from the Sounds letter page, July 21st, 1984
…Stratford, East London that is. Originally from St. Elizabeth, Jamaica, Benjamin Zephaniah is a self-proclaimed dub ranter who is “bringing Godliness up to date”, and the government to task.
Interview by Paul Bradshaw, photos by Peter Anderson, NME 27th November, 1982
“I sing/I don’t like the thatcher/I said I don’t like that girl/her I want to batter/she is the worst girl in the world/I don’t like her dictation/and her laws on immigration/so I fight in this timeation/for to build a better nation.”
Dreadlocks hauled up inside a bulging tam, Benjamin Zephaniah stood sipping a Britvic orange beneath a snapshot of the Queen Mother playing pool.
A working poet in recession ridden Britain, he’s taken the Alternative Cabaret scene by storm with his rhythmic rantings, and the Anti-Nukes section of the national press gathered at the salubrious Press Club in London’s Shoe Lane were not to be disappointed.
Once onstage he advanced through a memorable and well crafted repertoire, including ‘War Is A Danger To Your Health’, ‘African Swing’, ‘There’s An Uprising Downtown’ and ‘Margaret Thatcher’. But as black as he is unusual, and his delivery and wit are more akin to John Cooper Clarke than to Linton Kwesi Johnson.
His impact in print and on record is likely to be as strong too: the reprint of his first book Pen Rhythm is imminent, and a second volume is already at layout stage; and his EP ‘Dub ranting’ will be out before Xmas. Not surprisingly, he is the subject of a forthcoming Channel 4 documentary.
Benjamin Zephaniah hails from St Elizabeth, Jamaica but his formative years were spent, or more appropriately misspent, in Birmingham where conflict with the law meant he served considerable time at her Majesty’s pleasure. The periods of incarceration gave him grounds for thought; combined with a fascination for the lyricism of Big Youth, it led to his first flirtation with Rasta.
Back on the street as a DJ for Meritone Hi-Fi, he became a local sound system hero and rapidly acquired a reputation as fastest tongue in Handsworth. He secured his twin ambitions of “having a sports car and six girlfriends”, but found the gigolo mentality spiritually bankrupt. His unfolding consciousness caused him to write, and also develop his sound system talkover. After seeing the work of other young black poets he became convinced he could do better. Benjamin Zephaniah, as his name suggests, had found his calling as a modern day Isiah, dealing with modern issues in an ’82 style – “bringing Godliness up to date.”
Reluctantly, he left Handsworth and its Rasta community to settle in Stratford, in London’s East End. Through his friendship with Neville Staples, who he’d met during Meritone’s forays to Coventry, he worked briefly as a roadie for The Specials, and at the same time organising small readings in local community centres.
“Yeah, me just print some leaflets, book a room, bring in some people and do a reading. Them times deh, I was probably more energetic. I used to run through the audience, jump over the audience and pick on certain individuals and pump certain lines at them. A lot of people know me in the East End and I can do gigs, at say North London Poly and they sing and chant along with the poems. ‘Fite Dem (Not Me)’ is a favourite.”
His reputation has grown by word of mouth and he laughs at an early gig at Warwick University.
Someone told them I was good and them book me just two weeks after Linton Kwesi Johnson. It was a show of my own, and a real professional fee. Them book me for one and a half hours and I can only do 20 minutes before I start sweat. Well I said, How am I goin’ to do this? So I crammed together 25 poems, went up there and sweated it out.”
Nowadays he plays mostly CND benefits, colleges, Rasta gatherings and the Alternative Cabaret circuit popularised by the likes of Alexi Sayle, Rik Mayall, Pauline Melville and Keith Allen. This area has developed to encompass a wide variety of radical entertainment, and Zephaniah is enthusiastic about the fresh opportunities it creates and perspectives it offers.
“I want to go on doing plays and some acting, but do as much as I can without doing all the conventional things, ’cause I feel I’ve been fully educated in Ghettology. I don’t have to think too hard or imaginative to write my poetry, ’cause it’s there all the time. If it’s not somethin’ on the news, then it’s somethin’ that happen to me.
But I want to know that what I’m saying is really relevant to every person in the audience. So if I say, ‘The boat is sinking, we’re goin’ down, do you want to sit there and let these people drown, on this automatic star? The boat is sinking, we’re goin’ to drown, young ones don’t jus sit there’, everybody in the audience knows I’m talking to them. Sometimes I don’t even know if we should call it poetry.”
Unlike Linton Kwesi Johnson, Benjamin Zephaniah does not focus his poetry on the black youth experience or the survival of the black community.
