Poet, activist, and self-proclaimed “naughty boy”, Benjamin Zephaniah has just released a new book and is coming to Nottingham’s Glee Club on his tour stop. We grabbed him on the phone to ask a few questions about his recent run-in with Five Leaves, the Windrush scandal, and the differences between spoken and scribbled words…
You recently presented Nottingham's Five Leaves Bookshop with the Independent Bookshop of the Year Award at the Nibbies. We've been ripping 'em for going full capitalist and sticking on dickie bows; what do you reckon to fancy award ceremonies?
It's funny because I refused to wear a black tie and suit, I just wore a shirt with no collar. I'm always suspicious of awards; I look at who’s behind them, what their motivations are, and who's sponsoring them. I’ve turned down awards before. But I love independent bookshops, I feel passionate about them; as I said in my speech, it wasn’t a publisher that first got me published, it was an independent bookshop.
At those kinds of events you just have to think, “Why am I here, and what have I got to say to these people?” My first words were “Hello, I am the Windrush generation." Because somebody before me had just done a speech about Britain leaving Europe, which is of interest to a lot of people, but I'm interested in black people who go to Jamaica for a holiday and can't get back in the country.
You said in a Channel 4 interview that the Windrush scandal didn't evoke rage but tears, and that an incident around the time of Brexit left you feeling like it was a throwback to the seventies racist Britain. Can you see a time where black people will be comfortable in the UK?
We have to be very careful when talking about what’ll happen in the future, because you don't know how things can fall apart. When things are going smooth, it's difficult to imagine it. If you told someone the Roman Empire was going to fall eighty years before it happened, I'm guessing some of them would laugh and say “Are you crazy? We run things from Palestine to Scotland.”
It's really hard to predict. I'd like to think that being black wasn't an issue. There's lots of good stuff that goes on in the world, but you never know when the bad stuff will be raised over your head. It just takes one person to get in power and say “Right, this is the solution.”
A lot of British slang derives from Jamaican patois. Do you think it's appropriation or appreciation?
When it happens at street level, I think it's great. I hate when politicians and news readers start using it to make it look like they really know what's going on; then it's just tokenism. I've got no problem with white kids doing it on the street; that's blacks, whites and Asians playing music and having sex together. It's cultural intercourse, as I call it.
“Bling” was a Jamaican thing, and “Big up” is from the soundsystem days; now you hear people saying it in casual, everyday English. There's a part of me that says “So be it”. English is appropriated from Latin and Greek, and that's what makes it evolve in a way that other languages can't.
Your relationship with poetry is rooted in the spoken word and freestyling at blues parties. How do you compare the thought process with sitting down to write?
My second book, The Dread Affair, is my only book of poetry that's not in print now. I've been asked to put it back in print and I've said no, because it's a book of poems written for performance, and I didn't think about how they work on the page. I think they’re two slightly different arts; there are some great performance poets, but it doesn’t work when you write it down, and vice versa.
It's important when you write to listen to the voice in your head, and not make it an intellectual exercise. There are places where the written and the oral tradition cross over, but I do think if you're going to write poetry that's not going to be read aloud, you should be able to hear it in your head at least. If you can't, you're basically doing a kind of puzzle.
For a long time in Britain and Europe, it was felt that poetry was for upper-class people because it was hijacked by an intelligence who put it in the bookshelves and said “If you can't decode this stuff, you're not part of it.” Before that, poetry was an oral tradition, even in Britain. People think of oral tradition as Asian and African and all that. Nah. Beowulf and all these great epic poems were created to be heard.
How do you approach working with form?
In my version of Philip Larkin’s This Be The Verse, I talk about how the government f**ks you up instead of your mum and dad. And The Death of Joy Gardener – my version of If – is a poem about a woman who was killed when the immigration offices were trying to deport her. It's a very old English style and meter, but I'm talking about a really brutal murder of a woman.
I like juxtaposing things. I take old traditional forms and put some reggae in them. I don’t really latch onto one style; dub poetry is where I started, but that doesn’t talk about my whole work. Rong Radio Station, for example, is very jazzy and the music to it is quite hip hoppy.
You've referred to your way of stealing back in your hustling days as “Robin Hood style”. If he was about today, what writers and musicians would you recommend to him?
Noam Chomsky. Zadie Smith for stories. Robin Walker for history. There's loads of interesting people about in British music at the moment, but I'm a little saddened at the loss of more political stuff. In terms of bringing reggae up to date, I'd say someone like Natty.
You publicly rejected an appointment as an officer of the order of the British Empire. Why?
When I started creating poetry, I wanted to talk about the conditions that I was living in, and things that I felt passionate about. The police were making things very difficult for us, and there were gangs of racist thugs patrolling the streets wanting to beat us up. I wanted to connect with people and send a message to the establishment, so joining it would be crazy.
The monarchy is outdated, over-privileged and undemocratic. They can call themselves royalty if they want, but don’t live off the backs of the people and convince them they’re lucky to have you. I'm an anarchist, so I don't even believe in the state. I think there's another way of doing politics generally; maybe we need to really have respect for ourselves as citizens and understand the things we can achieve.
You used to live in the House of Dread, a community based on the idea of collective ownership. How could that translate to a national or even global scale?
We live in a society that won't allow an alternative like that to work because of the people who are interested in making profit from people being sick or going to work. All the forces around you work against you. Back then, there were organisations we didn’t want to go to, and we tried really hard not to use money. We thought we could help ourselves and for a long while it worked, but then the landlord wanted higher rent, and someone reported the kids to social services for being vegan. We were alright when we were left alone, but when people from outside got involved, it started falling apart.
You’re a vegan and involved in various campaigns for animal welfare. What’s your spirit animal?
I’m torn between a monkey and a lion. I love the way monkeys move through the trees and their playfulness, and I love the power of a lion, although I wouldn’t like to kill other animals. Birds and fish are wonderful because they’ve got so much freedom. Ironically, those two animals are taken and put in the smallest places. It’s one extreme to the other.
What can we expect from your next visit to Notts?
I don’t live too far away actually; last time I was there, I did a poetry gig for Black Drop. This time, I’ll be talking about my book and my life, there’ll be some poems about Joy Gardener, about the riots – or the uprisings as I prefer to call them – in the eighties.
Anything else you want to say to LeftLion readers?
Stand firm in the downtown.
Catch The Life & Rhymes of Benjamin Zephaniah at Glee Club Nottingham on Sunday 10 June, 7pm. Tickets are £23.50