Benjamin Zephaniah is a pioneering dub poet, musician and acclaimed author whose work has educated and inspired an entire generation of people – encouraging them to confront unpalatable truths and to explore some uncomfortable questions.
Zephaniah is a revolutionary in the fullest sense of the word; a free thinker in a world of conformity where easy answers are given for difficult questions. He has never shied away from the big issues and has written eloquently on issues relating to race, capitalism, colonialism and veganism.
Currently, on tour, Zephaniah will be performing this Saturday at District in the Baltic Triangle. We caught up with him to discuss his latest album Revolutionary Minds, his memories of living in Liverpool, his take on the Corbyn phenomenon and the increasing popularity of veganism.
Q. Hi Benjamin, for a bit of colour can you tell us what you’ve been up to today?
Well, I’ve been a bit up the wall recently as I had some stuff stolen and I’m now without my address book and calendar so I’m a little unsure of where to be and what I’m doing at the moment!
Otherwise, today I’ve done an interview for Jamaican TV to do with the concept of ‘home’ and then I came home and planted some seeds. I grow my own vegetables such as broad beans and garlic. I’ve been planting green manure and it’s a way of giving energy back into the soil.
Also today, I’ve just done a demo for a track I’m doing for The Vegan Society – a one-off sort of thing as it’s vegan month in November.
Q. As a well-known advocate and beneficiary of the vegan diet, what are your thoughts on the growth of veganism as a lifestyle and dietary choice?
I’ve been a vegan for most of my life and I remember the time when it was a tough choice to be a vegan. I remember when it used to be really difficult to get things to eat. Even if you went to a restaurant it was hard – nevermind going to your local corner shop or superstore. Nowadays vegans are bloody everywhere haha! This is a very good thing.
In terms of my own veganism, I get a lot of letters from people saying, ‘I took up veganism because of you’. I write back and tell them not to do that because I don’t want them to associate their veganism (or any other choices they make) to me or any other person. I might do something you don’t like, I could be disgraced in some way and then you will change your mind about me and then change your mind about the choices you made because of me. You should be a vegan because of your own reasoning and your own take on the world.
I can’t emphasise it enough – think for yourself and come to conclusions and decisions through your own reasoning and intelligence. The majority of people are not encouraged to do this and it’s important because it’s the reason why so few people rule so many people and there are ways to change that.
Q. There were excited and energetic campaigns here in Liverpool around the phenomenon of Jeremy Corbyn. What are your thoughts on Jeremy Corbyn and the hope his campaign gave – particularly in engaging younger voters?
The interesting thing about the Corbyn movement was that the mainstream media – with all their polls and all their researchers – saying that the election was beyond the reach of Corbyn. However, if you lived in the real world you could see what was really happening. I remember being in a Yorkshire village where Corbyn was about to speak and it was like a rock star was coming to town. It really is interesting. So many people are now saying that they do not trust the box in the corner of the room and are looking to work things out for themselves.
The problem is that most people have such busy lives and have such real and immediate responsibilities that they don’t necessarily have the time or energy to study politics; when they think about it they see no difference between one choice and the other and feel no connection to the people who are ‘involved’ in politics. I can understand how they come to that conclusion. As Noam Chomsky said it’s all about ‘manufacturing of consent’.
Politics is hard. The way the political situation is set up is the same way they write their poetry – to exclude people. One of my favourite sayings is by the poet, Adrian Mitchell ‘Most people ignore most poetry because most poetry ignores most people’. You could easily substitute the word ‘poetry’ for ‘politics’.
Q. You released the album Revolutionary Minds earlier this year. Can you tell us a bit about the work and what was it you were hoping to express?>
It didn’t come all at once and the album came together quite organically over a period of time. It came from a number of different experiences I’d had and issues I’d thought about.
For example, the track Revolutionary Minds was born out of my frustration of seeing things happening around the world – things of real importance and consequence – being ignored or downplayed and then seeing 20-minute segments on the news all about the royal baby. Things like this are hard to accept and understand.
I was schooled in many things. One of my mentors was Tony Benn and he taught me so much. One of these things was that you don’t attack the personality of monarchy or those involved – it is the institution of royalty which is the issue and you never see those types of ideas explored in the mainstream media. The idea of the ‘Revolutionary Mind’ is to think differently, to think for yourself and challenge what is told to you – it’s a process of re-programming yourself.
