The road from villainy to poetry is a rough one. Juliet Gellatley meets the gentle, vegan poet who made the journey…
the people’s poet
"One day when I was 11, I asked my mother where did meat come from and she said from the butcher and I said where did the butcher get it from and she said the farmer and I said where did the farmer get it from and she said the cow and I said where did the cow get it from and she said – it is the cow! A shudder went through me!”
When Benjamin Zephaniah speaks, the words don’t come out like they do from any other person. For a start, there’s always a lot of them. But he can turn a conversation about tax returns into a stream of consciousness that lilts and croons, purrs and modulates like a stream running over pebbles. When simply asking what you want to eat, he sounds as original as a character from a Pinter play but without the self consciousness.
So, at just 11, he went vegetarian and at only 13, he completed the journey and gave up dairy products. The transition was again sudden:
“I read a book about how humans drink milk that was meant for the animals’ young and I decided I wanted to disturb the animal kingdom as little as possible. But it was sometimes difficult to explain why. One day a kid gave me an ice cream and I said I didn’t want it because it had milk in it and milk belonged to babies.
“`You’re a vegan’, he said – and I thought he was calling me a nigger or something so I went to beat him up. He was yelling, ‘No, no, it’s a good thing!’ I was quite proud then because I was the only vegetarian or vegan I knew.”
When you’re not black, it’s almost impossible to understand the effect that racism must have – a constant, daily diet of insults, abuse and aggression. It’s clearly an everyday part of life in Britain and that’s what makes it doubly disturbing.
“I was often the only black kid at school and most of the others were hostile so I’d get beaten up all the time. Because of that, I’d often go over to a corner in the playground on my own and perhaps a cat would come along and I’d play with it. Or I’d be happy to sit and play with the ants.”
This gentle, warm, vegan poet has been forced to view the world from a raw and at times harsh perspective. He had every right to turn his back on its failures and say stuff you. But in fact he’s taken unto himself its most intractable problems and it is that which informs his poetry. He cares – he cares because everywhere he looks he sees ignorance and cruelty and he can’t just walk away from it. Selfishness and exploitation are the constants which bolt together seemingly unrelated problems.
“I was listening to a radio report by a female journalist on the way women are treated in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Girls are taken out of school as soon as they reach puberty and are kept locked away in the house. The men say that they are the spirits and the women are the animals – they’re seen as dirty, they’re not educated and aren’t allowed to be anything apart from slaves to the men. And they quote the Koran to support it. It was horrible and I just related it back to the way animals are kept in factory farms. The same kind of attitude – utter exploitation”.
Benjamin doesn’t just single out Islam for criticism – he’s pretty even-handed in his contempt for all organised religions.
|Benjamin in his home recording studio|
“I used to do all kinds of things with the words that were written in the bible, justifying the robberies I did. You just find little quotes about the poor taking what is due to them. Nazis used the bible. Apartheid South Africa had one of the most concentrated communities of church goers in the world. That’s one of the flaws in religion. You can interpret it in so many different ways and to me it’s anti-intellectual, anti-thinking for yourself.”
Despite his view of formal religions, Benjamin Zephaniah is genuinely disturbed by the world’s loss of spirituality. What he particularly dislikes is the segregating of issues, sorting them into categories, prioritising them. “People say that we have to get justice for this or that first – for kids for disabled or black people or women, and then we can worry about the animals. I don’t think that’s the way we should look at things. I think they’re all as important as each other and they’re all related.”
Robberies? Oh yes! Benjamin Zephaniah didn’t have the most promising start in life.
Dyslexia, ignored by school teachers, not learning to read or write until he was 21, moving from city to city and school to school – some 30 in all – on the run with his mother, often sleeping in doorways or in cheap and tatty rooming houses, trying to keep one step ahead of a violent father. That was life in the early years. As soon as they tried to register for benefit his father would pick up their whereabouts through his job with the GPO, tapping into the grapevine. He then went in search – and always found them.
This part of Ben’s depressing story reached its tragic conclusion in the middle of a busy city street. His father appeared and attacked Benjamin’s mother so fiercely that the young Ben feared for her life. He did the only thing he felt he could to save his mother. He pulled a knife from his pocket and stabbed his father.
He didn’t kill him but the attack marked the start of a five-year period filled with approved schools and borstal, adding yet another oppressive dimension to a life which seemed to have been built entirely on turmoil and change. It gives a poignant twist to his poetical words:
‘When I was your age, I loved my mother
and my mother loved me,
We come so far from over the sea,
We hear that the streets are paved with gold,
Sometimes it’s hot and sometimes it’s cold’.
In fact the only constant which has run throughout Benjamin’s life is his poetry and it started as soon as he learnt enough words to string together.
“I just memorised everything and because I couldn’t read or write I think I compensated with my memory. I always had a love of words and yet I didn’t like any of the poetry I’d heard around me. There was a whole generation, particularly of black poets, that was scared of using the words poetry or poets because of the image it had of wise old men. The term rapper was better. It meant talking, fast talking – and we did and felt we were in a world of our own – our world”.
