In February 1985 a ton, 16 tons if you will, of acts booked by Apples and Snakes, Alternative Arts, Cast New Variety, and Ragged Trousered Cabaret picketed Neasden power station. Several stages were set up outside to prevent the entry of coal lorries. Without coal Neasden couldn’t function. The lorries were back the next day but a message was sent that the cultural community and its audience supported the miners.
Marxism Today, March 1985
THE BARD OF STRATFORD
Interview with Benjamin Zephaniah
27-year-old Benjamin Zephaniah who lives in London’s East End has been nicknamed ‘The Bard of Stratford’ by sections of the press. His style of communication, known as Dub Ranting, is performance poetry both with, and without, reggae music. The West Indian dialect is exaggerated but the message is clearly rooted in the British political experience. With a pamphlet, album and single to his credit, his regular live appearances range from Miners’ benefits and youth clubs to the Edinburgh Festival and the Black Penmanship Awards. Next month he will be touring Europe with his band. Here’ he talks to Caroline Rees.
Could you give us a brief personal history?
I was born in St Elizabeth, Jamaica. I came over here when I was seven. Then I went to school, and become a burglar when I was about 10, started playing truant, getting in trouble. I just did everything that everyone else did. I went to approved school, I went to borstal, I went to jail.
What was the jail sentence for?
I’ve been inside a few times. I’m not going to give a story of being reformed. But the energy it was taking to do all that crime, a lot of it petty, I’m just putting it into poetry now. 1 got in trouble once for fighting with a police officer in the Bull Ring. One time, I got a two-year sentence for something I’d never done.
I know what police have done to me. My mates come across good police. I haven’t got an anarchist view about this. You need people to look after people, even if it means just crossing over old people. You need people on the streets who are public servants. But don’t remove them from the people. There’s one thing I love about China. Everyone has turns at being the police. When you get stopped, if you think his arguments are wrong, you can almost arrest him! I thought that was really strange, but why not?
How would you describe what you do?
I’m just someone who wants to express myself, and I’ll use anything I can to do that. That happens to be a bit of writing, a bit of music and poetry, a bit of poetry on its own. But, it’s no good getting on stage singing about this, that, and the other, and not doing any work in the community. So I go round to schools, community centres, even mental hospitals sometimes, doing poetry and talking.
When did you start writing and performing poetry?
When I was 12 or 13, toasting over the microphone. And that was just rapping, off the top of my head. We used to listen to a lot of Jamaican music then, with Jamaican messages, so I wanted to do the same thing with an English slant to it. There was a power cut one day and I just carried on without the music! Then I started going on demonstrations. I started experimenting with writing songs and rhythmic poetry, and managed to get a little pamphlet out. From there, everything took off.
How did the Benjamin Zephaniah Band come about?
I had a band before. When I started, because I was putting poetry on the music, it sounded very unusual to everybody. This was about six years ago. Then I started doing a lot more on my own, and the band disintegrated. This band has been together for about a year.
People didn’t find you so weird on your own?
Well, the weirdness made it quite successful! At the same time, I think it got popular because people saw it, at first, as just being political. Thatcher was really unpopular, you know, when there were riots and things. People were interviewing me and saying: you’re a bit lucky in a way. I was doing it a long time ago. It’s just happened that people are taking more notice now. Everybody was saying: What have you done in writing? I couldn’t even read or write. This was an oral thing. Poetry that I’d read, or prose, spent too much time going round something. I wanted my stuff to be straight to the point.
When I first started to get into the hands of the press, people used to come up to me and think I was some kind of a mystic. Some kind of a Great Thinker. The biggest word I use is probably ‘inflation’ or ‘immigration’.
There’s a bit of swearing, because I swear normally. There’s a bit of humour. I’m quite strong about my thoughts politically, so that comes into it.
What sort of audience are you getting?
Just lately, I’ve been to Sheffield and I played two places which were just round the corner from each other. One was a completely white audience, and one was a completely black audience. So it all depends where I play and who does the advertising.
Why do you think you appeal to so many white people?
