Benjamin Zephaniah:
Dub’s been good to me

He may be a national treasure but poet Benjamin Zephaniah has lost none of the fire he had when he made his name in the 1980s.

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To Benjamin Zephaniah, the Windrush scandal did not come as a shock. “Black families have been talking about it for ages,” he says at home in Lincolnshire. “The Voice, the black community newspaper, has covered it every week for the last couple of years. When I sit with my mother at dinner, she’ll tell me about friends who’ve been out of the country and can’t get back.”

‘Meghan Markle is almost like the acceptable type of black person’

Reading his recently published autobiography, you wonder what it might actually take to surprise him. The Life And Rhymes Of Benjamin Zephaniah is filled with extraordinary moments, taking in his first poetry performance in a church aged 10, his time in borstal and prison, and his stint in a gang when he feared for his life and slept with a gun under his pillow. He was framed by the police for murder, turned his life around to the extent that he developed a friendship with Nelson Mandela – and his words helped usher in freedom in South Africa. But the book is also a searing social history of Britain and a salutary reminder that when it comes to the fight for racial equality, there is no end bell.

Its publication is all too timely. The shame of Windrush and the hostile environment the government created for immigrants, so that some people who had lived in Britain all their lives were deported to countries they had never been to, is raw when we meet. Two landmark anniversaries – 50 years since Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” speech and 25 years since the death of Stephen Lawrence – cluster in the same week.

Zephaniah’s Jamaican mother, whose rhythmic way of speaking originally inspired his poetry, was part of the Windrush generation, arriving in Britain in the 1950s, recruited by posters promising: “Jobs and a great future await you in the land where the streets are paved with gold.”

“You must understand she and her generation came here and couldn’t understand why people on the streets of Moss Side and Brixton weren’t chanting Shakespeare,” he says. “Jamaican houses had pictures of the Queen in them. They couldn’t understand why English houses didn’t. So she’s more English than the English in many ways.”

Recently he pulled her up for criticising somebody who’s Asian. “I said to her: ‘Mum, you complain about what Asian people do, you complain about black people. I’ve never once heard you complain about white people.’ And she said: ‘I never would. I’m a guest in their country’.” She’s 84. “After all this time, she still sees herself as a guest – and she’s got to be careful and toe the line.”

Lauded as the “people’s laureate”, Zephaniah, who recently turned 60, is one of the few poets the man on the street could name and repeatedly turns down Celebrity Big Brother and I’m A Celebrity…! He’s a dedicated human rights activist, novelist, musician and actor, with a role in the hit BBC series Peaky Blinders.

Powell, when Conservative shadow defence secretary, delivered his speech in Zephaniah’s home city of Birmingham when he was 10. “You can go online and see millions of people saying: ‘Great man, he was right,’” he bridles. “Of course, he was completely wrong. On the whole, black people are getting on really well with white people.”

What particularly rankles him is Powell’s warning that, in 20 years time, ‘the black man would have the whip hand over the white man’. “Because the assumption is that the status quo is that the white man should have the whip hand over the black man. That’s what people are believing and celebrating today. Those are the people we have to work with and sit next to on the bus. They’re very unlikely to sit next to Theresa May in the real world. But we have to – they’re amongst us.”

Born in Handsworth, the heart of Birmingham’s African-Caribbean community, in 1958, Zephaniah was regularly beaten by his late father, whom his mother tried to flee from on several occasions – only to be turned away from women’s refuges because she was black.

Dyslexic, he attended approved school where he faced another threat – sexual abuse. On his first day, he was warned by pupils about a predatory teacher. “He would coo: ‘Don’t worry, this place can be stressful at times but if you ever need any help, come and see me,’ while rubbing your knee, waiting to see how you respond.” He was advised to push the hand off, otherwise he’d take it further. “That’s what happened – and I knocked his hand off.”

Other kids – sometimes there because they’d lost their parents – didn’t escape unscathed, leaving his dormitory each night at 3am to be abused. “The black kids tended to be more streetwise because we’d been arrested. We tried to offer protection, but you’d get loners who were easy prey for some staff. They were visibly traumatised but had nowhere to go.” It’s little wonder he left school at 15 unable to read and write – and notes the irony that he now holds 16 honorary degrees.

He sought acceptance in gangs, levelling up to start his own firm of 10 men who’d steal tools that he’d sell on to backstreet garages. Death started to stalk him. Once, while training a new recruit, he discovered a corpse in the boot of a car. A few days later, one of his “boys” was shot dead by a rival gang. A botched revenge shooting by one of his members meant that, fearing retaliation, he bought a gun and slept with it under his pillow. Another friend was sentenced to life for stabbing a rival youth. In light of the violent crime surge that’s erupted in London this year, why does he feel gangs still hold such appeal?

