Holly Reaney sits down with poet and author Benjamin Zephaniah, to discuss politics, poetry and his newly reissued novel, Gangsta Rap

Written by Holly Reaney
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Images by The Corner Shop

Benjamin Zephaniah has been producing literature and impacting upon the political and literary scene since he burst onto the page in 1980. An honouree doctor of the University of Birmingham and a teacher in Creative Writing at Burnell University, it seems that he is a world away from the excluded school pupil of youth. However, that schoolboy is never far away, his early experiences inform the majority of his published work, and his roots in sharing his poetry started around the childhood kitchen table in Handsworth, Birmingham. Bridging the gap between poetry and people, he speaks to Redbrick whilst promoting his young adult novel, Gangsta Rap, which has been redressed in celebration of World Book Day 2018.

Gangsta Rap tells the story of a group of kids who don’t thrive in mainstream education but ‘feel like they’re really creative and that they shouldn’t be put to one side’. A story that partially echoes Zephaniah’s own, his characters get excluded from school, however, it is the actions of a teacher that redeems them, guiding them through their education in a music studio rather than a classroom.

‘Through working in a studio, you can learn maths, co-operation, teamwork, responsibility for the things you create and the relationships you have. They become a successful rap band but they have some opposition from people at the other end of the city.’

Zephaniah celebrates the creative individuals in a time where mainstream education is rejecting and dismissing the arts in favour of maths and sciences and subsequently manufacturing a generation which will increasingly struggle to place value in creativity. 

Even people who ordinarily shy away from Armitage and Duffy or downright reject Shakespeare and Wordsworth absolutely love Zephaniah’s poetry

Performance is an essential part of Zephaniah’s art, he revels in the feeling of performance and feeding the energy of the audience, something he encapsulates and transcribes with a beautiful vivacity into the novel

I loved writing about the feeling when the band are on stage and the audience are reacting to them because I know what it’s like. Sometimes I’ve been on stage and I’ve said to the audience ‘come on in buddy, I want you all to touch your toes’ and they all touch their toes and I’m like God. If I was walking down the high-street and was like ‘touch your toes’, I’d get ‘Go away!’. But when I’m on stage suddenly you’re suddenly worshipping me. So, for these kids that have some from the streets who’ve been pushed aside by their teachers, and their parents, the police don’t like them, nobody likes them, they’re the kind of dregs of society, then to be so successful that they’re filling concert halls. I love that because it is a kind of mark of success and a mark of personal power which they have which can be used, or abused, or misused. There’s something very powerful about being on stage and you’re just a human being, in front of other human beings and all you’ve done is write a poem or a song but they’re all looking at you’.

Of course, it is poetry for which Zephaniah is most popular. His poetry is characterised by a merging of powerful words with a powerful rhythm. At the point that we, as readers, hear them, whether read to ourselves or performed to a crowd, the rhythm and the words are inseparable and appear completely effortless. However, there is only some truth in this effortlessness.

The best performance pieces I’ve written happen almost naturally and very quickly. I find words that fit into the pockets that make the rhythm and it happens quite naturally. And sometimes you have to stop and think that needs adjusting, I need to change that word there to make this rhythm right, so in that case you are making the words fit that rhythm.’

The poetic process is itself an art form. However, poetry, as it is traditionally considered, is becoming increasingly unpopular. Yet, the same marrying of words and rhythm crop up in rap music, spoken word and slam poetry. In spite of this rebirth of the traditions of poetry through new media, Zephaniah reveals that there is still some truth in the concept of the muse.

Some of the poems that I love best are those that don’t rhyme when I perform them but they almost sound like they rhyme. They don’t have like a Reggae rhythm, but instead they have a natural rhythm. I love those poems, but on the whole, they come from a moment of inspiration, they aren’t contrived. I know that I’m the one writing them and I know this is going to sound a little hippy but it’s almost like there’s a greater power. Sometimes I look back and I’m like ‘Wow! Did I write that? What came over me!’ And that is real, true inspiration’.

Zephaniah’s poetry has a vast and varied fan-base, not something most poets can claim. In a time when poetry is the stuff of academics and elites, Zephaniah’s poetry and performances still draw huge crowds. Even people who ordinarily shy away from Armitage and Duffy or downright reject Shakespeare and Wordsworth absolutely love Zephaniah’s poetry. So, what makes Zephaniah’s poetry so popular? Perhaps it is because he is one of those people who originally shunned Shakespeare and Wordsworth, he knows what it’s like to struggle and not connect with poetry.

‘Many years ago, I said in an interview, that I started writing poetry because I didn’t like poetry, and they said, but does that really make sense? I loved using words but the poetry that they tried to get us to read in school was poetry that really didn’t connect with us, with me certainly. So, when I started creating poetry, I thought, ‘right, I want to take ideas that are serious and sometimes complex, and write about them in a way that every day people could comprehend them’. It’s a mantra that I hear a lot from people, especially after performances, ‘I don’t like poetry but yours grabs me’. I think that’s because I put my poetry to music, and because I famously put a lot of poetry on telly in the 80s and 90s which was quite unusual.’

