Benjamin Zephaniah Brings Poetry to Our Hearts
In July at Club Inégales, in London, Benjamin Zephaniah woke up the crowd with his poetry. Like a fire cracker going off in the night sky, within minutes, he can shift from humor, to anger, to poignancy and have the audience journey with him. This is a master at work. A Dub poet of Jamaican descent, he performs with reggae music or often inspired by its rhythm. He uses words to affect people’s consciences. He engages audiences worldwide on questions of identity, justice and what it means to be a Black British man living in England. He deserves to be better known in the United States.
In June 2013, “To Do Wid Me,” a book with an enclosed video came out, a vital introduction to new listeners. The video intersperses footage of Benjamin in performance, with the music of his band and includes a discussion of his life, for example, his Rastafarianism. The film also captures his approach to different audiences, showing his caring for children by connecting to them using a dialogue about dinosaurs. He is a thin, energetic man with dreadlocks that run down beyond his back. Despite his fame, he is open, engaged and down to earth in interview. When I caught up with him, we talked about “To Do Wid Me,” his poetry and what it means for him to be a poet.
DJL: You grew up with difficulties as a young man, in and out of trouble with the police, at one point in a borstal. Was poetry a way of coping with those difficulties?
BZ: Not exactly, at times I was more concerned with staying alive. As a youth, I robbed houses. But always in the back of my mind, I knew I wanted to be a poet, it was my motivation that kept me going. But when I robbed houses, I did it in a kind of literary way (he chuckles), I would be thinking, ‘how can I best describe this house?’
DJL: Was there an aspect of your early youth that lead you to become a poet? Was there a teacher in school who played a part?
BZ: Not really school, no. I always loved to play with words. I used to get into the sequence of rhythms, the rhyme. I would listen to something someone had said and say to them, “Can’t you hear the rhythm in that?” I was also hearing my mother, who is Jamaican. She recited poetry, but not for any literary reason, it was about addressing practical concerns. She used proverbs to illustrate a point. These were easy to remember. In a sense my beginnings have to do with the oral tradition that is Jamaica.
DJL: When did you start to perform? Who inspired you?
BZ: I was toasting in the 1970’s (in toasting a DJ improvises words over reggae music, Dub poetry is often prepared in advance). This is where I got my start. People say to me that my poetry is connected to Bob Marley’s. It is true that there is an element of that. I met him and I was the first to record with the Wailers (his group) after he died. But in those early years, it was the DJ Big Youth who inspired me.
Big Youth was a DJ who emerged in 1970s Jamaica. He had a distinctive way of chanting, a charismatic personality and a huge smile.
DJL: He had a playfulness about him as you do too.
BZ: Yes, he would take something that happened last night, something newsworthy and toast about it. He was a chronicler of events, the big Foreman and Frazier boxing fight. In the 70’s in Birmingham, where I’m from, there were a lot of electricity strikes. I wasn’t reading poetry to quiet audiences. At dances, where there were young couples, if there was a power outage, I had to keep the energy of the night going. I had to find a way to keep them engaged. I had to be relevant. It was a good grounding for a new performer. At that time, I remember someone said to me, “You can take this further.”
DJL: Adrian Mitchell (a British poet of conscience) was also an inspiration. His poetry reminds me of yours somewhat in the sense that it was simple, powerful and often addressed issues of justice. Can you talk about your friendship with him?
BZ: As a youth growing up in Birmingham we had a fear of poetry as something dead, white and male. When I came to London, I was asked, “Can you perform with Adrian Mitchell?” I did not know who he was. But when I first met him, he opened his arms to and hugged me. At an anti-war demonstration, I found out that Mitchell had donated his time for free, while I had received monetary compensation. I came to respect him. I also enjoy the poetry of Brian Patten, he is a person of great integrity.
DJL: Your mission is to “take poetry everywhere.” Can you speak to that?
BZ: When I was living and working in East London in a housing estate, what Americans call public housing, I would perform. People would come up to me and compliment me, “You’re great guy!” I would ask them if they had read my book; they had not. People didn’t read books. It concerned me that my community was not reading. That’s when I decided that poetry has to be read in the community centers, in barber shops. And that’s when television became important, you would suddenly see Benjamin Zephaniah pop up out of nowhere and perform a poem. So it’s about taking it to the people, into their bedrooms. That’s when you become passionate about the work. You want to publish your poetry in their hearts.
Even after these many years, there is true dedication to his mission. There is still the anger about injustice that bubbled to the surface when he first appeared, more refined now, but ever sharp and the incredible wit which he often uses to amplify points and keep people amused.
DJL: So you are saying as poets and activists, we are obliged to work in the community?
BZ: Yes, but it is not all about peace and love. I hate this word activist, because shouldn’t we all be activists? If someone comes up to me and says, “You’re an activist,” I would say “Well aren’t you?” Activism is more important than voting, because militancy is what gets things done. Hypocrites write about things, but then when it comes to doing something, they don’t. I remember meeting an early hero and talking to him about his music, and being disillusioned because he said “It’s just a song, for record sales.” I went home that night and I couldn’t believe it. I’ve been let down by some people, but surprised by others.
DJL: This latest book and film, how did it come about?
BZ: My publisher wanted to do a collected works, I said, “No, it makes me feel old.” (He chuckles) I am not quite ready for that. Then they said, “Why not do a film?” So I agreed.
DJL: Sometimes your poetry seems deliberately provocative in “To Do Wid Me”, the title poem of the new book, we read:
There’s a man beating him wife
De woman just loss her life
Dem called dat domestic strife?
Wot has that got to do wid me?
BZ: Well, I don’t want to bang people over the head. What I want to say is that there is hardly any strand of politics that does not affect someone in some way. If politicians want to start attacking women’s rights, then soon it will be gay rights. This poem is saying that we all represent all of us. There was that famous German man Martin Niemöller who said, “First they came for the Communists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist. Then they came for the Socialists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a socialist.”
DJL: The poem about Stephen Lawrence is also poignant (Lawrence was a Black British man from south east London, who was murdered in a racist attack while waiting for a bus in 1993). There is a lot of anger in it, it’s more personal than some of your other poems.
BZ: All of my poems are personal. At the time of his death a lot of people were writing “the Stephen Lawrence” poem. His mother, Doreen, approached me to write it. But a short poem like “Children,” in the book “Propa Propaganda” is very personal to me, about me looking in the mirror and not being able to father a child.
DJL: You are an amazing performer on stage, because you move from sadness to joy to humor in an instant.
BZ: Sometimes I call these performances, “Laugh, Cry and Get Angry with Benjamin Zephaniah.” But I don’t want to hit people over the head. I want to shake them and put them back on their feet.
DJL: And now being a Professor at Brunel University in London is something new for you.
BZ: Yes, it took me about six months to make up my mind and know that this was for me, something that I can do with a purpose. And now I’ve been there for two years, my focus is teaching performance and I like watching people develop as performers, I like that experience.
DJL: Is there anything else you would like to say about poetry?
BZ: Poetry is amazing really, how people love poetry. People love to see human beings behind a microphone. But it’s got to be honest, I don’t want to rob the people.
The interview was conducted on August 2nd, 2013. To learn more about the artist: http://benjaminzephaniah.com/