Benjamin Zephaniah: it's my duty to help and inspire

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Benjamin Zephaniah: ‘It is my duty to help and inspire’

Mischa Wilmers talks to the poet who has become a professor about: mentoring, Mandela and making a difference.


Poet – now a professor - Benjamin Zephaniah (David Morris under a Creative Commons Licence)

You are professor of poetry and creative writing at London’s Brunel University, so you have many passionate, creative young people around you, and you can inspire them. Is this your dream job?

Yes! But I’ve always helped people with writing. Often by post: they send me their poetry and I talk about it or they meet me sometimes. So when I saw this job, I thought: yeah, this is a formal version of what I do anyway.

A couple of weeks ago I saw a poster for a poetry evening and the poet was my student. I was really happy!

When you were young, you wrote to Bob Marley and received a reply that really inspired you…

I remember how important that reply was for me. It said something like: ‘Britain needs somebody like you.’ And I thought, wow, he’s not even here and he’s telling me Britain needs somebody like me.

Everything that I do [at Brunel University] is about passing on my experience. And I love doing it. I love educating another generation. When I saw the poster with my student’s name on it, I felt great – that was a great reward. I think it’s my duty to help and inspire.

How can creative things like poetry and art help with today’s problems: global poverty, fighting and economic difficulties?

They help in many ways. First, they inspire people. Like the Nicaraguan revolution. When the Sandinistas won, many of their leaders had been killed, so they chose playwrights and poets to be in their new government – because those were the people that inspired them.

People ask me, ‘Do creativity, art and poetry help in political struggles?’ I used to say, ‘Go and ask Mandela. He knows how important poetry and arts are in the fight against apartheid.’ I’ve seen lots of fights for freedom where poets have said, ‘I don’t want to write anymore; I want to go and fight.’ And the revolutionaries have said: ‘No, keep writing, because we need you! We need our poets.’ People need someone who can express in words what they are fighting about. Politicians can stand up and say that we dream of a better land, but poets can see it better and put it into words and get into the imagination of the people in a much better way than politicians can.

You’ve often said you are a ‘revolutionary’. What does that word mean to you?

I think that the way we run the world right now, in most places – certainly the big governments we have – are so corrupt. We have to break it down and start again.

I left school when I was 13. I didn’t study politics. All the politics I know is from my experience. So I’m not very clever and I’m not very educated and I haven’t read lots of Karl Marx. I do get inspired by Noam Chomsky. People who hear me talk and talk about things I care about would say I am leftwing. At one time, the Labour Party wanted me to work with them … Now I’ve realized that I hate them all. I think I’m an anarchist.

A lot of people don’t really understand what that means. But to me it means the African village before the white man came. It wasn’t perfect; there were tribal wars, for example, but most of the problems were solved locally, people helped each other. People are scared of that; people don’t want to take responsibility.

You are very passionate about racial equality. Do you feel optimistic by the progress that has been made in your lifetime? I always get worried that if we say ‘nothing’s changed!’, people will say: ‘you’ve got a black president!’ And if we say ‘we’ve got a black president!’, then they’ll say: ‘but somebody’s just died!’ So you see what I mean? There is a black president in the US, but we still have racist people.

But it’s getting better, there has been some progress. I remember when you never saw black people in the media in Britain; now you do. And now we have a black British person [Steve McQueen] making a big film – 12 Years A Slave – that Hollywood thinks is important. So that’s progress.

But for a 16-year-old black kid in London, who’s walking around on the streets because that’s where the girls are... when a policeman stops him and asks: ‘What are you doing here?’, and he says: ‘I’m just looking for girls, why do you want to search me?’ – that’s when the tension starts. You can’t say to that kid ‘well, Barack Obama is president!’

You talked about Nelson Mandela, who is an international symbol of progress and racial equality. How did you feel about how the media showed his achievements after his death?

I had problems with it, because Mandela was a revolutionary. I remember when we were doing concerts for Nelson Mandela and the media said we were supporting a terrorist. People have an ideal version of Mandela that he’s peace and love. No. At one point he said: we’ve got to fight. He tried non-violence, he tried the Martin Luther King way and then he realized that they were just getting killed and they had no defence and he said, ‘We’re going to use arms.’

But when he came out of prison he didn’t say, ‘Now we want revenge.’ He was a realist. He was a real human being. When he came out of prison he didn’t want to be president, but the country needed him.

When Barack Obama first campaigned to be president, people compared him with other important black people like Martin Luther King and Mandela. How do you feel about Obama now?

It’s rubbish to say that Barack Obama is like Mandela. When Barack Obama was at Mandela’s funeral, he said we have to learn from his example, but he was sending drones to Pakistan. I looked at him and thought, you are a hypocrite – you don’t mean it, it’s just words.

But Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize...

Yes, that’s strange. I used to respect Nobel people but I just think that is strange. I think when you become President, you have to work with the reality, but it was crazy to give him a peace prize. It gives the wrong message.

What do you think about the problems with state security and privacy after the National Security Agency spying news?

I think [Edward] Snowden is a real hero. You can’t say to the public: we want you to be honest and truthful, and then somebody tells you the truth and you say, ‘Well, you’re a traitor.’ But he didn’t commit terrorism against the US. I understand that they have to protect their citizens but many security experts have said that if you know people’s phone numbers, this doesn’t protect anybody; it hasn’t stopped one bomb.

Tell me about your spirituality?

My family were Christian and then I became a Rastafarian when I was young, because of music. And it was political, as well. Now I believe in God without religion.

I meditate in a room where I can hear the radiator and the clock going ‘tick-tock, tick-tock’. And when I meditate slowly that clock becomes really loud, and then it becomes silent and then my heart is the loudest thing I hear, and then it’s my breath, and then I can feel the blood going through my veins.

We’ve talked a lot about human rights. But are animal rights just as important to you?

It’s frustrating that some people who fight for human rights don’t support animal rights, and vice versa. They say they support them, but they’re not really active. The environment is so important to us. And that means animals and land and humans. But yeah, I’m as passionate about animal rights as I am about human rights and I think they connect.

Are you optimistic about the future of humanity?

Yes. This is something that I can’t really explain, and maybe it’s the spiritual part of me. I think in the end that good will win over evil. If I didn’t, I would just give up. I would make a lot of money, I’d take my poetry and I’d do rap or something like that and get lots of girlfriends and just have a good time. But I want to help the good in the world.

I really believe that good will win over evil. And it’s so nice when you see good. Sometimes I’m amazed at people that go to war zones and do medical work. I’m not talking about the political people; I’m talking about the people that do humanitarian work helping people. So there are evil forces, but there are good ones, too, and I think the good ones will win in the end.

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