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

From 2014, Mischa Wilmers talks to the poet turned professor about mentoring, Mandela and making a difference.

As professor of poetry and creative writing at London’s Brunel University, you are surrounded by and can inspire passionate, creative young people. Is this your dream job?

Yes! But I’ve always mentored people. A lot of the time by post: they send me their poetry and I talk about it or they meet me every now and again. So when this position came up I thought: yeah, this is a kind of formalized version of what I do anyway.

A couple of week ago I saw a poster for a poetry gig and the guy who was headlining it was my student. And I thought: yes! I stood next to the poster and started posing.

As a young boy you wrote to Bob Marley and received a reply that really inspired you…

I remember how pointed that reply was for me. I’m paraphrasing now, but it said something like: ‘Britain needs somebody like you.’ And I thought, gosh, he’s not even here and he’s telling me Britain needs somebody like me.

Everything that I do [at Brunel] is about passing on my experience. And I love doing it. I love bringing up another generation. As I said, when I saw the poster with my student’s name on it, I felt great about that – that was a great reward. So I see it as part of my duty to help and inspire.

What role do creative pursuits like poetry and art have to play in the current climate of global poverty, conflict and economic hardship?

There are many roles. First of all, look at something like the Nicaraguan revolution. By the time the Sandinistas had achieved victory, so many of their leaders had been killed that when it came to picking a government they basically picked lots of the playwrights and poets and people like that – because those were the people that were inspiring them.

When people ask me, ‘Are creativity and art and poetry relevant in political struggles?’, I used to say, ‘Go and ask Mandela. He knows the importance of poetry and arts in the struggle against apartheid.’

I’ve seen lots of liberation struggles 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 somebody to articulate what the struggle is about. Politicians can get on a soapbox and say that we dream of a better land and all that stuff, but poets can visualize it better and put it into words and into the imagination of the people in a much better way than politicians can.

You’ve often described yourself as a ‘revolutionary’. What does that word mean to you?

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

I left school when I was 13. I didn’t study politics. All the politics I know are from experience. So I’m not very clever and I’m not very educated and I haven’t read lots of Karl Marx and all that stuff. I do get inspired by Noam Chomsky.

People who hear me talk and talk about things I care about would label me leftwing. There was a time when the Labour Party wanted me to flirt with them… Now I’ve realized that I hate them all. I think I’m an anarchist.

There was a time when the Labour Party wanted me to flirt 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 and stuff like that, but for the most part problems were solved locally, people got together. People are scared of that; people don’t want to take responsibility.

One of the political issues you’re most passionate about is racial equality. Are you encouraged by the level of progress that has been made in your lifetime?

I always get worried that if we say ‘nothing’s changed!’, people will go: ‘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’m getting at? There is a black president in the US, but you’ve still got racist people.

But things have moved on, there has been progress in some ways. I remember the days when in Britain you never saw black people in the media; now you do. And now we have a black British person [Steve McQueen] making a film – 12 Years A Slave – that’s mainstream, that Hollywood has recognized. So that’s progress.

But for a 16-year-old black kid in London, who’s walking around with baggy trousers, who may just want to hang out on the streets because that’s where the girls are… when he is stopped by a cop and asked: ‘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 go up to that kid and say ‘well, Barack Obama is president!’

You mentioned Nelson Mandela, who is an international symbol of progress and racial equality. How did you feel about the media’s portrayal of his legacy following his death?

I had problems with it actually, because Mandela was a revolutionary. I remember days when me and some other people were doing benefit gigs for Nelson Mandela and the press said we were supporting a terrorist.

People have this sort of ideal version of Mandela that he’s all about peace and love. No. At one point he said: we’ve got to take up armed struggle. He tried non-violence, he tried the Martin Luther King way and then he realized that they were just getting killed and they were defenceless and he said, ‘We’re going to take up arms.’

Mandela was a pragmatist. He was a real human being. I know for a fact that when he came out of prison he didn’t want to be president, but the country needed him

But when he came out of prison he didn’t say, ‘Right, we want revenge now.’ He was a pragmatist. He was a real human being. I know for a fact that 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 drew comparisons with previous iconic black figures like Martin Luther King and Mandela. How do you feel about Obama’s legacy now?

It’s absolute bullshit to suggest that Barack Obama is anywhere near Mandela. The day that Barack Obama was at Mandela’s funeral saying that we have to learn from his example, he was sending drones to Pakistan. On the very day. I remember looking at him and thinking, you hypocrite, it’s just words.

And yet Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize…

Yes, I find that bizarre. I used to have respect for Nobel people but I just think that is perverse. I think there’s the realpolitik that when you get into office you have to deal with the reality of it, but to give him a peace prize was crazy. It just sends out the wrong signal.

Where do you stand in debate currently raging about state security and the right to privacy following the National Security Agency spying revelations?

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.’ It’s not as if he committed terrorism against the US. I understand that they have to protect their citizens but, in real terms, many security experts have said that knowing people’s phone numbers has done nothing to protect anybody; it hasn’t stopped one bomb from going off.

How do you get in touch with your spirituality?

My family were Christian and then I became a Rastafarian at a young age, through the inspiration of music. And it was political, as well. Now I believe in God without religion.

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

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

One of the things that frustrate me is that in the human rights world, I know some people that are not really into animal rights, and vice versa. They say they are, but you know they’re not really active. I think you make a better case when you’re active, especially now when it comes to the environment and how important the environment is 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 do think they overlap and 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 do think in the end that good will overcome evil. And if I didn’t, I would just give up. I would make a lot of money, I’d take my poetry and I’d concentrate on doing rap or something like that and get lots of girlfriends and just have a good time. But I want to contribute to good in the world.

I do really believe that good will overcome evil. And it’s so nice when you see good.

Sometimes I’m amazed at some of these 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 just do humanitarian work helping people. So there are all these evil forces out there, but there are good ones, too, and I think the good ones will win in the end.