Celebrated poet, lyricist and actor Benjamin Zephaniah talks education, knife crime and meeting Mandela
09 May, 2019 — By Róisín Gadelrab
Benjamin Zephaniah and The Revolutionary Minds play the Jazz Cafe on May 17
I ALWAYS tell my musicians, this is not me just singing on top of a song, this is poetry and you have to wrap the music around the poetry. I tell them there are people in the audience sometimes that will know these poems better than you do, so take care with them, it’s not about outplaying them, it’s not about who can play the best guitar solo, it’s about listening to the words and wrapping the music around the words.”
Benjamin Zephaniah and The Revolutionary Minds play the Jazz Cafe on May 17, and the celebrated poet, lyricist, professor, actor and much more, is explaining his approach to music.
Speaking from the Bloomsbury hotel where he is staying while promoting the paperback of his autobiography, The Life and Rhymes of Benjamin Zephaniah: The Autobiography, Zephaniah is surrounded by new graduates in their gowns, prompting memories of an encounter with Nelson Mandela. Zephaniah, who left school at 13, has 16 honorary degrees and is due to receive a 17th from the University of Roehampton in June.
“This sounds like name-dropping, I remember I was having a conversation with Nelson Mandela and… he said ‘you know, I’ve got four honorary doctorates, Benjamin, you know that means I’m doctor doctor doctor doctor’. And at the time I had 14 and I said, ‘Madiba, I’ve got to tell you something, I’ve got 14’. He said, ‘you should be ashamed of yourself, why are you doing so well?’”
A champion of education, Zephaniah is a professor at Brunel and de Montford universities.
“When I got my first (honorary degree) I didn’t know what they were. I’m always nervous about things from what you could call generally the establishment, but then I’m also really passionate about education.”
Zephaniah identifies with the children he has worked with, “who are shooting each other and stabbing each other or just not paying attention to life”, noting that many lacked education and role models.
“Fortunately, I didn’t end up killing anybody or anything like that, but I know what it’s like to live on the other side of the track and other side of the law.”
He found his doctor title provided inspiration to others.
“A lot of people start off badly. Sometimes the start is not your fault, sometimes it’s the parents’ fault, or where you were born, lots of things can give you a rough start in life, but I think most of the time you can spin it round.”
Zephaniah knows Camden well and, fittingly, was poet-in-residence at Keats House, Hampstead, in 2011.
“It was quite special because I’m really into the romantic poets and Keats has a very special place because he wasn’t around for such a long time. He had a miserable life but created such beautiful poetry.
“It’s really odd, compare the poetry to what his life was, he was always sick, always in pain, always suffering.”
He has also had some memorable encounters in Camden, including once at Camden Palace in the 1980s: “We were watching a punk band. I sat down talking to some people and it was really nice. I’d not long been in London and it was all cool and then the place kind of emptied and they came round saying ‘you’ve got to go now’.
“A couple of months later the person that was with me said, ‘Have you seen what that person you were talking to is doing now?’ I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ To cut a long story short, I didn’t realise I was talking to Annie Lennox, Ian Dury and Elvis Costello – there were a few more as well, I think. We were seeing Stiff Little Fingers.
“Then I thought, wow yeah. this is a cool place.”
Expect a cerebral element to The Jazz Cafe gig, says Zephaniah.]
“I do reggae but it’s very danceable, modern, and at the same time the album is called Revolutionary Minds. I’m not telling you how to vote but trying to say think differently, think outside the box, because politicians are failing us, left, right and centre so I haven’t got all the ideas but I’m saying open up your mind.
“I think people can dance and think at the same time, so it’s very dancey, but a lot of social commentary in the music… I love to get the audience chanting with me. It is really powerful. I can see how some people misuse that power… so I’m always very aware of the power you have.
“Sometimes, because I’m a vegan, I get letters saying, ‘I heard something you said onstage or read something you wrote and I want to be vegan’, and I always write back and say, ‘no don’t be vegan because I said be vegan, you have to find your reason’.
“If someone asks you why you’re vegan, I don’t want you to say Benjamin Zephaniah is and I like him. I want you to be able to give your own arguments. I’m not into gurus and leaders, I’m into people thinking for themselves.”
While he was recently quoted as saying he’d hoped no longer to be an angry black man, Zephaniah still has mixed feelings.
“I still feel angry. I was walking with a friend not so long ago in a little town in Lincolnshire and she was visiting from abroad and somebody started chanting racist things to us in this beautiful little market town, and she was really shocked by it and had not experienced it before.
“I said it shows you we haven’t come that far. This is supposed to be a sleepy beautiful part of England where these things don’t happen.
“They do it with so much confidence nowadays, that’s the worrying thing, they’re not ashamed of it, they’re just ‘England for the English, mate, get out’, so I find that rather depressing, but I do believe in the victory of good over evil in the end I do believe that… I was going to say things can only get better, but it sounds so New Labour.
“I do believe that in the end the forces of good will overcome the forces of evil.”