New Internationalist

Benjamin Zephaniah

Issue 436

Passionate about politics, music and poetry, Benjamin Zephaniah has been bringing rhythm and rhyme to the masses for three decades. Rowenna Davis caught up with him.

Who inspires you?

It’s easy to say Mandela or Obama but what really inspires me is everyday people. To do greatness when you’re in the public eye is easier than when you’re doing great things but nobody knows about it. I met a woman not long ago who is in her seventies and teaching older people in her village to use the internet. At that age I’d probably be putting my feet up, but she’s linking older people up to the world and getting companies to donate old computers.

But who inspires you creatively?

Creatively… again everyone says Bob Marley, but there’s this reggae artist, Big Youth – I hesitate to say his name because not everyone has heard of him – he really inspired me. I’ve never met him, but I was really excited by the way he twists the Bible and mixes everything up. A lot of people who are spiritual tend not to think about politics much, and a lot of people who are political neglect the spiritual side of themselves. It’s almost like they think the two cancel each other out. I liked the way Big Youth grappled with them both and threw in some poetry.

If you could banish one person from the planet, who would it be?

At the risk of sounding boring, I’m one of these people who believes that no-one is born evil. People are what they are because of their experiences and who they’ve met. The worst dictators were once little boys and girls in a playground, so I’d rather win the argument than banish them.

What’s your biggest regret?

Not taking school seriously. People say that’s what made me who I am, rebellious and all that. Then I ask if they’re going to take their kids out of school now and they say ‘Oh, no!’ I’m dyslexic and I’m a slow reader. When I do interviews – I’m being very honest here – I wish I could be more articulate.

How important is faith to you?

I’m not keen on blind faith. I’ve got a Stephen Hawking in me – to people who argue against science I say: don’t fly in planes. But although science can tell you everything about How, it’s not very good at answering Why. Only God knows that – to know why is to know the mind of God. I meditate every day. I hesitate to say this – because it can sound very airy-fairy – but when you meditate you feel like there is something more than your body. You sit so quietly that you can hear the blood through your veins and you can’t even hear the planes going over.

What makes you angry?

Tony Blair. I can’t believe he got away with it. Now he’s going around the world smiling as some kind of statesman of the Middle East. What’s that about?!

Are you a fan of Obama?

No. I really didn’t think we’d get a black president elected in my lifetime, so that was a surprise. He’s made some amazing achievements, but first and foremost he’s a politician and he’s going to make the same mistakes as the others. We’ve heard some nice rhetoric but I still think he’s a warmonger. We should be getting out of Iraq and Afghanistan much faster. You can tell war is very important to me. I’ve lost friends on both sides – young men who joined the military because they loved their country and wanted to get fit but didn’t have any politics; and then friends who were victims and civilians on the other side. I’ll never forgive the politicians for any of it. Obama should be a lot more radical – I know it’s different when you’re trying to deal with real politics in the US, but I think he’s got an opportunity.

Can poetry survive the Twitter generation?

Yes. There’s a deep need for people to express themselves in the world, and a tweet won’t suffice. I’ve never done a tweet – if I want to communicate with someone, I’ll talk to them.

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