At the age of 10, the young poet was secretly sharing lines with a few other, like-minded kids. In fact it wasn’t that big a secret because at the age of 13 Benjamin was expelled from his Birmingham school for writing poetry – on the school wall in letters three feet high. He never bothered to go back.
Although the prognosis for Ben’s life was pretty grim, he had a constant belief that he was going to be a poet – a proper, full time, paid poet. Considering there’s a hardly a white poet who can make that claim it was an extraordinary hope for someone hobbled by prejudice. It certainly infuriated his mother who thought a proper job should be the aim. What’s extraordinary, is that he had nurtured the belief since he was a little kid.
It was a dose of injustice that made him finally transmute criminality into art. Lifted by the police for a burglary he didn’t commit, Benjamin was dragged off to the nick protesting. ‘It wasn’t me, I was writing poetry, man’, must rank as one of the least believable alibis in criminal history.
“I changed. I used to think I was fighting the system but I suddenly realised I wasn’t doing that at all. I used to think that all whites were the enemy and that anybody with a car was fair game. I had a bit of a reputation with the Birmingham police so I decided to get out of there.”
And he did, by running off to London with the girl friend of a guy from UB40. But the streets weren’t paved with gold. After dossing around for a while, poetic justice struck. His new girl friend high-tailed it back to Brum when she saw that UB40 were rocketing up the charts. Benjamin smiles ruefully as he tells the story, the passage of time allowing him to appreciate the humour in it.
This was the time of great turmoil in London with big demos for women’s right’s, against the infamous ‘sus’ law and against National Front marches. At last Benjamin had a platform for his poetry and beliefs.
“It was great for me because I was doing political poetry – poetry that wakes you up, makes you want to go out and do something. It all came together and I quickly got well known.” So there was some gold in the mortar joints after all!
Everything about Benjamin Zephaniah is warm, friendly, endlessly understanding and gentle – above all gentle. And yet his poetry is often highly political, critical, angry.
“I am angry. I feel let down by a lot of people in ‘show business’. They don’t talk publicly about their beliefs when they could easily influence people. It bothers me that there’s such a small pool of artists in the vegetarian and vegan movement to go for publicity.”
When Benjamin tried to form an organisation called Artists Against Apartheid (AAA) with Jerry Danders (The Specials – Free Nelson Mandela), only a few artists were prepared to commit themselves and no athletes!
“Because of our experiences on the streets with the NF, the British flag is almost a symbol of Nazism to us so when people like Linford Christie wrap the British flag around them, it’s hard for the black community. Not because they do it but because they do it but refuse to speak out about racism.”
I suppose the word which sums up Benjamin Zephaniah’s beliefs is justice – and it shows through in the wide range of civil and animal rights organisations he supports, including Blackline which supports prisoners on death row. Benjamin’s book about capital punishment called Out of the Night – is a thought provoking, disturbing account of one aspect of human’s inhumanity to humans.
While Benjamin Zephaniah has talked away almost non-stop, we have chomped our way through the best vegan Indian meal I have ever tasted, in a small and unpretentious café, Milan, within sound of Kings Cross Station. But the conversation is still in full flow so I take off with him as he heads for a photo-shoot in the West End. He poses, and poses some more, still talking between shots, his Brum and West Indian accents stapling together words in a seamless tapestry of beliefs, worries, fears and hopes spiked generously with humour. This isn’t a rant but a sensitive and entertaining man exploring his feelings, each one he pulls out dragging behind it a coterie of others, so interlinked are his beliefs.
The final flash pops but Ben still has things to say so we head for his home in the East End of London. He can afford something more affluent than this now so why does he still live here?
“It’s really not a great area to live in if you’re in the arts – you want to live in West London or North London. That’s where the poets are. But it’s the people around here that I want to reach because they’re in the real world. I love listening to what they think. They love their kids and don’t want to be shoving Ribena and other rubbish into them, but they feel stuck in this situation. They see health food shops as elitist, expensive places. They say to me, ‘Ben, when I go to the supermarket I want the cheapest bloody thing. I’ve got a baby crying here, I’ve got a baby crying there, don’t ask me to read the labels ‘cos I don’t know what those big words mean.’
“What gets me is that one of the areas manufacturers are really concentrating on is genetically modified food for babies – the most vulnerable, the ones who haven’t got their immune systems completely built up yet. It’s all about money. I don’t know who it was, it might have been Marx who said that capitalism will eventually eat itself and I really think it will.
“I think we will have a kind of revolution one day but I can’t sit down and wait for that, I’ve got to work for it. You’ve got to keep working away at it, you know!”