‘Now, obviously there’s online, and I probably don’t put as much online as I could do, but it wasn’t just about putting poetry in a book. Obviously, I do put poetry in books but I wanted people to hear my poetry. I keep the words simple even though the ideas are complex sometimes everyday people can connect with it. I realised that when I’m performing a poem, I can’t use great big fancy words because the audience aren’t sitting there with a dictionary in their hand. It was my mission to make poetry accessible, to take it off the bookshelf and give it back to people.’  

if you really want to liberate yourself from the conditions that you live in, then read

In its twenty-third year, World Book Day was founded by UNESCO in 1995 with the aim to promote reading, publishing and copyright. It is marked in over 100 countries all over the world. Their infamous tokens provide children across the nation with the opportunity to explore the pleasure of reading whilst also giving them the opportunity to have a book of their own. For Zephaniah, reading wasn’t always easy and school was more of a battle ground than a learning environment; until the age of thirteen he was regularly thrown out of schools for his argumentative behaviour and fighting. In his early poetry he relied on his sister, then later his girlfriend, to transcribe the poems he created. It was only later, whilst studying reading and writing at a night school, aged 21, he learnt that he was dyslexic. With more guided instruction and a lot of hard work, Zephaniah’s learnt to write his poetry himself with his occasional phonetic spellings capturing his own unique voice in the works he creates. However, it is the ability to read which transformed Zephaniah’s experience of life so greatly.

Reading has really helped liberate me. I always tell people, if you really want to liberate yourself from the conditions that you live in, then read; you can go on journeys everywhere. When people want to oppress women or a particular group of people, one of the first things they do is to stop them having access to certain types of literature or burning their books or things like that, so it’s really important that we educate to liberate. Books are a great way of spreading ideas. I remember the 14-15-year-old me that didn’t like reading books. I grew up in Birmingham and when I saw people who went to the Grammar School or university and they used to read, we used to take the mickey out of them. We would just mock them, and we’d see them walking down the road so we’d go ‘what you doing that for, just smoke a spliff’. And then, I kind of realised, you know actually I’ve got to turn this around, we really need to educate ourselves.’

‘I remember the 14-15-year-old me, and I’m really passionate about telling those kids now, actually if you want to do what you want to do, you can do it better if you’re educated and if you are enlightened. The way to be enlightened is to share ideas, look into the window of people’s ideas. The other thing about when I talk about World Book Day, is that I don’t just talk about young people reading books but writing books as well! I mean look at me, I’m not from a writing family, no one in my family is particularly educated but if I can do it you can do it bruv, sister. Your story is important.’

Zephaniah’s story takes many forms. He’s a prolific poet both on the page and in spoken word, he’s also the author of ten novels aimed at both adults and children, and has an autobiography being published in May. Zephaniah is definitely not one for sitting still.

I’m in a really privileged position, I say privileged but it’s something that I’ve earnt, that I’m not a stock writer. I can go from one thing to another. And every now and again I do nothing and read someone else’s words. That’s why I never really have writers block, if I come to a stop doing one thing, then I go and play football or do something else, and then I just come back to it naturally.’

For many, Zephaniah is as famous for his politics as much as his poetry. Despite littering the pages of literature, the revolutionary poet is a rare sight today. Zephaniah uses his poetry to highlight the struggles of those neglected or even villainised by the popular media and ignored by governments. He has taken his poetry and politics to Newsnight and Question Time, debating against some of the leading voices in our modern political landscape. However, as we enter a time of political revolution and significant change, people in droves are struggling to engage with politics because it is now politics are becoming inherently linked with the feeling that nothing they do makes any different or is any help. Having been a political voice and influence for nearly half a century, I asked Zephaniah whether this struggle against apathy or even hopelessness was one with which he was familiar.

‘I’ve experienced it. But I’ve realised it’s important that we really do follow our passion when it comes to political causes. What I’ve realised is a lot of the real change caused by what you do now with regards to politics you will not see in your lifetime. That doesn’t mean you have to stop. Most of the suffragettes didn’t live to see the change that they were instrumental in starting. People who started fighting about slavery died before slavery was abolished. That doesn’t mean that you’ve got to give up. Capitalism will eat itself. That doesn’t mean we should give up fighting it. This is not scientific but I do believe in the victory of good over evil, but that doesn’t mean we should sit back because it’s going to happen anyway, we have to keep working at it. We may not see it in our life-time but we owe it to our sisters and our brothers that are coming up behind us. I guess that’s what keeps us going.’

He then turns his attention to the media and the reality of politics today. The mainstream media is perpetuating a dialogue of disinterested young people who only care about themselves and their own images, but Zephaniah celebrates the reality of engaged young people, passionate about the future and political change as seen online and throughout grassroots movements across the world.  