The press are more inclined to go for white-orientated things. I do a lot in the black community but they don’t review it.
The most satisfying work is not commercially advertised and financially it doesn’t pay.
Do you set out to speak both to black and white people?
That’s quite consciously done. It’s a black person speaking but so everyone can understand – dread language mixed with my socialist politics. Without music I wanted to appeal to lots of different people.
One time I was doing the punk scene. The toasting that I did originally was so fast and so West Indian that a lot of black people didn’t understand it. Those are my roots but in England in 1985 you’ve got to reach a bigger audience. Poetry was too easy to do, to just stand up and read it. Toasting was too difficult so I did it halfway.
How choosy are you about where you appear?
I’m hardly choosy at all. So long as people understand what I’ve got to say, as long as they are not my enemies. I don’t expect everyone in the audience to be 100% with me, but at least I’ve said how I feel and not left it to a politician.
Do you want to influence people politically through your poems?
I believe most people do think like me. Now, that may sound a bit arrogant but I feel basically most people want peace. I am a practising Rastafarian, but I don’t see my mission as converting everybody to religion. That is one thing that causes war, so why should I come and add to the war?
Unlike saying ‘war is stupid’, I go a bit further so it’s not so middle-of-the-road. I say: ‘Stop the war stop the war
Military powers we know who you are
All your allies have guiltiness
And the people don’t want no nuclear mess.’
Governments go to war. People don’t really go to war. What I’m saying is not to convert people to my politics, but to say: listen, let’s tell them exactly how we feel. If we have arguments, we work it out. But we don’t leave it to the politicians.
What role would you give to politicians?
There’s a great saying by some ancient Chinese writer that I could quote, but I don’t know it. Basically, it meant a politician must, first of all, be a person. I want to know that my politician’s literally next door. I want to know that I can be a politician. There are places in the world where that’s happening, to a certain extent. In India, for instance, where the government’s conservative, you still get people at the grass roots doing co-ops. They’ve a whole little economy of their own.
We’ve actually done it in our own way here. We had a bookshop. From the bookshop came a Co-operative Development Agency and that helped set up workers’ co-ops, such as a print shop. Then we started this housing co-operative. If we want builders, we get them in the co-op – baby-sitters, everything. Most of my musicians live with me. All the children are ours, etc. It’s nice in ’85 that we’re still doing it.
Would you put a label on yourself politically?
I’m a strange mixture really. I can only get my views from what I see and what I learn. I believe Rastafari is like God without religion. It allows me to look at Buddhism, Christianity, Marxism, everything. I’ve been carrying locks since I was about 13. One time, I really used to like sports cars, sex with girls as much as possible, having lots of money, worrying what I looked like in front of people. I used to not think much about politics, and think everything was rosy and all right, you know.
At one time I’d have said: No! Don’t call me a socialist. But if someone gave me a 50-50 mark, it would be more 60% socialist. A better way to describe me further is a Garvey-ite. Garvey believed that everybody had the right to control themselves, that black people should not be put down. He believed in a bit of socialism, a bit of capitalism. He believed in things for the good of the people. You can’t just shove something off because it’s capitalism.
There are things about England that I really hate, hate, hate. Angry! Other things I say: Well, you could only do this in England. Governments are governments. I want people to start talking now.
So what action can people take?
I smile because this sounds like an anarchist view, but I feel people should realise that they don’t necessarily have to vote.
We always seem to have a bit of faith in the political parties. You say: I’m going to vote for this one because it’s not as bad as that one. In some way, people should make a protest.
More realistically, even more immediate, are issues like the GLC, the bomb.
More people should come on the streets. Someone said to me: Why are there not a lot of black people supporting CND? So I said: Why is it that a lot of white hippies are supporting CND? On all the council estates round here, everybody’s against the bomb but, if you mention ‘reds’, they get a bit uptight. If CND’s really what it is, you should all be able to make a stand. I support CND.
What do you think of the GLC’s Anti-Racist Year? You make jokes about it on stage.