Humans are pack animals, he theorises. “I always say politicians are gangs – it’s just they run the country. But the bottom line is, I’ve talked to white gang members in the Gorbals in Glasgow and the Blackbird Leys estate in wonderful Oxford, black gang members in Birmingham and East London, and Asian gangs in Yorkshire. I’ve never met a gang member studying for a PhD or who’s fully employed or who says: ‘I’ve got a future ahead of me. I’ve got a home, family and job.’ That’s what they all have in common. They feel like outsiders so they create an alternative reality and it can get dangerous.”

By way of illustration, he says he recently considered shoplifting. “When I looked at the price of something I wanted to buy, I thought: ‘You know what? I’m just going to bloody nick it. It would be easy – there’s no one around.’ Then I saw the inevitable right-wing newspaper headlines flashing in front of my eyes: ‘Black poet, community leader, blah-blah-blah in shoplifting fiasco.’ I had everything to lose, which stopped me. These kids have nothing.”

When Zephaniah fled to London in 1978, it was with dreams of becoming a poet and his first collection, Pen Rhythm, was published in 1980. Yet it was also practical, because the police wanted him for murder, having framed him after he teased a cop. “It was on my mind every day – every time I’d hear a siren. But back then, I knew a few people in the same situation so it didn’t seem that bad.”

He returned politicised to Birmingham in 1985, having moved away from the violence that led him, he recently admitted, to have hit a girlfriend. Ready to hand himself in over the false murder claim, the police scoffed that they’d already found the real killer but had enjoyed watching him on TV knowing he was poleaxed by paranoia. That was the year of publication of his collection, The Dread Affair: Collected Poems.

Although he accepts good individuals work there, “the way the police is structured is institutionally racist. The way it targets people, stereotypes people and polices one faith compared to another, is racist.”

He adds: “When people say ‘I want to go there because I want to do good and change it’ – sorry, I’ve heard that for years and those are the people who never last.” He laughs hollowly. “They give up.”

Even now, Zephaniah is still stopped and searched. The crimewave in the capital has prompted calls for an increased use of the power. “A friend of mine works in the Home Office and was involved in the stop and search debate. He’s in Liverpool Street Station and the police stop him. In his civvies, he looks like a white kid that listens to indie music.”

He was searched, so enquired why. “The cops laughed at him and said: ‘Actually, we’ve been stopping black guys all day. We had to stop some white guys to make the numbers up.’ That’s not intelligence-led – that’s just stopping black guys.”

Despite famously spurning an OBE in 2003 – citing its imperialist connotations and his dislike of the institution of monarchy – Zephaniah has nonetheless been embraced by an establishment he’s spent a lifetime rejecting. With the birth of Prince Louis and nuptials of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, performative fealty is at fever pitch, but he does not feel the “undemocratic” and “false” Royals are modernising.

“What would happen if Harry went to Central Africa and got a really dark-skinned Central African woman?” he queries. “Meghan Markle is almost like the acceptable type of black person. I heard her say she’s a feminist – how can you be a feminist in that family? She’s going to have to conform and if she doesn’t, well, Princess Diana – there’s an example.”

He thinks Theresa May “is probably going to go down as the weakest and worst prime minister in British history”. As for Jeremy Corbyn – whom he’s known from campaigning for years – he says: “I don’t agree with everything he says but I probably agree with him more than most politicians.”

Still, as the title of his latest album, 2017’s Revolutionary Minds, suggests, he’s an advocate of organised anarchy, not reform. “When Grenfell Tower went down, what happened afterwards was basically anarchy. The people said the government have abandoned us, let’s organise ourselves, our own food, take the local church over, bed people down.”

One of the most distressing parts of his autobiography is when he writes: “If there were another Brexit-type vote held in Britain that asked ‘Should black people be in this country or not?’ we’d be out.” As a visible dreadlocked Rastafarian in Lincolnshire, which recorded the UK’s biggest leave vote, he’s experienced first hand how Brexit caused the damn of decency to burst. One person snarled “The Europeans are leaving. You’re next, nigger”, and he received death threats and packages of human excrement. He felt the mood change when – undecided about which way to vote – he asked a local Ukip campaigner why he wanted to leave.

“He turned to me and said ‘No disrespect mate, but I think we’ve got enough black people in the country’”, to a Greek chorus of agreement. I said: ‘It’s not about black people. Some Brexiteers argued that we should have less contact with Europe and more contact with the Commonwealth, which means more contact with black and Asian people.’”

Zephaniah pointed that out to incredulity. “And I realised this is just a bloody racist trying to sound intelligent and political. But at his heart, he’s just a racist. And Brexit was just an excuse. That’s when it struck me.”

Although he’s considered a national treasure, he insists he’s lost none of the anger he had in the 1980s when he was performing his poetry at demonstrations and fighting National Front skinheads in the streets. But he admits his upcoming tour will have an earlier curfew.

“I’m still as angry but I’m not going to get onstage and say ‘Right, after the gig everybody, we’re all going to get together and march on the police station,’” he laughs. “Everybody’s going to want to go home and get their kids ready for school in the morning.”

The Life And Rhymes Of Benjamin Zephaniah is published by Simon and Schuster. Tour dates include Manchester Royal Northern College of Music, 23 June

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