Last month, Benjamin Zephaniah turned 60 – something of an achievement in itself, he reckons, for a man who didn’t expect to see 30.
‘My teachers said I’d end up dead,’ the poet, playwright, author, activist and self-styled Rastafarian revolutionary tells Weekend. ‘People thought I was the lowest of the low. Even members of my own family said I’d amount to nothing.’
Having spent his teenage years in and out of approved schools, borstals and even prison, by the age of 20 Zephaniah had graduated from burglary and pickpocketing to running his own ‘firm’ – a gang of young men who would steal car tools to order around his native Birmingham. Then people started getting shot.
‘I saw friends dying, and the way I was getting involved with crime… I remember just thinking, “Those people were probably right. I probably will be dead before I’m 30”.’
So one night in 1978, lying in bed with a gun under his pillow, Zephaniah decided it was time to get out. ‘I literally woke up the next day and said, “I’m going to London,” he recalls. ‘People said, “You’ll just get involved in gangs in London” and I was thinking, “Yeah, I’m gonna meet a gang of poets…”
The son of a Jamaican nurse and Barbadian postman, Zephaniah began life in the white, working class Birmingham neighbourhood of Hockley, and had an early, bloody introduction to racism when someone smashed him on the head with a house brick while shouting, ‘Go home, wog’.
There was violence at home, too. As he recounts in his terrific, vivid new autobiography, The Life and Rhymes of Benjamin Zephaniah, his father beat him and his mother so regularly they eventually fled. Denied shelter at women’s refuges because they were black, they lived a ‘nomadic existence’ around Birmingham, with young Benjamin tasked with watching his mother’s back for any sign of his father. Once, when he tracked them down in town, Zephaniah leapt onto his dad’s back and tried to stab him in the head with a penknife.
Weekend asks if he was ever able to forgive his father, who died in 1993, and was buried in Barbados in his British GPO uniform. ‘My mum’s kind of forgiven him,’ he says. ‘He thought he was being a man. He thought a man had to be in control of his house, in control of his woman. He thought if anyone saw a chink in his armour, saw that he wasn’t a macho man, it was a real sign of weakness.’
Growing up, Zephaniah spent more time fighting than studying, and by his mid-teens was on the path to becoming a ‘full-time hustler’. ‘It was partly survival, but it was partly following the crowd,’ he admits of his wayward adolescence. ‘When I look back at some of the mistakes I made, I don’t even blame the people I was following – I blame me for following them. And not just the crowd I was hanging out with, but also what a lot of the media were telling me – that young black kids are kind of edgy and dangerous. I started to be more successful in life when I started to think for myself; when I said, “actually, I can change the story here”.
The key to unlocking that change was poetry. Zephaniah, who is dyslexic, credits his mother Lineve with his gift for rhyme, because that is her natural way of speaking – part of a wider tradition of oral history in the part of Jamaica where she grew up. ‘She hates it when I say that,’ he laughs. ‘Because she just thinks, “This is normal: me is not a poet, me’s just a Jamaican girl”.’
His first collection, Pen Rhythm, was published when he was 22, and he went on to revolutionise the UK performance scene with his brand of political, conscious-raising dub poetry. Often labelled ‘the people’s laureate’, he’s also written plays, radio and television scripts and children’s books, while parlaying his lifelong love of reggae into numerous musical projects, including becoming the first person to record with the Wailers after the death of his hero, Bob Marley. His work has taken him all over the world, he’s enjoyed private audiences with monarchs, prime ministers and Nelson Mandela (they talked about elephants) and, in 2008, he was listed by The Times as one of the 50 greatest postwar writers. Not too shabby for a kid who left school at 13 unable to read.
‘I visit prisons sometimes, to talk about poetry, and life,’ he says. ‘Sometimes I see people I used to know, and I just think, “Their life went one way, mine went another”. Their life has been going from prison to prison, whereas mine has been a tour from venue to venue. I look at them and see what I could have been.
