BIG INTERVIEW Benjamin Zephaniah: 'I'm always creative – I've never had writer's block and never been bored'

Poet and author Benjamin Zephaniah
Poet and author Benjamin Zephaniah
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On its 25th anniversary, the racially-motivated murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence by a gang of thugs has been thrust back into the national spotlight.

This week the BBC has aired a new three-part documentary, Stephen: the Murder That Changed a Nation. Only two convictions have ever been secured, and a public inquiry found that The Met was 'institutionally racist.'

Poet and performer Benjamin Zephaniah became involved in the campaign for justice, and his poem, What Stephen Lawrence Has Taught Us, among others he has written, is now regularly taught in schools.

Ostensibly speaking to The Guide about the forthcoming publication of his autobiography, The Life And Rhymes of Benjamin Zephaniah, and its accompanying tour, talk soon turns to Stephen's death and its ongoing implications.

'His mum, Doreen, before all this happened, she was a lover of poetry and she came out to poetry readings,' says Benjamin, 'she wasn’t an activist. And I think this is why everyone knows Stephen Lawrence, she looked like the average housewife, and his dad, he looked like a working man – this could happen to your son, you know? They were just waiting for the bus after spending the day playing video games, and I think that touched the hearts of people.

'I was part of the campaign, and I wrote a poem that touched a lot of people. But we knew there was something about it. I remember a sense after one meeting that this wasn’t going to go away. It wasn’t just about a racist killing, it was about the response and the police response.

'As I said in my poem, for reasons of legal technicalities, they couldn’t be brought to justice because police left it so long, and so much evidence was inadmissible.

'When Stephen was dying they were asking him what he was doing on this side of town, in this leafy suburb? People like him are supposed to be in Brixton. What did he do to provoke them? He was being questioned as he lay dying, instead of the police going after the people who did it.

'We knew it was going to be important and it still is.'

The son of a Barbadian postman and a Jamaican nurse, Benjamin's life could have easily turned out very differently. Dyslexic, expelled from school at 13, unable to read or write, a sometime petty criminal, he was a rebel without a cause. 

Benjamin Zephaniah

Benjamin Zephaniah

But he headed from his native Birmingham to London in his early 20s and fell in with the punky-reggae crowd.

One of the few poets that the 'man on the street' could name, he has been dubbed 'the people's poet' and Benjamin has drawn on his own life throughout his career in his writing, but this is the first time he has set it all down in one volume.

'I think I’m starting to analyse myself now, there’s not much I can talk about in terms of knowledge from university or anything like that, so I always default to my life experience.'

We can thank the persistence of his former agent, now sadly dead, for the book.

Benjamin Zephaniah performing in 2003

Benjamin Zephaniah performing in 2003

'She kept saying: "Write your autobiography!", and I always like: "Nah, you do that when you’re old". At the time there were members of Take That writing their autobiographies in their twenties and I was thinking, no, you write it just before you die. She was going: "No, write your autobiography". This was about 10 years ago.

'In the end, I said: "I’ll start writing it, but I don’t want a contract, I don’t want a publisher, I don’t want a deadline". I wanted to do it at my own pace and not have someone knocking on my door every five minutes for it – that’s why it’s taken so long. And I wanted to have my mum’s life in there, that was very important for me, her journey over here from the Caribbean.'

And he found the writing pretty straightforward.

'It wasn’t very difficult for me. But I didn’t keep diaries when I was young so I had to do it all from memory. I had to call up friends and ask: "When was that? This was how I remembered it..." I even sat down and kind of interviewed my mum, and I found out some quirky things I never knew before. Like my dad, he worked the same job his whole life. He worked in the post office – he started as a sweeper and worked up to a manager. When he went back to Barbados, he took his Post Office suit because he wanted to be buried in it.'

The book also intertwines his life with the social history of the times.

