Friday, 11 June 2010


Benjamin Zephaniah interviewed by Dan Glazebrook
exclusive for
Sons of Malcolm

[pic of Benjamin Zephaniah courtesy and copyright of Linda Oliver]

Part 1: Racism and Britain
'Racism today is a lot more sinister'

We were very lucky to get this interview. Benjamin is only in the country for a day or so (he now spends most of his time in Beijing studying martial arts), and we very nearly missed our meeting with him due to a faulty hotel phone system.

But the real reason we were lucky to meet him is that Benjamin Zephaniah is one of very few cultural icons who not only deserve that status, but have consistently used it to further the principles of social justice, cross-cultural understanding and working class unity. He is a household name, and yet – very publicly and in no uncertain terms - refused an OBE; and followers of his work will know that his most recent output is, if anything, more fiery, more biting and more determined than ever – just see his latest collection Too Black, Too Strong for proof of that. And yet he also knows that remaining true to your principles cannot be an excuse for failing to engage the masses; indeed, he is deadly serious about ensuring that his message remains accessible to as large an audience as possible; that it does not drift off into a critically-acclaimed, but otherwise ignored, elitist hinterland. To this end, he will utilise any means necessary to get his message across, and he hates the idea of being restricted to some kind of straight-jacketed view of what poets can do, as he makes clear early on in our meeting: Originally poetry was oral; it was story telling, and if you wanted to make a point by being funny or going into another character, no one stopped you and said ‘no, you can’t do that, that’s stand up’. You were just a spoken word artist. In West Africa, they have this word “greot” which is someone who goes from village to village, and if they want to talk about a political issue, they talk about it, if they want to do a poem they do a poem, if they want to talk about HIV and AIDS and do some awareness stuff they just do it, if they want to sing, they just do it – nobody says ‘but the last time you came here you were doing poetry!’ One of the things that gets on my nerves in England is people asking me – are you a musician, are you a poet, are you a political commentator? and I can only say, well - I’m all of those things.”

Indeed, Benjamin often blurs the lines between journalism and poetry – utilising rhythm and rhyme in his articles, whilst giving detailed analysis of real life events in poems like The Death of Joy Gardner, (who was killed by immigration officers in 1993). This all has to do, he explains, with the needs of the community at the time: Poems like Joy Gardner come out of this tradition where we had to go around the community centres to tell these stories, because they weren’t represented in the mainstream media. Sometimes the government would quietly pass immigration bills, for example, and our parents - who it really affected - wouldn’t know about it. So we would have to go and perform in an elderly Caribbean centre or whatever because otherwise they wouldn’t know about it. So we were what I call ‘alternative newscasters’”

More recently, Benjamin has been deeply involved in the Justice for Mikey Powell campaign. Powell, Benjamin’s cousin, was run over and badly beaten by police in Birmingham before being thrown face down in the back of a police car, where he died from asphyxiation. As he explains, “I was already working with Inquest, which is the organisation who monitor deaths in custody, and at one AGM I told the audience that what happened to these people [people killed in police custody like Chistopher Alder, Roger Sylvester and many others] could happen to any of us. And then a couple of years later, I was standing in front of them again but now it had happened to my cousin. So my family and me were now “users” of Inquest. It shows you that none of us are immune – here am I, Benjamin Zephaniah, patron of Inquest and client of Inquest at the same time.”

But whilst the real Benjamin was supporting the victims of police brutality, he discovered that his image was being used to lend credibility to its perpetrators: the very same police force that killed his cousin have a poster of Benjamin on the wall of the police station, presumably to show their support for positive race relations. How do they get away with it this brazen hypocrisy – and murder?

“The truth is that the political class and the police - the establishment - are a law unto themselves. You see them literally stealing money and getting away with it; you see them literally doing crimes and you see them murdering people and getting away with it. We see them on video sometimes beating people and it goes to court and somehow they get off! And you think how can that be?! Sometimes it just blows me away. It’s like magic…”

I bring up the recent revelations about MI5’s complicity in torture and rendition. But he points out that this is not an entirely new phenomenon: “I can honestly say that I have been tortured in Britain. I’ve been tortured in a police station where they’ve put cigarettes out on me naked until I talked. When I was fifteen or sixteen they put me in a police station and made me stand in a corridor and every time a copper came past, they just stamped on my feet. I’ll never forget this policewoman coming past who just smiled at me and I thought oh, she’s ok - and she took her high heels and just went bang! into my feet. That’s torture.” What about the police in Britain today - have things improved at all? “Well, now there are more questions asked, so what they do in the intelligence service is that they privatise it, they ship it out…” he says, in reference to rendition. “And the way that the police stop and search black and Asian people is pretty much the same, but it’s not the SUS law now; they do it under the Anti-terrorism Act.” By way of example, he explains how he saw an Asian man being stopped on his way back from a club recently. The police told him he was being searched under section 44 of the Anti-Terrorism Act. “The guy was just so shocked! He said ‘Wha? Do I look like a terrorist or something?!’ And the policeman comes up to him, right up close, and says: “not only do you look like a terrorist, but you smell like one”. And that whole attitude of the cop was something I was very familiar with when I was a kid. I came away from that incident thinking nothing has changed.” Nothing at all? “Some things have changed. There are more black people on television, there are now black judges and black magistrates - I think it was unheard of when I was in court – the police have to be a bit more accountable when they stop you – and so we’ve improved in that sense. But in another sense we’ve taken so many steps backwards. With the English Defence League it’s like having the blackshirts on the streets again. They’re the kind of racist that starts a sentence by saying “I’m not a racist but..” and then they do all their racism. And that’s what all the political parties are doing at the moment – they cover their racism with talk about “this is not about racism, this is about immigration”, and in a way it’s a lot more sinister.”

Part 2 of 3 coming soon.


Morpheus said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Morpheus said...

I remember when when I met Benjamin Zephania at a poetry reading of his in the 1980's in Birmingham. I was only little at the time, around 7 or 8 but to this day I still have the little yellow-bound Malcolm X book of mine that he signed and I remember being in awe of his lyrical power.

Anonymous said...

Photographer Pogus Caesar launches new UK book. The foreword has been specially written by Benjamin Zephaniah

‘Sparkbrook Pride’ feature 70 images of the residents of Sparkbrook, an inner city area of Birmingham.

What’s of interest, Caesar still uses an antique 1980′s Canon Sureshot film camera. Remarkable results.