‘This weekend, I went back to Birmingham and I saw the same guy on the same corner, doing the same hustle, as when I left in 1978. He’s been doing that – surviving – for 40 years. And I just think: it could have been me.’
The last three decades haven’t entirely been plain sailing. In 2001, he came home from an overseas poetry tour to find that Amina, his wife of 12 years, had left him ‘out of the blue’. He’s also had to come to terms with a low sperm count that means he can’t have children. ‘I used to see men playing with their kids, and it would get to me,’ he says. ‘But I think I’m kind of over it now. When people come up to me and tell me they loved my books when they were young, or that their mum used to read them my poems at bedtime, I think: well, I’ve had a part in raising thousands of kids.’
Zephaniah’s burning sense of injustice doesn’t just come out in his verse – he’s a lifelong activist and street protester. (‘Bonfire night in the middle of summer; fireworks smell like burning rubber’ he writes in his memoir, recalling his part in the race riots that spread across Britain in 1981. ‘But we didn’t call it rioting,’ he adds. ‘We called it an uprising.’)
‘I think it’s important to turn up sometimes,’ he tells Weekend. ‘But it doesn’t really happen much now. These days, people don’t ask me to march on Parliament. They just send me a link to a petition.’
Over the years, Zephaniah has seen racism wear many faces. In 1987, the offer of a fellowship from Trinity College, Cambridge, was withdrawn after The Sun ran an infamous leader column headed ‘Would you let this man near your daughter?’ Today, he’s a professor of creative writing at Brunel University, and is cautiously optimistic – despite recent reversals – that Britain is slowly becoming a more tolerant nation.
‘When I look at the make-up of the students at the university where I work, I think “Wow”,’ he says. ‘When my sister went to university, it made the local paper – a black, British girl at university!
‘I love my country, I really do,’ he adds. ‘And the more I travel, the more I love it. But it’s my job to be critical. I’m critical of myself, of course I’m going to be critical of my country. I want to make myself a better person, and I want to make my country better.’
In 2003, he turned down the OBE, objecting to the word ‘Empire’, with its associations of slavery. ‘I don’t think artists should align themselves with government and monarchy,’ he explains. ‘There is a kind of poet who wants to do that, but I think we should be free spirits.’
It’s nothing personal, he adds. ‘I used to be an ambassador for the British Council, and the Queen is a patron. I’ll happily work with anyone who’s working promoting my country. She would say it’s her country, I’d say it’s mine,’ he laughs, before adding: ‘At heart, I’m a revolutionary.’
As such, Zephaniah occupies a unique place in British public life. He’s the radical revolutionary who gets invited into primary schools; the anarchist with an innate distrust of institutions who works for the British Council and has honorary degrees and doctorates from more than 15 universities; he’s someone who’s borne witness to ‘the thug life, the pimp life, the street-fighting life’, who claims to be as much of incendiary firebrand as ever, but who now lives quietly in the Lincolnshire countryside, eating a strict vegan diet and practising meditation and Tai Chi.
‘Superficially, people could say I live quite a middle class life,’ he reflects. ‘I’ve got a nice house in the country, I grow my own vegetables, I’m never going to starve. I’ve got peace within myself. But I still feel there’s more work to do. It’s not just about me, which is why I’m still an activist.’
When Weekend asks if he still wants to overthrow the government, he confirms that he does, citing the time he spends volunteering in soup kitchens and food banks as evidence that ‘we’re doing things the wrong way’.
‘If you look at all the old philosophers’ ideas about how to run countries, they were about the workers in the fields, or workers putting down their tools and their hammers. That’s all gone,’ he says. ‘We’ve got to find a new way of doing things.
‘I don’t know what is,’ he adds. ‘I don’t think there’s even a name for it. But then I’ve never claimed to have all the answers. I’m just a poet from Birmingham.’
Published in Waitrose Weekend, May 10, 2018
(c) Waitrose Weekend