Benjamin, you were born in Handsworth, Birmingham, a place most reggae fanatics will probably associate with Steel Pulse and which you like to refer to as "the Jamaican capital of Britain".
Benjamin Zephaniah: "Well, if you went there now you would probably notice that it has changed into "the Indian capital of Britain". (laughs) There's still a small Jamaican community there though, but when I grew up there it was one big Jamaican area. We spoke patois, the food was Jamaican, the music was Jamaican and so on. You just mentioned Steel Pulse there, and I still remember going to one of their first gigs when they were still on stage in their school uniforms! In those days there was a lot of tension with the police and Handsworth was close to being a no-go-area; someone who wanted to enter our community had to have a good reason to do so. It was a way to take care of our neighbourhood; the government was neglecting us, so we created our own kind of independence. That's also where the inspiration for Steel Pulse's ‘Handsworth Revolution' song came from. The only thing that made it profoundly different from Jamaica were the houses and the weather of course! (laughs)"
When did you visit Jamaica itself for the first time?
Benjamin Zephaniah: "The first time I went to Jamaica, was somewhere in the mid-seventies, when I went over there for some illegal business. (laughs) We used to call it "flatfoot hustling"; just trying to do a little import export business. That first time I didn't even visit my grandparents or anything, but sometime after my mother sent me back over there and I really developed a warm relationship with my grandmother. From that point onwards I returned to the island on a yearly basis. The strange thing was that I had to introduce my mother, who was raised by an uncle of hers, to her own mother, because they didn't know each other. My mother hated Jamaica though! I was touring in the US at the time and had dropped my mother off in Jamaica. Now when I returned to Kingston, she was waiting for me in the airport and told me: "Take me home! I don't want to stay here anymore! The buses don't run on time and the people are ignorant!" For the longest time she never wanted to return there ever again, but just recently she expressed: "Not to mind to go back, to have one last look.", so there's still something there deep inside of her I guess."
You started expressing yourself poetically from a very young age. What was it that brought you to put words to paper?
Benjamin Zephaniah: "Well actually, in those days I didn't really put any words to paper yet; it was an oral thing and everything was created and stored in my head. I didn't start to put words to paper until I was in my early twenties. What started it was really my love of words. The best example I can give you is maybe a simple sentence like: "I Love You.". I just love the way people can say that short sentence in so many different ways, just by changing the intonation of the words. The other day I heard a mother say in an angry tone to her child: "I'll give you what you want! You wait until we get home!" She meant that in a negative way, but that same sentence could have a completely different meaning if you say it in another tone. I just love the rhythm and the rhyme of words, so that got me playing with words and that was also what I called it when I started out. I then started to get confronted with more and more poetry at school, but I didn't really like the styles and poets we dealt with. What really opened a whole other world for me was the rise of reggae. The man that inspired me a lot was Big Youth; I loved the way he would take an excerpt from the Bible and just twist it slightly and put his own take on it. Like most Caribbean people I grew up in church, but where a lot of people learnt how to sing there, I learned how to do poetry instead; I used to listen to the preachers and I quickly noticed how they used the technique of repetition. You would come home from church and not remember a whole sermon, but because some things were repeated over and over again they would stick in your mind. My mother would never call herself a poet, but when she has to remember something a lot of the times she does it by using rhyme. When I started listening to Bob Marley I would recite some of his songs as poems and most of the time the people listening wouldn't even realise I was doing a Bob Marley song. People often dance to music without even realising the power of the words. When I started listening to Bob Marley, a lot of the people I was hanging around with were already listening to Burning Spear, stating Marley's music was far too commercial, but I told them: "Music is music, just listen to the poetry of the words!" It was in that period that I started to transpose the ideas I found in his music, to my own living situation in the United Kingdom."
Seeing that poetry was first and foremost an oral tradition for you, how come you never became a rapper?
Benjamin Zephaniah: "Well, I really started out before the whole rap thing exploded, but having said that, these days a lot of the music I buy is hip hop. A lot of hip hop out there is just commercial shit, but there a couple of very conscious rappers out there as well. For me one of the greatest hip hop bands of all time was a group called X-Clan. They rapped Egyptology and black science man; it was amazing what they did! Just like any other kind of music, you've got this commercial bubble, but underneath that, you have some really serious stuff going on. Something that used to fascinate me was that a lot of hip hop artists were sampling or recycling Jamaican artists. I'm passed the age of 50 now and when I sit down with people of my age group, a lot of the time I find them complaining about "the youths of today" and I really don't get that. What hip hop is to the youths of today is what roots music was for our generation. Every generation will create its own thing and complaining about that, just shows your age and your unwillingness to understand the next generation."
You've done quite a few children's publications as well. How did that chapter of your career start exactly?
Benjamin Zephaniah: "I used to say my poetry was just poetry; not adult poetry or children's poetry, not black or white poetry, but just poetry, but then I got asked to write an actual children's book. I had a lot of reasons why I did not want to do that, but it was something my publisher said to me that changed my mind. She told me that children really like their own books; not one they have to share with mom and dad, but one that's totally their own. So then I wrote "Talking Turkeys" and when that was published it quickly became so popular that it had to go into emergency reprint just a couple months after its release. Looking back now, I understand why, because at that time most other children's books were all about fluffy animals doing fun stuff, but my book was about animals going to slaughter and about the way we treat and mistreat animals. I quickly realised that children also want to hear about certain issues. Sure they want to have fun, but they are quite aware of all the misery going on around them as well. So once I got that first book out there, I really liked what it was doing, so I wrote three more."
You then wrote "Face", a book with an entirely new target category: teenagers.