His reasoning reminded me of a session with ex-Aswad bassie George Oban, who felt strongly that the days of laying the Rasta doctrine on people at every possible opportunity were finished – it was a question of putting your beliefs into practice. The Rastafari call is ‘Livity’ and like JA poet Mutabaruka, Zephaniah launches his universal dread attack from the same theological vantage point.
“I really write what I see and how I feel. I like Rasta company more time, but I live very cosmopolitan amongst a very diverse set of people. All of them is important. Who feels it knows it, and a lot of the things I’ve felt have been because I’m black. A woman will feel it because she is a woman. If I take my experience out there people will learn to understand, ’cause a lot of racism stems from fear.
“One time I just understand black people struggles; then I start to understand white people in England are struggling; then I get to understand it’s international.
“Well right now one of the things that concern me most is peace. . .war and peace…and that concerns all of us. An end to war is just a natural thing if you’re young. It’s just a simple love of humanity.
“People don’t want to take on the responsibility though. A lot of artists feel for it, but. . .I know if I wasn’t talking about the things that I am and was doing a straight Lenny Henry thing, it would probably have been the BBC and a nice likkle show already. Instead of me just doing a black Pam Ayres (Laughs). . .Yeah, it would just be a novelty thing and they would have a likkle Rasta up there a chat a whole heap of shit ‘n’ mek jokes about cannibals.
“You have to have responsibility. My mum thinks someone is going to assassinate me one day.; she’s really concerned about it.”
Amazed at the number of people who refer to him as a comedian, Benjamin Zephaniah is unquestionably possessed with a righteous wit. Onstage he’ll announce it’s time to get religious and drop to his knees to offer a prayer to the Lord. . .“Lord Scarman, the dread controller and dub co-ordinator of Frontline”, and steam into an almost manic, ‘This Policeman Keeps On Kicking Me To Death’.
Humour in face of the Iron Lady’s barbarism is essential.
“I’ve always had humour in me and I say to myself that when you suffer you’re supposed to keep your head up and smile and have fun as well – ’cause when the wicked are oppressing you they’re smiling.
“So when I go in front of an audience I am conscious that I a tell them something serious, really serious, and at the same time them good fe laugh at a certain line. I don’t want to put people down all the time; I want to entertain them and make them think of me and what I’ve said.”
His poems are effective at many levels and occasionally receive different reactions. For example, at a reading with the Twelve Tribes Of Israel, the dreads saw the poem ‘Margaret Thatcher’ as a comedy rather than political, but some nights later in the East End it was the opposite.
“It’s funny, ’cause with the said person I really learnt a lot about how wicked right wingism is. She’s done so much in such a short space of time, she’s really brought it down to earth in a crucial way.
“Like, I did this show at the Half Moon Theatre and this little yout’ come up to me an’ says, I like the one about Mrs Thatcher. I HATE her! I thought, this yout’ probably doesn’t understand politics, but he knows the reason he’s not having milk is because of this woman.
“She’s so effective, she reaches the hearts of a lot of people who I know and are not politically inclined; but all of a sudden. . .BUFF. . .the schools are gone. . .BUFF. . .you walk into the Social Security and you might get nothing ’cause you haven’t been looking for a job. That really gets them.”
In this age of austerity, Benjamin Zephaniah’s poetry is part of the jigsaw of resistance – a shout and a complaint. Destined to reach a wider audience, his work is a powerful, upful statement.
Flash it and see for yourself.
Kicking late 70s reggae with two of the top turns of the day: Culture and Ranking Joe.
International Times, March 1st 1978
IT was a hangover from hippydom, but both Pauline Melville and Adrian Mitchell gigged with ranters and had some edge.
The last time I saw Adrian Mitchell I was reading before him at Latitude and we were both backstage checking our poems. He asked if I had any rituals to calm nerves. “I just check my flies,” I told him, and asked ‘You?’.
He took out his false teeth and then stuck them in firmly, ‘Always good to be sure’ he said and laughed.
He was several generations before ranting but had a great love of poetry, especially when it had some heart and connected with working people.
Attila has been good enough to send a few chapters from the autobiography that he’s writing. It’s still a work in progress but we’ll have some exerts here.
The seasonal booze-shifting job in Harlow was available again in October and,
as luck would have it, Steve Drewett had just been allocated his flat by Harlow Council
and was about to move in. He offered me somewhere to crash, and I accepted gratefully.
