For a guy who spent his teens in and out of ‘approved school’ and prison, Benjamin Zephaniah is almost absurdly respectable these days. The Brummie born 50-year-old rastafarian is now one of Britain’s most prolific black poets, writers and social commentators. In fact, Dr Zephaniah – which his 13 honorary doctorates entitle him to – would be an ideal candidate for Mayor of London. So, why doesn’t he get into politics?
Talking to me from his London office, he laughs at the suggestion. “People always ask me that,” he says. “The problem is: that’s not what I’m about. This may sound a bit wishy washy, but I want to bring the political, the spiritual and the emotional together.” For Zephaniah, poetry is his politics; and more importantly he thinks mainstream government is “bullshit”.
His favourite poem, he tells me, is by Adrian Mitchell and reads, “People ignore most poetry, because most poetry ignores most people.” We could substitute poetry for politics, he explains. “Politics does ignore people. Politicians talk down to you for four years and then come the election they want to be your friend.” He points out that Brown’s ‘bigoted women’ gaffe in Rochdale just goes to show how little the parliamentarian big shots actually care.
“My kind of involvement in politics – demonstrating, standing up and demanding something to be done – people often call being a militant. But we can’t just be political how and when politicians want us to be.”
Zephaniah doesn’t just pay lip service to this ‘fight the machine’ attitude. His actions often speak louder than his words. Refusing an OBE from the Queen in 2003, for instance, was one proverbial bitch-slap of the ruling powers that’s hard to forget. He, of course, objected to the word “Empire” which he associated with slavery and reminded him of “how my foremothers were raped and my forefathers brutalised.” In his poem “Bought and Sold” he was equally disdainful of the poet laureateship: “Don’t take my word, go check the verse / Cause every laureate gets worse.”
He hasn’t halted his protest against the status-quo at the shores of Britain either. In fact he’s just come back from a tour of Kenya. “I’m big there,” he says. He also played a leading role in the anti-apartheid movement in the 80s. “The most moving experience of my involvement was when I met three South African boys that had been arrested for hiring a helicopter and literally just throwing my words and my poems about freeing South Africa out of it. I was completely blown away because it was these middleclass young white kids; I thought it was done by some hardline ANCers; I’ve done poetry all my life and I haven’t done a prison sentence for it.”
But where does he think ‘free’ South Africa stands now? Zephaniah pauses at this, and then concedes, “It’s got some of the highest crime rates in the world; the country has some really deep problems and sometimes people don’t like to talk about it because Nelson Mandela is a hero and they want to see the bright side after everything.” But he explains that things just haven’t worked out: “When the ANC boycotted the government, they told people not to pay tax and most of them did. Now the ANC are in power, most of the people don’t want to pay tax. Many are saying we may have a black government, but we still don’t have electricity and water.”
Zephaniah recalls a “really sad” personal experience that drove home South Africa’s present grim situation. “It was the middle of the night in Durban and I heard a woman being raped. I was on the 8th floor and I could hear her screaming. I went down to the lobby and asked what they were going to do. They told me that if we call the police the men outside would try and get us later in revenge, and if we went out there to do something they’d kill us anyway.”
Despite the problems, Zephaniah thinks that at least racism is no longer a basis for politics in South Africa. But back on home turf he feels such discrimination is still at large. “When you get people like Trevor Phillips, equality chief, saying racism in Britain is over and people are still saying they’re being attacked in their mosques, there’s a real disconnect. Not far from where I live the BNP got into power for a while and there was no massive outcry. I thought it was all over, but it just isn’t. “
Zephaniah remembers a situation only a few weeks ago at a roundabout in London where an “Asian kid with a Muslim name” was getting searched by police. “I stopped after going round three times to see what was going on. They said they were stopping him under the Terrorism Act, and the kid half laughed and said, ‘Hey man, do I look like a terrorist?’ And the police officer went up close to him and half whispered in this ear, ‘I don’t care what you look like, but you smell like one.’ And the kid almost burst into tears. After all that I’ve known and been through, I thought I’d never see that again. But it still happens. You just don’t hear about it in the media.”
The lack of media coverage of issues like racism aggrivates Zephaniah. “On three occasions as lately, I’ve had disagreements with the BBC. They’ve approached me to do programs about politics, and every time I’ve said, I don’t want to go on and talk about the differences between the Milibands and whether Blairism is still alive. I want to go talk about things that really matter to people: the anti-war movement, the environment, and racism. But they don’t want to know!”But surely it’s a bit of a cycle where the BBC panders to what their audiences want? Zephaniah agrees, but adds, “I think if you broadened it out, you’d be surprised about the interest and difference it would make to how involved people are with important issues.”
I flag up his poem ‘Rong Radio’ which explores the media’s influence on how we think. He tells me it’s inspired by a Muslim woman who told him she had been listening to the radio while looking in the mirror and began to have a long hard stare at herself, and thought, “maybe I’m not innocent; maybe they’re right; maybe I am a terrorist and I don’t know it.” “That’s the power of the media,” he emphaises. “The can say something that’s not true, but if they say it long enough, people start believing it.”
“I am sick and tired of seeing people on TV and radio claiming to represent me or people like me.” For Benjamin Zephaniah it has always been about just speaking for yourself. “At the end of my poetry readings, even if people don’t agree with me and my ideas, I want them to say at least he got up and said it for himself.”