

Then he was heading back for another radio broadcast in Birmingham and a little time catching up with his mum in the West Midlands, before a trek up to Preston.

After more than 30 years on the road as a dub poet, author and activist, I put it to him he must know the motorways and back roads of the UK pretty well.

“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, Benjamin turns up on TV, too, last time as half-time and pre-match entertainment for the all-West Midlands FA Cup quarter-final between his beloved Aston Villa and rivals West Bromwich Albion.

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, and at the moment it’s really good.

“There was an amazing atmosphere that night, and 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 tomorrow, but Benjamin proved a big hit at a talk and book-signing session at County Hall last autumn.

“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.”

It’s Benjamin’s first visit to the Harris, appearing with ‘charismatic Mancunian motormouth’ Mike Garry, who previously impressed at Preston’s 53 Degrees supporting John Cooper Clarke, and fellow acclaimed performance poet Ali Gadema.

The event, in conjunction with the National Portrait Gallery, includes performances by youngsters who have written work inspired by the exhibition, with music from slowcore folk outfit Horsedreamers.

It’s not the first time Benjamin has been involved in an NPG project, previously curating an exhibition with celebratory tie-ins to UK multi-culturalism.

His last Preston visit launched the county’s Black History Month programme, with Benjamin signing copies of his recent children’s novel, Terror Kid, one of several promotional dates across the nation.

“Every event was different, some concentrating on the terrorism aspect, some on the riots and why young people riot, some talking about multi-culturalism and the idea of a Romany lead character – as Brummie as anyone else – and a Muslim girl kick-boxer.

“I would sit there and talk about what I thought the book was about, but others found other things in there.”

Benjamin’s had many labels over the years, from dub poet, writer, musician and playwright to political activist, animal rights campaigner, even ‘rasta folkie’. Which sits best with him?

“One that’s never used, actually, a West African word – griot. The traditional 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.

“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.

“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!”

Is Benjamin a poet and writer for those who don’t do poetry or books?

“The majority of people that listen to my poetry 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 he was.

“One of my favourite intellectuals of all time is the American, Noam Chomsky. He’s 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!”

Benjamin, a professor in his own right through his Brunel University creative writing link, also mentioned late great comic genius Spike Milligan as a big influence.

“He was a lovely man, so genuine. I get emotional just thinking about him. When he wrote his children’s poetry, he didn’t write it to get it published, just to impress his daughter. I liked that. Also, his war poems were anti-war, about what it was doing to him and other people. I met him while making this independent film. He came over just like one of the crew, and when he spoke to me it was as if he’d known me for years.”

So how come this Handsworth lad, who made his name in London, travelled in Palestine and recorded with Bob Marley’s 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, but shouldn’t just have to live in areas that are seen as multi-cultural. I have the right to live in a small village.

“I was watching a programme about Smethwick in the 1964 election (Channel 4’s Britain’s Most Racist Election), 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 outside Spalding for some time, and often meet people who say – if they’re relaxed enough around me – I’m the first black person they’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.

“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, 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 in a multi-cultural world, so I can go and live there, too.”

Benjamin’s folks came to the UK after the first post-war Empire Windrush arrivals, but early enough to encounter a very different Britain.

“I remember my mum jumping out of her seat one day, celebrating. 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 not because of the colour of your skin. These were adults, supposedly responsible people.”

Is Benjamin rigid in the way he writes? I can’t imagine him structuring his 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 frankly a lot of people who write like they’re in a factory don’t understand the realities of life, because that’s all they do.

“If they want to write about someone living in poverty, they’ll do some research, while I’ve got friends in poverty, so I’ll just go and talk to them.

“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, 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. 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 thinking he was going to be part of a liberation movement but then got in with people far removed from that.

“He wanted out, but 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, but quite a lot go out to fight ISIS, and that’s something that may 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.”

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?

“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.”

Benjamin’s working on a new album at present, while a new book ‘is in my head’. He’s also returning to China to ‘do some kung fu’ – another of his passions.

“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, get high on pushing my body to the limit, get high on learning how to be strong without using my muscles.”

Is he a family man as well?

“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!”

Friday’s Picture the Poet Live event is fully booked, but the Harris Museum & Art Gallery exhibition, featuring high-quality photographs of around 50 living poets, is set to run until April 11.