‘About the #MeToo campaign, a lot of people think that was started recently after the Weinstein scandal but it was started by a group of black women in Chicago about six years ago. Some people say it’s been a little bit appropriated by the Hollywood sect but it’s started from a grassroots movement. Let’s face it you know; the early Suffragettes weren’t militant feminists as we think of today. They were a group of quite middle-class women who were having tea and biscuits and saying, ‘Oh darling, don’t you think that women should have the vote’ and there was only four of them when they started but it got bigger and bigger and bigger. I always say to people ‘Don’t give up! If your cause is just, then its ideas will spread and you can’t kill ideas.’ You can kill the people spreading the ideas but the ideas just get bigger and bigger.’

‘So, I would say to people now, don’t be disheartened. I get students coming into my office at my university, and they’re disheartened saying that they don’t know what to do and I just tell them ‘do your best!’. Even if you’re just helping the homeless. Helping the homeless right now, in the time when it’s cold and snowing is one of the most revolutionary things you can do because the government’s not doing it. So that’s a real practical, political, personal action and you can see the results of it. Sometimes it’s not the big political movements but it’s the small things you can do in your own space that make the biggest difference.’ 

The curriculum is still very white and it’ll have to change

Zephaniah is no stranger to challenging the government and the status quo, and he has lived to see the progression towards racial equality from the hostility of the 1950s and 1960s to today. However, the battle is still not quite over, as even in our own university there is still a significant white-washing of study. In the literature department, there have been concerted efforts to make the literature we study more diverse, but with regards to BAME literature it is still significantly underrepresented. I asked Zephaniah, both as a campaigner and as a university teacher, how we can challenge and combat the whiteness of literature on both an academic and broader level.

‘At Brunell University we have something called Liberated Libraries. We get the students to talk about the books that they want to see in the library. Then we go through them, some of them aren’t good I mean just because it’s by a black writer doesn’t make it good, but we go through them to see which can go into the library. Then we also have talks from black writers and black publishers to see why they feel the need to be published and talk to them. When I started to be published by mainstream publishers, I noticed that all the people I had to deal with, my editors, they were all women. And I thought wow, this is where the liberated women are. Then I noticed that actually the people doing all the big money deals at the top are men, they don’t give a damn about literature really. For them it’s just business. It took a long time for me to realise this and so there’s this thing that’s this whole literature business and it’s quite removed from the creative people and from its readers and we just have to work slowly to change it. And I think it is changing. I think a lot of the small publishers, that are now smaller will get bigger and bigger. And academia is going to have to take note soon as there’s a whole area of publishing online that are bringing up really good writers.’

‘Technically speaking, if you look at young people and their engagement with poetry it’s less and less and less in terms of education. But if you look at the performance poetry scene, it’s more and more and more. You’ve got schools where poetry is really boring, and not interesting and not engaging with students, then you’ve got the same kids at playtime performing poetry and doing freestyle competitions in their own time and on weekends they get together and go to listen to poetry. If academia doesn’t catch up, what you’ll find is that it’ll become really outdated. But you’re right, the curriculum is still very white and it’ll have to change. This generation will grow up and they’ll become the academics of the future.’

If you search Benjamin Zephaniah on YouTube, you will find hundreds of videos. Some of these are incredible performance by Zephaniah himself. However, many of these videos are of people, classes of school children, teenagers and moving videos of refugees; all finding their own voice through Zephaniah’s work. Watching these videos as a viewer is moving in itself, but I asked Zephaniah, what’s it like when these people are speaking and performing your words and your works in such a unique way that is entirely an expression of themselves.

‘It’s really strange. Just recently there has been quite a few people doing my poems. There’s a poem of mine called ‘We Refugees’ which was on YouTube, and when I watched it I was almost in tears. Then I get lots of children posting performances they do of my poems, it’s just me getting old but I’m so moved by it. A lot of the time they do it very differently from me, but that’s great, I want them to do their interpretation of it. It’s a great thing to know that my poems live in the hearts of other people. It’s an amazing thing to know that if I disappear off this earth tomorrow that my poems will live on in other people. It’s quite amazing.’

‘I was in the street the other day in Oxford and I came out of a meeting and there was a Big Issue seller, and I didn’t ignore him but I was so deep in conversation that I didn’t pay him attention. Then he said, ‘Benjamin Zephaniah!’ and then he performed this very long and complex poem of mine and he gave an amazing performance of it and I was just so shook. He did it so beautifully and I was just taken aback. And I asked ‘Where did you learn that?’ He replied ‘I used to follow you everywhere bruv’ and I was just moved by it. I almost started crying because you write your poems in your bedroom or in the kitchen or wherever and you don’t know what kind of effect it’s going to have in the public domain.

So, what’s his favourite to perform? He directs me to a YouTube video for his poem Rong Radio, which he performed as part of Black Cab Sessions. His performance is incredible. There is a massive explosion of energy and frenzied words as he debunks and embodies the corruptive power that the media has over us without us even realising it. With such a powerful rhythm and urgent rhyme, it is a truly mesmerising piece of work. I urge you all to go and watch it too here.  You can also check out Zephaniah’s World Book Day edition of Gangsta Rap for £1.50 with a World Book Day Token.