…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.