Benjamin Zephaniah: "Well, when my publisher came to me with the idea to do a novel, I initially replied: "No, I'm a poet.", but they kept on at me and once I'd started writing, I really started to enjoy it. To be honest, I think my publisher had smelled a marketing opportunity, because unlike a lot of other poets, I'm popular with almost all age groups. For most age groups there's already a lot of poetry out there, but the teenage market has somehow been overlooked. Although a lot of teenagers will like the poetry used in the music they love, few of them will actually admit loving poetry and if you find one that does, that individual will most probably be reading adult poetry. When I go into schools, that age group is my most difficult audience. I love doing it though, because it's a real challenge. When I started writing the book, I tried to go back to my own teenage years and remembering that back then I was a reluctant reader as well I just asked myself one question: "What would I have read at that age?" For "Face" I really didn't do any research until after I wrote it. I checked some medical facts I'd put in the book, but the only thing I ended up changing was the car crash scene. In the initial version the car in the book crashes and blows up, but talking to the fire brigade made me realise that when a car is involved in a crash, only very rarely the petrol catches fire. If a fire does erupt, it's most likely caused by an electrical default under the dashboard."
Being a poet, do you feel at home at a music festival like this one?
Benjamin Zephaniah: "It's kind of where I started out, but at the same time it can be difficult at times. A lot of other poets have told me they feel they are often disrespected when they perform at music festivals. Sometimes you're up on stage and they already start sound checking for the next band or even preparing a new backline and putting instruments in place or what have you. That can be really frustrating. In my poetry there are a lot of quiet moments and when the vibe is then interrupted by a sound check or the music from another stage, that's really disruptive. Today there was another poem I still wanted to do, but I needed the people to be really quiet and get them listening, so I decided not to do it in the end, because I just knew I wasn't going to have that kind of a moment here today. As I said though, this is where we started; we're dub poets you know. These days most festivals are all about the music though and there's very little space for other things. I've seen it all, man! Not too long ago I was doing a gig and a helicopter landed in front of me! (laughs)"
These days you divide your time between Lincolnshire and Beijing. What inspired you to go living in China?
Benjamin Zephaniah: "(laughs) I'm always surprised at how surprisingly that sounds to people. It's just another country and for me it was a country that I found really interesting. Actually, the first thing that drew me towards China was martial arts. I'm crazy about kung fu and I used to travel there to meet up with my teacher. I'd spent so much money on mediocre martial arts teachers in the United Kingdom and there I have the chance to train with the best. A lot of people are surprised when they hear I live over there for six months of the year, because of the regime and all that, but it's really a fascinating nation in full economic expansion. I've only fully been able to understand politics since I've been living in China and it's also given me a better perspective on capitalism. It's an interesting place to be!"
Doesn't a black dreadlocked individual stand out a bit over there?
Benjamin Zephaniah: "In the western part of Beijing there's a place like Handsworth, full of black students. Most of them are from countries like Ethiopia, Ghana, Sierra Leone; a lot of the more leftwing African nations send their students there. Some of them have even settled there permanently. A friend of mine from Sierra Leone runs a restaurant there and speaks fluent Cantonese. When you go into the small villages in the country, you still tend to stand out of course. I've had people, who had never seen a black man, look at me and faint or run away in fear. I've had people who bowed and prayed to me because they thought I was some kind of holy man. I do stand out, but personally I've never experienced any racism over there. Not to say it doesn't exist though, but I think the Chinese people are smart enough to realise that if they want to open up their economy, people from all over the world are going to come to their country."
For you last album to date, 'Naked', you not only strayed away a bit from traditional dub poetry, but you also collaborated with a very well-known unknown artist, Banksy. The obvious question is then of course: "How did you get hold of an artist nobody seems to know the identity of?"
Benjamin Zephaniah: "A lot of people think I paid a lot of money in copyrights, but I actually got to work with him, just before he became famous. In a way he wanted to spread his art through music as well and since I was looking for something original to do with the album cover anyway, it seemed like an ideal match. Banksy is a very complex person... I think his work is political, he sees that differently. Sometimes people think he's pushing boundaries with his work, but he claims he's just showing them the irony of life. People used to think the person behind these works of art had to be some kind of streetwise punk influenced rebel, but we now know that's not the case, but in a way that's where his heart is and what his art is about. My work is somewhat similar. It's seen as very political, but personally I rather call it a-political. People often ask me why I don't run for office, but for me, it's very important to stay on the outside looking in, and be critical left, right and centre. I think Banksy and me were a great match. We both use humour in our work, for example. I really love what he does and the way he does it."
In an older interview I found there was a sentence you said you would love to see appear on your grave stone: "He tried to love everybody." Do you actually believe that to be possible?
Benjamin Zephaniah: "Well, you can show love to everybody. That doesn't mean they will show you love back, though. Let's suppose there would be this vile racist in front of me, my first reaction would not be to show him hate; I would try to show him love. If he still wants to react with hate, it's my responsibility to defend myself. Once upon a time, a small baby was born in Austria, cute and cuddly as babies are, but that baby eventually grew up to be Hitler. Bob Marley sang it: "The biggest man you ever did see was once a baby!" ('Coming In From The Cold', red.) There was something that happened during Hitler's life that made him become the person he became. We're all products of our environment. Nobody is born evil. I really try to love everybody, but that quote is also a reflection on my veganism. I'm talking about "every body", two words; every living entity on this planet is worth our love and respect. Life amazes me, even plant life. I hate wasting food, for example, so I try never to cook more than I can eat. It's a subject I can go on about for hours!"