Poet, novelist, playwright, political activist – Benjamin Zephaniah is this and more. A self-proclaimed ‘trouble-maker’, he was in Preston this week for a Q&A at County Hall. MALCOLM WYATT listened in
Benjamin Zephaniah has had many titles over the years, from dub poet and writer to musician, playwright, political activist and even rasta folkie.
He prefers trouble-maker though, telling a packed County Hall: “My mum still says I’m just a naughty boy.”
The 56-year-old special guest at the launch of Black History Month kept an audience of all ages captivated.
His Q&A with the BBC’s John Gillmore took us from his first performances and troubled teen years through to international success.
And Zephaniah pointed out: “As it’s Black History Month, it would be hypocritical to not talk about what I’ve come through to get here.”
Many tales followed of bad old 70s and 80s days “as a black man driving in England, three or four times a night stopped by the police”.
He spoke of police and National Front beatings, adding: “We had no black politicians speaking for us. I remember a TV programme where an academic came on and his title was ‘expert in black people’.”
Benjamin’s response was to use art to express his feelings, those experiences striking a chord with lots of other young black people.
He spoke about a love of rhyme, “playing with words” from an early age, recounting his first public performance, reciting the names of the books of the Bible.
In time he became well known in his community, and on Birmingham’s sound system circuit with his dub poetry – amid frequent power cuts.
And while musical heroes sang and spoke of Jamaica, Benjamin talked about what was happening in England and his native Handsworth, “free-styling about it”.
Yet he admitted he lost his way, getting kicked out of school, ending on the wrong side of the law, a spell in prison following.
“When I got kicked out of school, my teacher said, ‘You’re going to end up dead or doing a life sentence. And she was almost right.”
As it turned out, his part in a turf war in Birmingham led to a major turning point.
“My gang went on to the territory of another, and one got shot. Then one of them shot somebody else, and so on.
“One night, the guy at the door protecting us was armed, I was in bed with a gun beneath my pillow, listening to Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. I thought about what that teacher said. Next morning I told everyone I was finishing.”
He headed for London and soon fell in with its alternative comedy scene, alongside Rik Mayall, Alexei Sayle, Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders.
“Within a year Channel 4 had started, Thatcher was in power, and there was such a feeling in the community.
“I went on Black on Black and did Dis Policeman Keeps On Kicking Me To Death. All over the country the black community identified with it.”
Fame followed, and further down the line Benjamin became the first person to record with The Wailers after the death of Bob Marley, in tribute to the imprisoned Nelson Mandela.
“I wasn’t trying to be a Bob Marley impersonator, but had a message, and they really respected Mandela. When Bob Marley died, his band went to war with each other, with claims over who helped write what. But they decided to come together ‘to do this for Mandela’. It was like they called a truce, made the recording… then went back to war.”
Despite the reason for his invite, he told his audience: “I want this country to reach a place where we don’t need a Black History Month.
“The history of black people should be integral. That’s what we should work to.
“When I was younger I wanted to read Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X and all these writers. But I also wanted to know the real history of white people, fighting for what we now take for granted. It’s the history of all of us.
“Things have changed, but not enough. We need to do more campaigning and organising, and education is so important.
“Racism is so deep-rooted in culture. Sometimes you see it in the way people celebrate Empire, you hear it in the language, or in the media.
“There is institutional racism, and it’s going to take years and years to dig it out.”
Benjamin moved on to his latest book Terror Kid, a tale of a teenage computer whizz-kid who rallies against the injustice of war, famine and political corruption but somehow gets embroiled in a terrorist plot.
“Young people’s enthusiasm can be abused by adults in lots of different ways.
“It’s about the power of the internet but also about an enthusiastic young person with nowhere to go who gets in trouble then has to consider if he’s guilty or innocent.”
He also talked about a boy he knew while based in East London, now thought to be in Syria.
“This was just a kid I played football with. He was very passionate about things, although not particularly religious. One of the main inspirations for going wasn’t jihadist, it was the British Government saying ‘We must fight Assad’. But he then got caught up in something else and we think he realised he’d be killing other Muslims.”
Taking questions from the floor, Benjamin talked of his dyslexia and his favourite writers and poets – including Michael Smith, Louise Bennett and the late Maya Angelou, “a dear friend whose poetry was great”.
He told how he was further inspired by Mervyn Peake and Spike Milligan’s poems and the political writings of Marcus Garvey, important “for any Rastafarian or any person of colour”.
Benjamin proved particularly honest when quizzed by one youngster about joining a gang in his youth. He stressed: “Once I liberated myself from the gang, I could be who I wanted to be. That’s my message to young people. Never deny yourself. If you want to be somebody who’s different from everybody else, be different. It’s the different people that change the world.
“Blessed are the cracked, for they let in the light!”