I went on the first show that launched it and said this is a joke. I come here for the laugh of it. But I’m still going to do my thing. Even some of the GLC staff agreed.
Unfortunately, this is the way people notice it. You have a year for this, a year of that. . . All these benefits for Ethiopia, like I say at the end of ‘Stop the War’:
‘They tell I that they want to make the world free,
But yet they’re just draining the economy
So when dem talk about their food for the famine
I shall tell dem it was their war from the beginning
And it would not be there if they were willing
No, not if governments were willing.’
So do you believe there is any value in the Band Aid record reaching No 1?
It’s a bit of corn and a bit of wheat to feed the people. As Garvey said: If we don’t see a united Africa, then Africa will always rely on other people for help. People are starving in Ethiopia, people are fat from champagne in Nigeria just down the road.
Africa must be free, independent, strong. Not a Great Power. We’ve been downtrodden so long, why be angry again and start more wars? Why should black people in England try and be better than the white people in England? Let’s show them how to live. Why should black Africa be stronger than Russia or America? Let’s just be an example to them.
And the riots?
It was an explosion of people really. It wasn’t black. It just happened to be in the areas where things are bad, where black people are. The police and the Government have ways of cooling it down. They put a Marcus Garvey Drive in Brixton, and a nice little Wimpy house. . .
Now with the miners, they can exercise and practise. They can get back to us later!
No big thing.
MISS WORLD by Benjamin Zephaniah
Beauty is about how you behold
more than silver more than gold
If I say I am beautiful
know this is not incredible
cause beauty is about how you greet
de everyday people dat you meet
You are beautiful so all rejoice
your beauty is a natural choice.
My sister is a beautiful girl
she don’t want to be Miss World
her value is not prize money
more value than a pearl
My sister is a beautiful girl
she could be out of sight but she would
rather stay and fight.
Her legs are firm and sharp
best for self defence
dis daughter kicks like wild fire
so cause no grievance
she won’t walk the platform
to upsex peoples lust
and you can’t get the number of her height
age or bust.
She don’t want to go to the market
to be viewed like a slave
the viewing time is over
put de judge in the grave.
She don’t need to go to the market
cause she’s already won
Beauty contest no contest
she don’t need to run.
I talk of people in society who judge you by
your looks, den, give you a number dat is
written in a book, and lustful eyes from all
around come to look at you, dey judge your
lifetime by a quick interview.
My sister is a beautiful girl
but she don’t want to be Miss World
Her personality can not be rewarded by no
Judge or Earl.
My sister is a beautiful girl
she needs no contest
and you can’t put her with another judging
who’s the best.
And you cannot judge my sisters heart
By looking at her breasts.
The Independent,18 March, 1998 gave performance poetry a glowing write up. The then big names have largely disappeared. The bloke with the loudhailer shouting “fuck” at the Poetry Cafe was Dom Joly. He filmed a few bits of Trigger Happy TV at the cafe’s open mic’ Unplugged night.
Atomic Lip’s video on YouTube is used by several poetry teachers as a how not to do it. The Independent: tomorrow’s chip wrappers and all that.
The word on the street is upbeat – poetry as a performing art is making a comeback, aided by Litpop and a three-day festival.
By Dominic Cavendish
He looks like your worst idea of a poet, squared. He shuffles up to the microphone in tattered old jeans and a shirt untouched by iron or fabric conditioner, his hair wild, his eyes wilder. He starts muttering over the general chatter, “Break through to the other side,” over and over again. It sounds like an exhortation to leave, but suddenly a breath- defying rap fills the musty air of Islington’s Big Word club: “This is for the cover bands, yeah … the coward cover-uppers up-and-comers unoriginal and virginal uninspired and too scared to try insipids,” he hisses. The audience are gobsmacked.
You may have caught MC Jabber’s fleeting appearances after the Channel 4 evening news over the past few weeks. Along with three other relatively unknown poets (Jillian Tipene, Patience Agbabi and Pink Sly) and the rather well known old Lutonian, John Hegley, he has been given three five-minute slots in a series entitled Litpop. These pop-promo-style interventions are tied in with a three-day festival of word power to be held next week at London’s 100 Club.