In between my shifts I saw as many of the Harlow bands as possible: Newtown Neurotics and Urban Decay of course, plus The Sods, The Gangsters, Pete The Meat and the Boys, Spelling Missteaks, The Rabbits and The Epileptics, who changed their name to The Licks following complaints, and eventually became Flux Of Pink Indians, their bassist Derek starting the hugely influential One Little Indian record label, home of Bjork and The Sugarcubes among many others. Many of these gigs were still taking place at Triad disco in Bishop’s Stortford and every time we went there an awful (to us) jazz rock trio, Tracks, would be playing in the foyer. In time, they would get even more awful: they would become 80s jazz/disco wallahs Shakatak. The Harlow punk scene was developing all the time: it was compact, creative and friendly and I felt very much at home.
I’d left my bass guitar in Southwick: I knew I wasn’t going to be a bass player or band member any more and was absolutely determined that very soon I’d be up on stage on my own. Wandering around Gilbey’s shifting booze left my mind free to come up with loads of new ideas. My poems were developing, becoming funnier and more immediate, and I concentrated on writing material I thought would go down well live.
Towards the end of my time in Belgium I had written the first poem that I was convinced would work well on stage. Thatcher had not long been in power, the ‘Soviet Threat’ was being played for all it was worth, and we on the Left would often hear the cry ‘Go back to Russia!’ I thought it was time to take the piss.
THEY MUST BE RUSSIANS
They slither round corners with scarves round their faces
They always turn up in improbable places
They lack the good taste of the British, our graces
They’re horrid – they must be the Russians!
They’re always involved in some dastardly plot
They’re never content with whatever they’ve got
And they are the cause of the Great British Rot!
They’re horrid – they must be the Russians!
They sit in the Hilton and scowl at the waiters
They drink a foul potion distilled from potatoes
And everyone knows they detest us and hate us
They’re horrid – they must be the Russians!
They’ve Benn and the Trots who all want to enslave us
And countless Red spies who all want to deprave us
But Maggie’s alright – she’ll defend us and save us
From the muggers from Moscow, the Russians!
And her mate in the White House, a fine, manly figure
He knows how to handle a Jew or a ni**er
When Maggie gets Trident and Ron gets the trigger
We’ll give ‘em deterrent, those Russians….
Oh, hang on a minute – my brain’s on the blink
I think that the Kremlin’s been spiking my drink
How unpatriotic – I’ve started to THINK!
It must all be down to the Russians…
My mate here just tells me they’ve got a new plan
They’re holding a party in Afghanistan
And he’s got an invite, as number one fan:
They can’t all be horrid, the Russians!
Hey, look – over there – they’re down in the park
They’re holding a meeting out there in the dark
The speaker looks just like that John Cooper Clarke –
They all dress so formal, the Russians…
I’m going to meet them: I want to be friends
Find out if they follow the West’s latest trends
And have long discussions, the means and the ends –
I’m getting quite fond of the Russians….
Hey, hang on – they’re smiling and there’s music playing!
It’s punk rock – the Malchix – oh, I feel like staying!
They’re handing out ice cream, and bopping, and swaying –
I THINK I’LL GO BACK WITH THE RUSSIANS!
Interesting how language has changed over the years: in the late Seventies I felt quite comfortable using the ‘n-word’ in a satirical, anti-racist context but now, I can only keep it there with asterisks in the middle. And note the reference to John Cooper Clarke. I’d actually never seen him live at that point, but I had heard him on the radio and thought he was brilliant. He had paved the way: he was up there, proving it could be done.
When my seasonal job at the alcohol warehouse finished, I stayed in Harlow. I was heavily involved in the local musical and political scene and had made lots of friends, Steve was happy for me to stay in his flat, and in any case my football team, my mother and my Brighton mates were only two and a half hours away by train. In early 1980 I set up another one off gig for the Newtown Neurotics in Belgium (there was another riot, this time with local right wing farmers!) and took the opportunity once again to do an impromptu set of solo songs over there on my little electric mandolin, this time put through a phaser unit: again it went down pretty well. Back in Harlow, still not yet ready to inflict myself on the local scene, I carried on writing, determined that very soon I’d be earning my living from my words and music.
But in the meantime, I needed another temporary job. My time in Belgium had improved my French to the point where I was pretty much bilingual, so I registered for casual language-related work with a London employment agency. A few days later, in March 1980, I got a call: they had something for me. Bilingual settlements clerk – at a City stockbroking company.
My first reaction was ‘Bloody hell, no way!’ It was obviously in the very heartland of the system that I have despised all my adult life. Then I got to thinking and realised that it was an ideal opportunity to find out exactly what went on in such places – in any case I wasn’t going to be there long. Although the post was advertised as a permanent one it would be temporary for me – I would be out of there like a shot as soon as I started gigging in earnest. So I decided to go for the interview.
