Benjamin Zephaniah: Rhythms of radical culture

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Poet, novelist and musician Benjamin Zephaniah talks to Weyman Bennett and Judith Orr about politics, culture and why Boris Johnson's appointment of a black deputy should fool no one.

Your most recent album, Naked, blends spoken word with music. Is there more space for that?

For me they've never been really separate. When I start thinking about poetry I think of the sound of poetry and the effect it has on people when they hear it, rather than how they see it on the page.

There was a very strong oral tradition in England when most people were illiterate. There was no access to books until the invention of the printing press in the 15th century. Books were not just printed and then given to the masses. Books were printed for the elite, and then poetry became an elite thing. Even when I perform a poem without music I can hear the music between the gaps, and it's really nice when I see members of the audience get it as well.

Are you going to do more music?

At the moment I'm going through a novel writing stage, but I'm beginning to feel itchy feet. Maybe next year I'll start doing some more poetry gigs and after a couple of months I'll probably want to say something through music. It's coming. It's as if I'm pregnant and soon I'll have to give birth to another album.

I really appreciate the fact that I'm able to do it when I want to, because so many artists do things they don't want to do because of their contract. I knew I was going to enjoy this interview because I'm not just sitting down and plugging a product, where if I go off and start talking about the Iraq war the record company are there saying, "Bring it back to the album."

Boris Johnson was elected mayor in the recent London elections. What do you think of his appointment of a black deputy, Ray Lewis?

I think Boris Johnson was, and probably still is, a very dangerous right wing Tory. These people are bigots, they're racist, but they've got to be electable. So it's in his interest to tone down his rhetoric and to be seen to be inclusive. After all the things he said against multiculturalism, to go into that office and appoint a black deputy - no one should be fooled by it. It's just clever politicking.

I remember Colin Powell talking about how loyal he is to the US. It's like in the old days when an invader went into a country with an army and then set up a puppet regime; physically and militarily controlling it. Now the US makes sure there's a McDonald's and Starbucks, and all their economic and political interests taken care of, and they don't have to be there physically. There are exceptions with Iraq of course.

I think the same thing happens with racists. The best person to work on behalf of a racist is a black person so they can say, "I can't be a racist because I've got this person working for me". George Bush is one of the most sexist, racist politicians on the planet, yet he had a black man and a black woman as two of his closest aides, but those people do not care about the black community.

If you were driving down the road in the 1980s, at a time when the police were so racist, the worst thing was to get stopped by a black policeman, because he wanted to impress the white policeman. My poem "Dis policeman keeps kicking me to death" is from a true experience. I was actually in a police station, the police were kicking the shit out of me, and I went, "You racist bastard!" and said, "You calling me a racist? We'll see to that." He walked out and a black policeman walked in and just carried on beating me! So people like Boris Johnson have all these people around them, as if they're supposed to represent people, but they're just there to oppress you as much as he would.

The other election shock was BNP member Richard Barnbrook being elected to the London Assembly. Why do you think this has happened?

Britain is getting more nationalistic, more inward looking, more militaristic. When I'm not in London I'm in China, and there are people around the world saying, "People talk about boycotting China. Well maybe we should boycott Britain as well."

We'll be hosting the Olympics soon in a place where you can be a Muslim and write a poem and you get imprisoned. In gym not long ago I was training three boys and one girl. We were doing some boxing and kung fu. One of the guys went out and I said, "Where's he gone? Has he got lost looking for the toilet?" And they said, "No, he's gone to pray," and I thought, "Gosh, you're all Muslims! This could be classed as a training camp!" We laughed, but it's serious.

None of this stuff surprises me, and I think a lot of it is about the failure of the Labour Party; the failure of all major politicians in a sense. I'm not sure if Boris Johnson won the position or if Ken Livingstone lost it.

There have also been constant attacks on multiculturalism.

I'm an unashamed multiculturalist because I think that Britain, by its very nature, is multicultural. Britain does multiculturalism better than almost anywhere else in the world. There are more white and black people in the US, but there is less intermarriage, for example.

The problem is that when it's working no one complains. It doesn't make good news to say, "Today in Brixton the Chinese community lives alongside the Indian community which lives alongside the black community, and nothing happened. Everyone had a good time." But the moment something happens it's, "Multiculturalism must be questioned. Is one culture swamping another culture?" The opposite of multiculturalism is monoculturalism, and the last person to take that to its logical conclusion in a place where there were lots of cultures was Hitler.

When people talk about defending British culture, they have to talk about setting up a think tank to decide what British culture is, because nobody knows. A lot of the talk about multiculturalism is simply racism mixed with the idea of the "war on terror".

For example, some people put bombs on themselves. They went into London and blew the trains and the buses up. Then we watched videos of them saying, "We did this because of what you are doing in Iraq and Afghanistan and what you are allowing to happen to Palestinians." Yet people turn the television off and go, "Why did they do this?" It's like there's a massive elephant in the room called Iraq and it is ignored.

