Talking to Benjamin Zephaniah

An Interview held on 27 August, 2003. Questions by Maria Grech Ganado and Adrian Grima for Inizjamed. Parts of this interview were published in “The Rebel Poet” in The Sunday Circle of October, 2003

In Great Britain you are well known as a ‘performance poet’.  Could you explain the difference between an orthodox poet (who might even read his work out) and one like yourself?  Is the essential nature of your poetry altered by being read rather than performed?

BZ: I think an orthodox poet writes the poem down and thinks of it as an exercise on the page, with a reader reading the poem to themselves. When I create a poem, I think about how a poem relates to an audience, a crowd of people, and to the individual in the audience. I think of myself performing it, I think of the sound of the words, not just how they rest on the page or how they creep quietly into the mind. I think that’s made a difference. Many performance poets perform for years and then are asked by a publisher to write them down and some do and some don’t. Some seem to find it very hard, because what works in performance might not work on the page. On the other hand some people who write poetry just for the page, now and then get asked to perform it. Some are very shy and won’t perform it, or don’t have the personality to perform it, or don’t have the nerve to perform it.

I must say I don’t think one is better than the other. I just think they have different functions. There’s been a lot of debate in Britain, not so much now but a few years ago it was very heated, about whether performance poetry is second-rate poetry. I don’t really have none of that.

In the mid-80s when I [Maria Grech Ganado] returned to teaching 5th formers, I was struck by the fact that though there was a literary market for children and for adults, there was a sore need for one which addressed adolescents today. I believe it is only through education that the malaise of society (esp. drugs and alcohol) can be addressed effectively, and yet schools were not providing any literature adolescents could relate to. How far do you consider yourself an educator, who, through elements like rap, beat, jargon and the ‘cool’ image, can actually communicate where it is most important today?

BZ:   It’s a very very good point. In Britain, there is this big gap in the market for literature for teenagers. I don’t really like to use the word ‘market’, but there is nothing for them. When I start writing for this group of people, again I have a very simple point of view. I was one of these children who felt that literature had nothing to do with my life, there was nothing I could identify with. I hated school, I thought of teachers as a form of oppression. I was very rebellious. But at the same time, when I was kicked out of school, I was nipping off to school to learn about Black and African history. It wasn’t that I didn’t like knowledge but there wasn’t anything for me in formal education and the bookshops in the High Street. There was nothing there for me. So the point of view I started off from is ‘if I were a teenager, what would I like to read?’.

Now I’ve got to be careful not to preach at the teenagers. But I’m also aware that in a time when we have just as many young black kids going through the prison system as they do through the communication system, one has to kind of take responsibility as a writer.

Now my next novel, not published yet, is called Gangsta Rap. And we have a big problem here with teenagers who have guns, who think that the whole gangsta rap image is really cool and they love the music and they don’t call women ‘girls’ or ‘women’. They call them ‘bitches’ and ‘whores’. I’m just listening to a rap tune at the moment where the guy says he doesn’t want to make love to a woman; he just says he wants to do all these other things to her!

Without preaching, I want to go into that world, and take it apart a little and explore why these kids are acting like this. I’m not the adult preaching to them. I’m going into a world I knew when I was a teenager, which has changed quite a bit now…but I want to get into that world…I’ve been asked this question before on panels, where I’m asked what message I have for the youth. But actually, I like to reverse it. I am with the youth in a way, and the message I have is for the adults.

This is very, very serious. If you think about gangsta rap, and you look at the videos, you’ve got these guys there with these big cars, and all the big girls with the big breasts and big asses and everything else. They’re all hired for the video by the record company, they’re all models. All the cars are hired in! Some of the rappers have a bit of money and stuff, but they don’t have real power.

Now, if  as a young teenager I say ‘I want to forget gangsta rap, and want to look at politicians to get an example of how to live’…I want to ask society what kind of example do we give them there. The politicians: they do a kind of gangsta rap! They look at things and instead of resolving disputes through talking, they go to war! They have real power! When I hear politicians say ‘We’re gonna get them, we’re gonna kill them!’, that’s gangsta rap! These people have real power. They don’t have guns. They have tanks, they have bombs, they have weapons of mass destruction! So when I have a sixteen year-old kid looking at me, and saying ‘What the fuck, what do you have to say, what is society telling me? It’s telling me to be peaceful, and you’re going there and bombing those people?!’ I have sympathy with that youth. Where does that kid go for his role-models?

That’s what we need to tell…I say ‘we’, I’m forty-five!..That is the frustration I see with the teenagers. They are saying ‘Where is the leadership? In the play-ground we’re being told we should not fight, and we should not solve our disputes this way. And when leave school we’re told not to do this or that…But yet when the people in power have a dispute, what do they do? They start shooting each other. And they send us to do it. They don’t do it themselves; they send us to do it.’

There’s a lot of hypocrisy in the world that I think really confuses young people. And it makes them angry.

It is said that you are one of Tony Blair’s favourite poets. This was said before the war and your taking a public stance against it. Do you think that remark still stands?

BZ: I’ve heard this before. I have met Tony Blair and he did not come up to me saying ‘You’re my favourite poet’. He did say ‘I’ve seen you on TV before and my wife likes you’! I don’t know where the reported comment came from. He must have said it in an interview. If he said it he probably doesn’t know he said it. Someone might have spun it for him…

The truth is I’ve been very open about this. I just want to reach people. If they happen to be politicians, fine. If you look at my work you’ll see a nervousness, I would even say to a certain extent a mistrust of politicians, and I say that knowing that I have friends who are politicians. I just watch them change when they get power. Sometimes it’s such a radical change. I think it’s so difficult to be an honest politician, to speak your mind and speak the truth. It’s so difficult for them. If you want to be a poet, you have to be honest. You have to be the complete opposite of a politician.

