A life of rhyme
Poet, performer, musician and author Benjamin Zephaniah speaks to Charissa King
It’s 2011, and a group of students are in heated debate. ‘Benjamin Zephaniah’s at this university,’ says one. ‘You’re telling lies!’ says another: ‘Zephaniah’s a rebel – he wouldn’t be in a place like this!’ ‘No it’s true! I’ve seen him!’
Meanwhile, the man being discussed is listening in to the argument, from his office window overhead. To be fair to those students, Zephaniah took an unusual route to professorship. Kicked out of school aged 13, dyslexic and unable to properly read or write, he got into trouble with the police and was incarcerated before deciding to leave for London, to focus on writing and performing dub poetry.
Zephaniah achieved international fame, collecting numerous honours. In 2003 he rejected the OBE he was offered by Tony Blair’s government, in protest against Britain’s role in the slave trade and the Iraq war. He is also known for his animal rights, anti-war and anti-racism activism. All this predates the professorship he took up at Brunel University, Uxbridge, in 2011.
Above all, Benjamin Zephaniah is a great storyteller. His autobiography, The Life and Rhymes of Benjamin Zephaniah, is due out later this year – the year of his 60th birthday. Reform met him at his university office.
What, in your autobiography, will shock us most?
It’s funny, I always wanted to call it ‘Confessions of a Sexy Poet’ but there’s absolutely no sex in it! It’s very much my life, the politics, music and the culture of the time. There’s no kiss and tell or anything like that. It actually starts with the life of my mother – ’cause there’s very little written about women coming over from the Caribbean at that time.
Your first poetry performance was initiated by your mum, in church, when you were 10 years old. What was church like for you at the time?
The first church I knew was 55 Bevington Road, Aston. It was in someone’s front room. A Pentecostal church we used to call Triumphant Church of God. In those days, I knew many black churches but none of them had a building, they were all in different rooms. Every year we’d have a convention, where the churches get together, in either a hall or a community centre. I can remember all the songs, tambourines… The thing I remember most of all, is the speaking in tongues. Me and my brother used to mock them a bit: ‘Does God talk like that?!’ We could mimic them.
It wasn’t just about the worship, it was about community and coming together. Once they stopped doing the church bit, it was talk about ‘back home’ and ‘How’s so and so doing?’ and ‘How’re your children doing?’
Some of the preachers were so charismatic, so convincing. If you didn’t believe a word they were talking about before, when you see them… I mean, they’re working up a sweat! I’m convinced it’s where a lot of my poetry comes from – the techniques they use, that’s what I use in my poetry. There were some real characters. You’d say: ‘Wait till this man comes to preach! When he preaches, he’s got so much style.’
Yeah it was. I really liked it, and I learnt so much.
Not just about religion. I go back to Birmingham now and see those churches and there’s an element of loss. They’re all older and a lot of them are dying, that generation of preachers. There’s not so many younger people.
But yeah, going back to the poem, what happened was, the pastor used to invite people to speak. It was my mum’s turn and she didn’t have anything to say, so she just went: ‘My son’s gonna read a poem.’ So I go: all right. I had a really good memory for the Bible. I’m dyslexic and I think I overcompensate with memory. So I just kind of read [stylistically lists the books of the Bible in quick succession]! Then I did it backwards. Everybody went: ‘Praise the Lord!’ I was also into the Qur’an because with the Qur’an you’d have to memorise it.
You’re often quoted as saying that poetry saved you.
I’m always nervous when I talk about it ’cause there’s a stereotype about, y’know, ‘hip hop saved kids from gang culture’, but with me it was really true. I fell out with the Church because I began to ask too many questions. And sometimes I saw some hypocrisy in individuals.
Once, I got told off when I looked at the Bible and went: ‘Who was King James? Who gave him the authority to authorise?’…
This is an extract from an article that was published in the February 2018 edition of Reform