First, of course, I needed a suit and tie. I’d never worn one (and after I left have only done so on about 2 occasions in the last 34 years). A Harlow charity shop solved that problem, and at the interview my French got me the job. It wasn’t very well paid, but the understanding was that, if you knuckled down, you’d progress up the ladder and then it would be, which was why the vast majority of the people who worked there were deferential to their ‘superiors’ to the point of servility. The partners were pompous, the dealers obnoxious. The rest of the staff were clerks: ordinary people who needed a job, knew the rules and either shrunk into themselves or bit their tongues when ‘a superior’ took the piss out of them or bullied them, which happened all the time. One dealer in the office was an absolute arsehole and constantly picked on one individual. He must have really needed that job: if I’d been talked to like that, I’d have decked the bloke.
It was a truly ghastly place.
My job entailed taking calls from French-speaking stockbrokers and passing them on to the dealers, and filling in bought and sold ledgers for hours and hours. At that time, this was done by hand and was, needless to say, stultifyingly tedious. Worst of all, I soon
realised that the department I worked in specialised in shares in the South African gold mining industry, which in 1980 was of course controlled by a brutal apartheid regime: huge profits could be made because the wages paid to workers were minimal and working conditions obscene.
News would come through of a fire or collapse in a mine and the dealers would go into overdrive: not, of course, because of any concern for the people affected but because the share price would plummet. Conversely, of course, if a strike was summarily suppressed and the workers forced back, share prices would rise. Callous beyond belief; ‘respectable’ men in suits, doubtless considered pillars of their local communities, presiding over the misery of millions. And of course South Africa was just the tip of the iceberg. In that job I saw unfettered capitalism at its naked, brutal worst, and those 11 months were part of the reason why, when the socialist dream ended for some in 1989, it did not end for me. I will wave the red flag proudly till my dying day.
Filling in the ledgers meant I got to know exactly who was investing in other people’s misery. Lots of banks, as you’d expect, and lots of people with posh sounding names: pension funds: perhaps more surprisingly, the church. But then I know for a fact that one of the partners at the company was a member of the General Synod. What nauseating hypocrisy. Jesus Christ was a revolutionary communist!
The poem I wrote about my time in that job was finished after I’d left. It summed up my feelings about the people there, both the snobbish, status-obsessed partners and the
bored, victimised clerks.
EVERY TIME I EAT VEGETABLES…
No agony, no ecstacy, no pleasure and no pain –
So exquisitely uninteresting you drive your wife insane
The TV is your oracle, the newspapers your guide
And your shiny little vehicle is your passion and your pride
You’ve done the same thing every day for nigh on twenty years
And in your ludicrous routines you hide your worthless fears
On the blandest boat in Boredom you are captain of the crew
And every time I eat vegetables it makes me think of you.
You died the day that you were born and now you sit and rot –
A three piece suited dinsoaur in the pond that time forgot
Your image is respectable, there’s nothing underneath
And the whole thing is as surely false as nine tenths of your teeth
Your views are carbon copies of the rubbish that you read
And you swallow every morsel Rupert Murdoch seeks to feed
You go to bed at ten because you’ve nothing else to do
And every time I eat vegetables it makes me think of you.
You’re a cabbage in a pickle and your brain has sprung a leek
So lettuce keep our distance ‘cos I vomit when you speak
I’ll always do a runner so I’m going where you’ve bean
‘Cos to see you chills my marrow and turns my tomatoes green
You’re an eighteen carrot cretin with a dandelion whine –
So stick to your herbaceous border and I’ll stick to mine
And although this verse is corny, it’s amaizing but it’s true
That every time I eat vegetables it makes me think of you!
All this time I was busily writing, of course, and by mid 1980 I had half an hour of solo poems and songs which I thought were good enough to hold an audience.
And then, one day, I got myself a stage name.
A stage name that, on its own, got me fifty per cent of my earliest gigs outside Harlow, all my early media coverage and entries in ‘silly band name’ lists all over the world, alongside the likes of Death By Milkfloat and Half Man Half Biscuit. To this day, it still raises a smile everywhere I go.
I can be quite clumsy: I bump into things easily. And in that job I didn’t give a shit. I can’t exactly remember how or where, but I knocked a cup of coffee over in the office one day and somebody said something like ‘You’ve got the manners of Attila the Hun!’
A light came on in my head.
Attila the Stockbroker. That’s what I’d call myself.
The last bit of the jigsaw was complete