I had friends here in exile, who were members of the African National Congress when they were a revolutionary party. Now they’re back in South Africa and one of them phoned me one night in tears, wanting to write something about woman rights, but knowing he’ll upset some party members. And I said to him ‘You have to decide, are you a poet, or a party poet?’ It was a real dilemma with him, because the poet in him wanted to be a free spirit, and criticise left, right and centre. The politician in him had to toe the party line. I think these two things are opposed to each other.

Do you still think the war on Iraq was wrong?

BZ: Yes. I don’t want to sound smug, and I’m doing this on lots of radio stations in Britain. I’m saying ‘I told you so, I told you so, I told you so’. The looting that happened, the violence. Mr Bush saying the war’s over, as if the Saddam Hussein people, or any other people, because it’s not only Saddam Hussein people who are attacking soldiers, go ‘Oh it’s over’.

Let me tell you something. If Britain were occupied by whoever, I would probably fight to defend my country and my people. It doesn’t mean I’m a great fan of Tony Blair. I have friends in Iraq, and I hear them communicating, and what I hear is different from what we hear in the media. I’ve got to be realistic, and say that’s where we are now. But I do think we’ve got to recognise that this is an occupation. My country is involved in an occupation there. I think the way forward is to internationalise the presence there and the UN have to be given a central role. As long as the US and UK occupation remains, the Iraqi people are not going to accept it. And because people don’t accept it, I don’t think we should just jump to the conclusion that they’re die-hard supporters of Saddam Hussein or anything like this.

I think Saddam Hussein could have been gotten rid of in much more imaginative ways.


Benjamin Zephaniah

The Street Poetry of a School Dropout

Benjamin Zephaniah, one of the UK’s most popular rap poets, arrives in Malta on Sunday 26th October, for an exciting one-week visit. He will be performing his poetry for the general public at the St. James Cavalier Theatre on Thursday 30 and Friday 31 October, at 7.30pm. And on Wednesday 29 October at 7.30pm he will be leading an interactive session with local writers at St. James Cavalier.

Benjamin Zephaniah

On Tuesday, 28th October, at St James Cavalier, Benjamin Zephaniah and the Minister of Culture, the Hon. Jesmond Mugliett, will be taking part in the official launching of the Klandestini project for emerging writers in five Mediterranean countries which is being coordinated by Inizjamed and The British Council.

During his week-long visit, Zephaniah will also be visiting a number of State and private secondary schools to present his poetry to the students and discuss both writing in general and the themes that he himself deals with. He writes poetry and prose for adults, teenagers and children, and many of his poems are available on cassettes or CDs like Funky Turkeys and Reggae Head. His works deal with issues that affect people’s everyday lives, like bullies, guns, racism and war. Being a passionate vegan he writes a lot about animals, both those that have lost their habitat or are waiting to be slaughtered and those who are enjoying themselves.

Benjamin Zephaniah is particularly interested in young people: “I love the music they listen to. I find that in the clubs I go to I’m always the oldest person there! I am just turned on by the choice of music young people have now, and the way they can travel to it.”

In an interview with Karsten Xuereb held in preparation for his visit to Malta, he spoke positively about the opportunities that the world of the internet has opened up for both writers and readers: “I think things are very interesting now. When I talk to teenagers about what they read, there are kids who say they don’t read. But they’ll tell you they were on the internet, and they read a book on the internet. Now that’s interesting! I was speaking to a poet recently who said he’s given up publishing books in the real world. He just does it on the internet now. People go there, they read, and it reaches people who normally don’t read books. This whole new world has opened up for young people. If you really like wrapping yourself in this world it doesn’t feel like research.

Poetry, Music and ‘Street Politics’

Although he was born and raised in Birmingham, his poetry is strongly influenced by the music and poetry of Jamaica and what he calls ‘street politics’. In fact, it was as a performance poet that he first made a name for himself. Zephaniah, who dropped out of school at the ripe old age of 13, has managed to popularise poetry by reaching people who do not read books and by challenging the dead image that academia and the establishment have given poetry. In this sense he is credited with having injected new life into the British poetry scene and attracted the interest of many of the mainstream publishers who had initially rejected his manuscripts.

He was the first person to record with The Wailers after the death of Bob Marley in a musical tribute to Nelson Mandela, it was recorded at Marley’s Tuff Gong Studio in Kingston, Jamaica. Mandela heard the tribute whilst in prison on Robben Island and soon after his release he requested an introductory meeting with Zephaniah. The two have now built a relationship which has led to Zephaniah working with children in South African townships and hosting Mandela’s Two Nations Concert at The Royal Albert Hall in July 1996.

Benjamin Zephaniah’s visit to Malta is being organized by Inizjamed and The British Council in collaboration with the St. James Cavalier Centre for Creativity.

Tickets for his performances cost Lm3 and are available from St. James Cavalier (open everyday between 8.30am and 10.00pm, tel. 2122 3200). For more information about all events visit the Inizjamed website at http://inizjamed.cjb.net or The British Council site at http://www.britishcouncil.org/malta or write to inizjamed@maltaforum.org.

Adrian Grima | 2 October 2003


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