Benjamin Zephaniah on Nelson Mandela, Bob Marley and race riots in London
- Credit: Archive photo
“I realised that if you want to be a rebel, you have to have a cause" - Benjamin Zephaniah on life in the front line against discrimination
Nelson Mandela read Benjamin Zephaniah's books in prison and listened to recordings of his music.
When he left prison, the leader of the African National Congress asked to meet the British poet from Birmingham. He wanted him to work in South Africa.
Zephaniah is talking about his life and times at Saffron Hall on Saturday, November 9.
The boy who could not read and write at school because he was dyslexic has come a long way, now teaching in university and speaking in schools, regarded as a national treasure.
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But he was expelled from school at 13.
"They said I was uncontrollable. That put me in a lot of trouble as I got involved with petty crimes but it taught me a lot at the same time. I realised that if you want to be a rebel, you have to have a cause and I started to think a lot for myself.
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"I tell students now, that, on paper, they are more educated than me, but if you have no humanity and compassion that's not good, can you connect with other human beings?"
Zephaniah is Professor of Poetry at Brunel University in London. "When you educate people, you celebrate them, especially women. Society moves on progressively because women take control of their bodies, they don't get controlled by men."
He would have been awarded an OBE in 2004 if he had accepted the honour, he said at the time, the word "Empire" reminded him of slavery and all the brutality that involved.
Zephaniah was living in London when he got caught up in the race riots in the 1980s.
"They happened around me. Back then, racism was very in your face. There was the National Front against black and foreign people and the police were also very racist. I got stopped four times after I bought a BMW when I became successful with poetry. I kept getting stopped by the police so I sold it.
"I was a big protestor, not just against racism but also apartheid. We are a multicultural society but the institutions have to catch up with us. It's always been multicultural, the Angles, Saxons, Celts, all brought different cultures before black and brown people came as well as Europeans. Some employers still have to catch up with us."
He referred to an article published by the BBC at the beginning of the year, which highlighted non-white British names being ignored by employers.
His poetry has a Carribean feel to it and a musicality. He had met Bob Marley when Marley was living in London and years later, when Zephaniah went to Jamaica to record a poetry-music piece, he sought out Marley's musicians for the recording. The song was about Nelson Mandela, when Mandela was still in prison.
"When he was in prison, someone gave him some recordings of my music and some of my books and he read them and when he came out he requested to meet me in London. We had a 10-minute conversation but then he wanted me to do some work in South Africa and we became friends."
Zephaniah started writing poetry when he was very young. His first public performance was in a church when he was aged 11.
"I have always told people that dyslexia is not a mask of intelligence. It doesn't stop you from having ideas. The most important thing is not to be downhearted about it.
"We (people with dyslexia) think more creatively. We think outside the box. I use it to my advantage. I tell my students when you write, if you really love somebody, don't mention their name and don't mention love, so you have to think creatively."
His Jamaican mother was a great creative influence on him as he was growing up.
"I have always been close to my mother and I heard poetry from my mother. Hearing reggae music all the time, I put these things together. They are called the Windrush generation and I think it's really brave to go to a completely different country and start a life for yourself. They experienced a difficult kind of racism and she was a great inspiration."
He is very engaged with street politics, which influences his work.
"I want to make politics accessible to people, things that people really care about and affect them. Most people in Britain have never read Karl Marx or Adam Smith. Most people are concerned with food and safety. How do you survive and live together sharing the space?"
We are a long, long way from a meritocracy he says: "I meet some really intelligent young people who will never reach Oxford or Cambridge, does that mean they shouldn't be given a chance to prove themselves?
"Sometimes you do think, they would do better if they had different circumstances. If there was a complete meritocracy, I would be happy, but if someone is born in a run down place, with a bad school, how can you expect them to thrive?
"I would always say speak out. Stay true to yourself and speak your truth. It's really important that people hear your truth. Speak for yourself and be as honest as you can. Forget about borders and flags. What do you really think?
"You would realise we have more in common than you think. We are so defined by our cultures. I want to encourage people to spread love all over the world."