His involvement with the South African revolution shows his commitment. When the South African government blew up the ANC’s Tanzanian radio transmitter, Ben Zephaniah did a tour to raise money to rebuild it – Radio Freedom it was named. The news was passed to Nelson Mandela in prison, along with copies of Ben’s books and tapes. When Mandela was released he asked to see Ben and the meeting took place in London. There have been three subsequent meetings, here and in South Africa.
|Benjamin with Viva!’s Juliet Gellatley|
Benjamin is now a regular visitor to the country, working with kids in the townships.
“They can’t read or write, just like me at their age so I get them to learn poems, to chant them. When you say goodbye there’s 300 kids shouting goodbye to you and now they’ve got poetry in them, a love which was almost lost during the apartheid days”.
I have to ask about Nelson Mandela who, along with Mahatma Gandhi, is one of my great heroes.
“The thing about Nelson Mandela is that he’s a very ordinary person. He’s done something that we think is extraordinary but really, when you strip it down, all he did was stick to a simple principle. When the South African government said ‘we’ll let you out if you just give up’, he said ‘no’. I would have said ‘yes’ got out and then gadded off, but he didn’t do that on principle. He doesn’t have a great big aura around him, he’s just a nice guy.
“I saw him again the other day when I was hosting a two nations show at the Royal Albert Hall. I asked him if he remembered me and for the first time I felt like I’d offended him. He said ‘Of course I know you, who do you think I am, a politician?’ He’s right, politicians do forget you. Once they’ve used you and they’re finished with you, they spit you out.”
Benjamin says it with feeling. “New Labour has taught me that politics is a dirty job. I used to think that they were closest to animal rights and human rights but once they got into power, they changed their views so much.
“Now they’re talking about forcing disabled people to work, they’re penalising single parents. They could please the vast majority of people just simply by banning fox hunting or introducing a moratorium on genetically modified foods but they’re in the hands of the big boys now.
“The people who are doing it for me are those who are saying ‘forget the politicians’, those who stand in front of lorries taking the animals out; the people who are fighting for justice for Stephen Lawrence. Tony Blair is insignificant, you’ve just got to forget him, you’ve got to take the power back. If only you knew how much power you have!”
Listening to Benjamin Zephaniah makes me realise why the feedback I get from Viva! supporters excites and encourages me – because they are using their power. One of those supporters is Benjamin Zephaniah. In everything he does – his music, his poetry and now his first novel – he pushes ceaselessly to raise awareness, to bring about change.
After his novel, Face, to be released in August, comes a little book of vegan poems.
“I’ve got this little character called Vegan Steven and there’s little limericks written about him.
‘There once was a vegan called Steven
Who just would not kill for no reason.
He would not eat cheese and not eat meat
And he hated the fox hunting season’.
“What inspired me to do it was talking to one of the girls in your office about one of her friend’s kids.”
Ben obviously loves kids and sees them as our only hope for the future. His role as presenter in the Vegan Society video Truth or Dairy is making his face known to them. One young lad came up to him recently: “Here, I saw you in that film, you know, the one about…er… about… viagra!” Okay, so there’s still a way to go.
So what does Ben see as the philosophical lode stone that will guide the next generation? He doesn’t particularly like ‘isms’ and describes the battle between Russian socialism and capitalism as being like two boxers in the ring who have just worn each other out.
“Tired old capitalism is still boxing away but it hasn’t really won but now there’s nowhere to go, no real leadership. When you listen to someone like Castro, he still has so much to say. What the world needs now is a young 19 or 20 year old Castro; someone who can address today’s people, today’s kids; a Castro that’s in touch with hip hop.”
It’s now nearly five o’clock but the man is still talking, still working out ways of putting the world to rights. I wonder if that includes accepting the anachronistic post of poet laureate if it’s offered. He hasn’t helped his chances by condemning the monarchy and writing a poem that says his family – all eight brothers and sisters – are just as royal as the royals.
“I don’t understand why I’m even in the debate. These people haven’t even read my work properly. They’ve just gone – popular poet, everybody likes him, he’s up for the job.”
More exciting for Ben is the University of North London’s recent bestowal of an Honorary Doctorate on him. What really delights him is that it wasn’t just for his poetry but for his humanitarian work as well:
“They actually talked about me being vegan, which I thought was just so good and I really commend them for it because so many big institutions are a little bit up their own backsides. The Nobel Peace Prize, for instance, has become a joke. You don’t win it by campaigning for peace, you win it by being a butcher, by going to war and then stopping.”
The clock is still ticking away and eventually it’s me who reluctantly calls the interview to an end. I could go on indefinitely talking to this extraordinarily forthright poet who laces deep concern with warm humour, who slices through prejudice and bitterness with disarming joviality, who sees love and compassion as central to survival.
“I passionately love life and I understand now how important love is to me. I really think about the true meaning of the word – that and compassion. If I have just one sentence on my tombstone to be remembered by it would be, ‘He tried to love every body’, with everybody as two separate words.”
Can you imagine anyone better to be a patron of Viva!?
Article by Juliet Gellatley and Tony Wardle