Benjamin Zephaniah interview: I want people to fight for their rights

(Photo Credits: Brunel University London)

By Ariana Abawe

One of Britain’s best-known poets talks about growing up in Birmingham, being dyslexic, and a Rastafarian.

 I always loved, what I called, playing with words. I liked the way the same word could have different meanings depending on the way you said it. I was fascinated by the way words could make someone happy, or sad, but I also loved the rhythm in the way that people spoke.

I was born and grew up in Birmingham. We were very poor, but everyone around was poor so it didn’t feel that bad. Our house didn’t have an inside toilet or bathroom, the house was heated by coal, and we had to eat everything we could get. Wasting food was not allowed, because we didn’t have much food. But I still remember many good times. Most of our playing was on the streets, most of our toys were homemade, and we felt very safe. Much safer than young people today, I think. A friend was a real friend, not one online, and people talked a lot more face to face.

People I really respected were Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Angela Davis, Yuri Kochiyama, Marcus Garvey, Helen Zia, Olive Morris, and Noam Chomsky. I didn’t have influencers in the way that that word is used today.

I am very dyslexic, so even now most of my poems are in my head. The first poems I came across were all spoken to me, so I started speaking poetry and memorising it a long time before I started writing it down.

My favourite poem of my own is one called, ‘Who’s Who,’s simply because it says a lot using just a few words. If I had to pick someone else’s poem it would be a poem by Dylan Thomas called, ‘Do Not Go Gentle.’ I think this poem is perfectly formed, and it’s a cry from a son to his father to put up a fight, and not just lay down and die. It’s just full of passion.

Being a Rastafarian is more personal for me. I want people to be more political. I want people to fight for their rights. I don’t eat animals, I’ve been an environmentalist from the 1970s when it wasn’t so common, and I use my music and poetry to spread my message. But my message is not telling everyone to be a Rastafarian.

I didn’t spend much time in Jamaica, but the thing I loved most about being there was that family was around me all the time. The house was open, and people just walked in and out as they please. The poverty was difficult, and the politics were difficult, but the unity of the family was great. Having said that there was lots of food. We grew mangoes, yam, potatoes, peanuts, oranges, grapefruits, carrots and lots more. So, the poverty was not about a lack of food, it was about money to travel, health care, and education.


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