The intention behind Litpop is to help up the profile and reputation of versifiers who write with an eye to performance rather than publication, a species often treated with more condescension than a scatty great-aunt. The timing is fortuitous: in pub backrooms across town, the talk among struggling performers is upbeat. The London performance poetry scene may be small, they’ll tell you, but nevertheless it’s the biggest and best in the world. Across the country, the Bristol and Cheltenham-led cult of the poetry slam – imported from the US – in which the public give the yea or nay to try-out bards, is generating grass-roots enthusiasm for sweet poesy.
Huddersfield-based MC Jabber and Brixton-bred Pink Sly are being hailed as stars – comparable to yesteryear’s quicksilvered punkster-rhymster John Cooper Clarke and dub dude Benjamin Zephaniah. This generation is also claiming its inheritance from the Sixties, when the Mersey Sound and the Beats garnered media attention on both sides of the Atlantic as re-energisers of the spoken word, for so long muffled in ivory towers.
“Poetry you can dance to,” the Litpop festival fliers promise.
It’s not an entirely fanciful notion: after all, one of the most striking bits of footage from the first International Poetry Incarnation, a massed gathering of scribes at the Royal Albert Hall in 1965, is of a woman slowly gyrating during Allen Ginsberg’s performance. The sight of someone giving it large to Jabber’s information-overloaded algorithms (Ginsberg’s “Howl” on speed, if you will) or Pink Sly’s laid-back mock national anthems is all the more likely, given that, like many performance poets today, they take their influences from club culture.
The Litpop line-up boasts an array of names that wouldn’t look out of place on club fliers: JCOOI, Jonzi D, Malika B, Stricke 9. Jabber (aka Scott Martingell) started out five years ago doing spots at all-day festivals and raves and now regularly provides his own “nutritional beats per minute” for up to an hour in a number of northern clubs. Jonzi D dances to his hip-hop “choreopoems”, Jillian Tipene does a Maori haka, while Pink Sly has been known to get his audience doing the conga during his set. Not to be outdone, Hegley has his “Poem de Terre”, which requires the donning of a brown paper bag, a slow jig, potato-tossing and, preferably, a muddy field to do it in.
Steve Tasane, organiser of the festival and member of Atomic Lip, “poetry’s first pop band”, believes that “people who go out and get drunk on a Friday night, or go to clubs, can relate to the rhythms they’re hearing. They can get an immediate buzz from it.” The Lip, who previewed their show a few weeks ago, certainly provide buzz. On stage, Tasane, shaven-headed and sporting a low-cut black Lycra dress and fish-net tights, looked more like a Martian poet than Craig Raine ever did. In grinding polyvocal arrangements, the quartet fenced with acronyms, celebrated the grunts and groans of sex and sexuality, and looped repetitive sounds in a bitter house music pastiche.
So far, so literal. Ginsberg, inspecting Liverpool’s pop poetry in 1965, enthused, after William Blake, “Albion, Albion, your children dance again”. However, the dancing he spoke of was a metaphorical leaping for joy; a state of transcendence. Michael Horovitz, one of the prime movers since the Fifties behind the UK’s rediscovery of the oral tradition, civilisation’s fount, speculated in 1968 that “given free rein [poems] might subtly evaporate the dominion of commercial interests, aggressive nationalisms and governments as we know them.” Unshackled language was being reclaimed for the people.
The downside of this democratic impulse was that roll your own verse acquired a bad reputation. “Performers got very lazy,” says Tasane. “In the Eighties, the general view was that performance poetry was crap. And it was. There are still a lot of poets who are talentless or who make no effort to put on a decent show and they’re holding the scene back. Things have to get slicker, glossier.”