'When I left Birmingham and came to London there was so much going on politically, it was just after Thatcher got elected and there was a demonstration every other week, against the National Front, racism, or apartheid, or something like that, so it would be impossible to write my story without looking at the politics of the time.

'My first performances were on political stages. They’d say: "We’ve got a poet here who’s going to say something about this issue - come here young Benjamin!" And he gives a throaty laugh at the memories.

'And then with the music and punk, everything was so political. It sounds like a pun, but there was a lot more black and white, more left and right. It was like, there's one side or the other and you understood that difference.

'I never thought that my poetry was great, in terms of something like Tennyson, but where it’s done really well, is capturing the politics of the moment. I’ve been looking back at them, and thinking: "Wow – I said that about Stephen Lawrence then?!" or I said, this or I said, that. To see kids studying that in their history lessons, it’s "Wow, is that how much it meant?" At the time I was just an angry young man wanting to say things about the world.'

And does he think things have improved with respect to equality?

'There’s so many levels, but one of the things that really inspires me is that you’ve got some kids now who don’t see colour. It’s rather strange to them, they know Britain and there are people there of all colours. When you talk to them about racism, they’re like: "What are you on about?"

'A friend of mine, who does kids football, his daughter came in and she wanted to send a birthday card to her friend at school. She’s white, and the father trying to to be politically correct - and she says - she’s called “Mina”, but he knows if she’s Indian it’s spelled "Mina", and if she’s Pakistani, it’s "Meena". But he’s saying to her, "Where’s she from?" and she goes: "Erm, Hackney". He asks: "No, no, no, where’s her family from?" And she says: "I think it was Tottenham". He says listen: "Where are her roots?" And the daughter replies: "Oh, why didn’t you say that! She's from Bradford." She had no wider sense – this was just her friend from football.

'On the one hand I’m so disillusioned, on the other hand, I got a letter from a 16-year-old kid a couple of days ago, saying: "I’ve been reading your poetry and in my area a lot of people don’t care about things, they don’t care about racism". I had to write back to her saying: "You stay strong girl, you stay like that, we need people like you to grow up and put the world right!"'

Also a passionate human rights activist, novelist, musician and actor (he's got a recurring role in the BBC hit drama, Peaky Blinders), now, at 60, does he feel any responsibility to lead the way for younger generations?

'I’m not sure if I can lead the way. When I was younger, the big music that had power was reggae and I was part of that. Now it’s kind of hip-hop and grime, I’m never going to be down with the kids in that way again. When I’m at universities, students will say they’ve read my books and that inspired us, so that’s good. My responsibility is to be true to myself.'

In 2003 he publicly rejected the offer of an OBE because of the associations of 'empire.'

'I don’t really talk about the OBE myself, but a lot of young people really respect that,  because they say they hear a lot of people say: "I won’t do this, and I won’t do that", but as soon as the establishment comes knocking, they’ll say: "Oh, I’m doing it for my mum".

'Not long after I rejected, I remember going into a community centre to do a talk to some kids who’d been in trouble with the police, and the welcome I got! They all clapped their hands and were like: "Yeah!" It’s like you simply stayed true to yourself.

'I hesitate when I talk about it, people say: "Oh, what you did!" And I like to turn it around and say: "No, it’s what I didn’t do". And I would like to be known for the things I’ve done. This was an inconvenience to me.'

'You can say I’m a professor at a university and I do a lot of work for the BBC, and all that, but I can always say I’ve stayed true to myself - I’ve turned down Big Brother and The Jungle – twice. They came back and threw more money at me and I said: "Absolutely not". And I think that’s what young people respect.'

His next project is a new book for young adults, 'and the poetry has kind of taken a back seat for now. I write a poem every now and then, but some of my poetry is still very relevant, which is a bit sad. And there’s my teaching which I’m passionate about.

'I’m always creative - I’ve never had writer's block and never been bored.'

Benjamin Zephaniah is at Turner Sims in Southampton on May 12, 8pm. Go to turnersims.co.uk.