Q. You will be coming and performing in Liverpool – a city which has a varied and complicated history. What does the city mean to you and what are your fondest memories of being here?
When I moved to Liverpool it reminded me a lot about Birmingham. I just loved the people. People talk about the sense of humour or taking the piss but I absolutely loved that. The straightforwardness of it – people wouldn’t be nice to you for the sake of it and if they didn’t like you then you’d soon know about it. In that sense, honesty was uncompromising.
During my time in Liverpool, the dominate culture amongst the black community was Rastafarianism and the streets were filled with music coming from people’s sound systems. There were also jewels like News from Nowhere and Probe record shop which were special places for me. So today, I hear and see festivals like Africa Oyé, Positive Vibrations and Writing on the Wall and it’s brilliant to see and important to the city’s culture.
For the people in the city – for black and white – it’s important to understand the history and its legacy. When we talk about the black community in Birmingham and The Windrush generation – well, Liverpool’s Black community goes back even further than that. So, the city has the right to celebrate its multiculturalism and acknowledge the negative issues of the past and to get over them by celebrating its diversity. The festivals I mentioned go a long way to doing that.
Q.We believe there’s a bit of a reggae renaissance happening in Liverpool with the emergence of Positive Vibrations festival and the continued growth of Africa Oyé. What is it within the sound of reggae that has lasting appeal?
Peter Tosh used to talk about something called the reggae heartbeat. There’s something about it that moves with the rhythm of your body. You can relax and get into it – you can feel it and the music is infectious.
However, the message is important. Reggae allows you to be spiritual and political at the same time – you can also enjoy each separately. There was a time when reggae lost its way a bit. There was a time when there was a very aggressive strain to it in which you had very negative perspectives on the world. We’ve moved past that now and those people that express negative things stand out in a negative way. The message is a fundamentally positive one and that is a message which is so important today.
Q. You are a renowned and celebrated dub poet and musician but, who were your influences when you were growing up?
Well, my favourite artist when I was growing up was Big Youth. There is also a guy called Pablo Moses, then there’s Burning Spear, Judy Mowatt and also Fabian who I befriended – she did this amazing track called Prophecy.
Then there was Bob Marley, of course. I loved the poetry of Bob Marley. Marley’s music wasn’t really the kind of music you’d hear on the blues scene – a fact which is not widely acknowledged. His chord changes were not really being done in reggae at the time but I loved everything about it. Above all else, I loved his words and he really brought home to me the power of words. If Bob Marley was alive now he’d be commenting on the world – he was so up to date and never harked back to the past. He was always moving forward and that’s what I try to do.
Q. You speak eloquently on the issues of social justice and power – in these troubling and divided times, what are your thoughts on the role of the artist?
A lot of the big record companies tell their artists not to be political because they want to sell as many units to as many people as possible. There are very few outlets for political music in this day and age. John Peel used to have a show where he played a lot of political music and it was very accessible – there are very few things like that now.
A couple of examples come to mind when I think of this. Firstly, I was watching something recently where a rapper was censored by the BBC for wearing a ‘Free Palestine’ sticker. Secondly, I was on breakfast television not too long ago and I was wearing a jacket with a badge on it which said’ I love Refugees’. I was told that I wouldn’t be allowed to wear it on the show as they didn’t want ‘political messages’.
These two things are shocking to me and they should be shocking to everyone else and serve as an example of how difficult it can be. However, it is important to keep carrying on and testing the boundaries. I will always be a revolutionary and we should never be complacent in terms of the changes we can help create.
Q. Finally, what does the immediate future hold for you?
I’m gonna finish this tour and then next year I’m doing a series of smaller gigs for a charity and then doing some lectures at university.
In May 2018, I will have my autobiography coming out. I’ll be doing some shows around that which will basically involve me sitting in a chair and talking about my life. The book will start with the beginnings of my mother’s life as there are not a lot of stories about women of that era and the changes and times they went through. It will then chart my coming into being and the stories and adventures I have experienced in my life. It’s a project I was reluctant to do at first because I didn’t want the obligation and the time pressure. I took it on and did it on my own terms and I hope it is worth the wait.