Do you think the government's talk about finding a British culture and the rise of Islamophobia have legitimised the ideas of the BNP?

Yes. One of the most disturbing trends is hearing even black people talking about the immigrants coming into this country and taking our jobs. I'm thinking, "They were saying that about you just a decade ago."

You feel so comfortable, you've got your house - OK, you've got a bit of debt, but that makes you feel British - and if I turn away you sound English or cockney or Brummie. You feel you've arrived, and now you want to deny what you have to newcomers. Black people who have not even completely got over the trauma of racism now feel confident to say things which are racist but coat them by saying they care about the English language or care about what's happening in our schools.

What do you think about the resistance to that, through the anti-war movement or the Love Music Hate Racism carnival? Is there room for optimism?

I get a lot of young people saying, "Yeah, I want to resist. I want to do something. But I don't know where to go." What fascinates me is that we can have a demonstration like 15 February 2003 and it happens all over the world: there was one going on in Chile, in Japan, another in Jamaica, and that gives me hope. But there's nobody on the international stage galvanising all this energy, it needs someone to harness and really direct it. We should have an international workers' party.

I spoke to a 14 year old girl who went to the Love Music Hate Racism carnival. I felt in her voice the excitement of my first Rock Against Racism concert. It's really good because she's not particularly political, but it made her think and got her talking. She rang me to say, "I went to this thing, I got this leaflet and what you were saying makes sense now." So, yes, we can do something through culture and music. I think one of the things you've got to realise about political struggle is that sometimes something happens that's really profound but we don't see it straight away.

You work with young people a lot. What's your take on what's happening in young people's lives and what we've seen in London in recent months?

Let me tell you about what they call gun crime and knife culture. When we were kids we used to fight. We were martial artists and we used to get black eyes and we used to do slashing rather than stabbing. It was about territory, about macho stances, and even about sound systems. "What are you fighting over?" "Oh, our tunes are better than their tunes." Crazy when you think about it.

Now I think it's a lot more serious. I was talking to a kid the other day and he said, "Why do you want to do all that kung fu? I just want to be a hundred yards away and shoot them." His attitude was like going shopping: I want quick food. I don't want to waste any energy.

I've got a theory about this, and some people say it may be over the top but I still stand by it. Who do these kids look to? There is negative music around, talking about my posse, my postcode and all that. But forget that. The kids are doing what the politicians and the police are telling them to do, looking towards our leaders and do you remember what they said in the lead up to war? They said we need a pre-emptive strike. They said that if it looks like someone may strike us in the future we're going to strike them now. So if I'm a young kid living in Hackney and I'm walking down the street and see a white guy with a skinhead, and I think he might attack me some time in the future, I'm going to attack him now.

I'd say it was the law of the jungle, but I think that's quite insulting to the jungle.

The government's response is just criminalising young people.

We need a less militaristic, more caring society. When four kids are in the dock in front of a judge, it may well be the case that one of those needs to go to prison for a long time, it may be that one needs some help, it may be that one just needs some parents or that one has dyslexia. I think when a judge - and I think most judges are wankers anyway - looks at a group of people they should look at them as individuals.

A lot of the public are educated by the mainstream media to think that the system is working well if someone's got a long sentence. We know that's not true. If you get a long sentence you just come out angrier. I did a couple of years in the nick, and when I came out I was so angry for being imprisoned for something I didn't do that four weeks later I found a policeman and kicked the shit out of him because I just felt I had to get my revenge. In prison nobody asked me how I felt. Nobody talked to me. It was just punishment.

In your books for young people you capture the dilemma of kids who get excluded, who have no sense of hope and there's a sense of them finding themselves.

I remember Margaret Thatcher saying, "If you reach the age of 30 and you have to use a bus you're a failure." I was talking not long ago with Carol Ann Duffy, the poet, and I made a reference back to the Thatcher age and she said, "But Benjamin, we're still in the Thatcher age." She was right. That's the mentality. Some kids leave school and maybe they're very good with apprenticeships or something else but if they don't do well in university they're a failure. I'm not sure I'd have done well in university actually. It's a real irony that I've got these 14 honorary doctorates from universities from doing stuff outside of academia.

A lot of the bestselling children's novelists are well educated, middle class, white people. Many are ex-teachers. They have studied children and talk about doing research, and then sitting down to write a book. I simply say, "Remember, Benjamin, when you were 14, you hated books. If a teacher gave you a book you thought, 'What the fuck's that?'" So I ask myself what would I have liked to have read when I was 14? I don't sit there with a dictionary. If it's not in my vocabulary then I don't use it. I don't need to do any research.

My second novel was about boys and refugees. I know what it was like to go into school where I was the only black person. My mum thought she'd be really smart and send me to an all white school and I remember walking round thinking, "My god!" - and I spoke the same language. What would it be like if I came from war-torn Ethiopia and had to just walk into a school? These are things that really matter to young people.

One of the best reviews I ever read was from an Ethiopian newspaper. It said, "How does he understand the mind of a 14 year old Ethiopian boy?" That was a great compliment.