Surrounded by papers and old Evian boxes in his Notting Hill residence, still smarting from his commercially unsuccessful 1996 Poetry Olympics at the Royal Albert Hall, Horovitz concedes that these are different times. Poetry has to struggle to be heard above the competing din of the mass media, but glossiness is not the answer. He is currently working on `The New Waste Land”, an update of TS Eliot’s modernist masterpiece, in which he lashes out at the hyping of Murray Lachlan Young, the 28-year-old poetaster who shot to fame on the back of a mega-bucks EMI deal (now ended) and who is currently appearing in a TV ad for Virgin Atlantic. He connects it with the soundbite politics of New Labour. I’m all for everyone trying their hand at poems, but if the result is that thousands of untalented people dream of making it as stars, that’s the last thing they should be encouraged to do.”
You can still hear the voice of everyman during open spots and slams. In Ladbroke Grove, a woman describes the universe from a worm’s point of view; in Cheltenham, an 84-year-old recites an ode to a tablecloth; at London’s Poetry Cafe “Unplugged” night, a man materialises with a loudhailer, intones the word “fuck” for five minutes, then vanishes. Amusing, maybe even touching, but hardly the best advertisement for the scene. Perhaps MC Jabber, whose combination of homeless chic and quickfire technique can draw crowds, offers the best compromise solution. “Poetry’s the last bastion for uncommercialised expression. It’s also a service and these days, we all have to be good little service providers, don’t we?”
Words to make anyone’s lips curl.
The first anthology from Apples and Snakes gets a review in Jamming!, number 21, October, 1984. Funnily enough it’s an anthology that at times when Salena Godden and I are drunk we get the book of the shelf and play “Where are they now?”
Also reviewed are books by Adrian Mitchell and an anthology of West Indian poetry edited by James Berry. There’re a few poems from readers too.
There’s a lot of talk about how mainstream poetry is nowadays, but back in the 80s we were covered in national music papers, to a predominantly non-poetry audience. It seems to me, that whilst we are in a healthy place with spoken word, we’re still reaching to niche audiences. Who’s to blame? I leave that for you to decide.
The NME, 5 May, 1984 reviews that years Poetry International.
Fairly typical benefit gig reviewed in the NME, 21 May, 1983. The fabulous Dolly Mixture, ranting’s own Benjamin Zephaniah, the lovely Damned, and more.
Damned, Dolly Mixture, Benjamin Zephaniah, A Popular History of Signs
Such a strange assortment could only mean a benefit gig. Artists For Animals was the cause, and a well filled Greyhound (how apt) gawped at The Animals Film on video during lulls in the action. Mildly surreal, but there was much to enjoy.
A Popular History Of Signs hail from North London, but this trio’s spiritual home is located even closer to the Pole. APHOS play atmospheric yet dramatically charged music of a style usually associated with Yorkshire and the North West. The gang Of Four’s agit-prop is welded to the Factory sound, but APHOS transcend their evident influences to resonantly addictive effect.
Benjamin Zephaniah has allowed himself to be adopted as a token by righteous whites hungry for the sound of suffering in Babylon. Feted by the first few rows of upturned, all-whte faces at events like tonight’s, he’s selling himself short, not least artistically. His poetic rhythms are strong and lilting, hence lending themselves naturally to a song. Linton Kwesi Johnson realised his potential by switching from band to maestro – remember the power of ‘Sonny’s Lettah’? Benjamin Zephaniah should be doing the same with ‘Margaret Thatcher’.
Captain Sensible officiated throughout, and with earnest bashfulness demonstrated his commitment to animal rights by reading out some of his poetry on the subject. William Blake he ain’t. Then reverting to his more familiar self, he introduced his protegees Dolly Mixture, who immediately warmed up a hitherto low-key affair.
Rachel and Debsie are singing very well these days, and though Hester’s drums lack finesse, their all-round performance sparkled with enthusiasm. With their polka-dot party dresses and eagerness to please, Dolly Mixture are quaintly and ingenuously English, and their ’60s teenbeat-style set drew me even further back to childhood’s untroubled fun.
Finally The Damned came on to play ‘Smash It Up’, a latterday ‘Hokey Cokey’ reminding us that although they’re pretty dodgy elsewhere, they’ve always been a good pub act.