Benjamin Zephaniah has, in his twenty plus years as a political activist, performer and wordsmith, become the establishment’s very own anti-establishment figure. Unable to read or write after leaving school at 13, Benjamin’s first collection was dictated to his literate girlfriend who helped him channel his vibrant vernacular verse into a form recognised and approved by the literary elite – poetry. But recognition of the multifarious forms of poetry thriving in Britain today is something that Benjamin still fights for. ‘I was in this big debate on Radio Five Live’, he tells me, ‘and somebody was saying that poetry was dead…thinking that their idea of poetry is the only idea of poetry. It was only with the invention of the printing press that poetry was almost hijacked and put onto the bookshelf that you had to be really clever to understand it.’
A champion of hip hop and reggae, it seems appropriate that Benjamin’s latest offering is a double release, not of books, but records. His album, Naked, features production from Trevor Morais of sixties legends ‘Faron’s Flamingos’ providing a dub-heavy back drop to the hypnotic recitation of eleven new poems. A side project, The Naked & Mixed Up E.P. sees hip hop aficionado and 1Xtra founder, Rodney P step up to the mixing desk to remix four of the tracks from the album. The records blur the lines between performance poetry and rap, a distinction which Benjamin himself is keen to erase. ‘It’s what we call the griot. You don’t sit there and go, “Do you want to be a poet, or do you want to be a musician?” You use whatever means necessary to tell the story. Rap is just a form of street poetry anyway.’
During the 1980s, it’s fair to say that Benjamin Zephaniah had more in common with the anger-fuelled rap scene exploding in LA than with the poetic establishment in London, ‘Hip hop, reggae, who really cares / The essence is loud, the anger is clear’ he proclaims on ‘Uptown Downtown’. I wonder whether being a darling of Radio 4 and black envoy to the middle classes has compromised his message? Is there any way that his poetic vision could be taken as seriously as, say, NWA’s Fuck Tha Police? ‘I think most people move on and want to say things in different ways,’ he comments. ‘I wrote this poem, ‘Dis Policeman Keeps on Kicking Me to Death!’ which was like my Fuck Tha Police, but I wouldn’t write that now. What hip hop did really well and what NWA and Public Enemy did was tell it like it really is. When I performed ‘Dis Policeman…’ on television, black people were coming up to me and saying “At last, somebody’s out there and saying it.” Truth, telling it like it is, is an essential element of Benjamin’s poetry – ‘It’s the truth I’m telling you, poets don’t lie’ as he puts it, tongue in cheek, in ‘Touch’.
Truth and identity are inseparable for Benjamin, and as the title ‘Naked’ would suggest, it is a sense of truth that he is trying to uncover and unclothe. ‘I’m trying to strip myself down and just be as open and honest as I can’, he explains. Such a delight in the poetic truth puts one in mind of Keats’ famous lines in Ode on a Grecian Urn, ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’ An appropriate comparison given the Rastafarian poet’s love for the Romantics. ‘I love this idea that your poetry has a purpose, this is where we want to go, and I may not see it, but I’ll die for it’, he muses.
Benjamin Zephaniah has been called many things – a commentator, an activist, a black poet, a performance poet – and he has seemingly comfortably segued from one sphere into another. Integrity must be important to him, but difficult to maintain in a culture dominated by the bestseller list and the charts. When I ask him about the poet’s image and whether we should listen more closely to what poets have to say, Benjamin recalls the one stanza wonder, Murray Lachlan Young. Styled by his publishers as ‘The Million Pound Poet’ after his lucrative but ultimately unsuccessful deal with EMI just over ten years ago, Young soon disappeared from the scene. ‘It didn’t work’, he notes. ‘And the reason it didn’t work was because when people listen to a poet, they don’t care what you dress like, they don’t care what you look like, they don’t care what race you are…they just want to hear something true that speaks to them.’
Benjamin Zephaniah has certainly spoken to a lot of people. He has toured the world, read in schools across the country, published thirteen collections of poetry and three novels. His charisma and personality have set him apart from other vernacular poets such as John Agard, and have gained him support on both sides of the musical/poetic border. Alongside accessible poems, many for children, are fiercely political collections – the titles ‘Propa Propaganda’ and ‘Too Black, Too Strong’, as well as his much publicised refusal of an OBE paint the picture of an antiestablishment stalwart. Although Naked is celebratory in tone, thanks in part to the musical backing, the familiar rebarbative jibes can be found. ‘I’m one more nigga on your boot / Dis night you want dis coon to die’ he spits on ‘Homesick’, revealing that same distrust of politicians and police. ‘Dis is me. I hate dis government as much as I / Hated the one before it and I have reason / To believe that I will hate the one to come’, he states on the title poem. For Benjamin Zephaniah, hatred of government seems to be a central tenet of his identity. ‘More and more people are realising that there is a difference between…human beings and politicians. There’s all these political figures who claim to represent us, who are actually manipulating us for their own purpose’, he explains.
It is this elision of the personal and the political that appeals to Benjamin in the work of the Romantics, in particular that of Shelley. It is something that he admits trying to emulate on Naked. ‘Shelley is one of my favourite poets of all time, he was so passionate – people went on strike chanting his poetry. I’m trying to connect the personal and the political, Shelley showed that it could be done, that poetry could be revolutionary and personal at the same time.’ A particular favourite of Benjamin’s, ‘Song to the Men of England’ illustrates quite clearly why Shelley has a place in his heart – the themes, the rhyme and the emphatic short lines are echoed both by rap acts such as Public Enemy or NWA and by poets like Benjamin himself. Shelley’s lines,
The seed you sow another reaps;
The wealth ye find another keeps;
The robes ye weave another wears;
The arms ye forge another bears.
could almost as easily have emerged from 1980s Los Angeles as England in 1819. ‘It’s still relevant today’, he says of the poem. ‘It’s a really beautifully written plea to the people of England to think for themselves. It’s saying, “Why are you looking up to these people? You’re looking at them and saying ‘you’ve got wonderful clothes, you’ve got wonderful this and that’, but actually, you put it on them.” And there you are, naked.’
Questions of national identity are of massive importance to Benjamin and he openly rubbishes attempts by Gordon Brown and Trevor Phillips to singularly define ‘Britishness’. ‘Britain, by definition is multicultural’, he tells me. ‘How far back do you want to go? The Celts, the Angles, the Saxons, the Jutes, the Cillas, all different tribes came here. I think it’s only become an issue now because the cultures that are coming here are black and Asian. I say to anybody who talks about some fixed idea of Britishness, “Come on, when did that exist? When the Queen was German?” I always say it’s like the weather. It has different personalities. It’s still the weather, but it’s different across Britain.’ Benjamin remains philosophical about the recent racial tensions in light of the Mohammed cartoon scandal. He himself is unafraid of Islamic iconoclasm – ‘I see women in Purdah naked’ he rhymes on ‘Naked’. But, clichéd or not, ‘if you have freedom of speech, there’s got to be responsibility’ he concedes. Naked is littered with references to the war on terror and the implicit links between Muslims and terrorism. ‘The Muslims I know already hate the idea of being associated with suicide bombers’, he says. In ‘Rong Radio Station’, a meditation on the influence of the media on our political opinions, he complains of having been ‘battered’ and ‘brutalised’ into harbouring racist ideas himself. ‘I was beginning to believe that all Moslems were terrorist / And Christian terrorists didn’t exist’, he admits.
Perhaps Benjamin Zephaniah’s poetic quest is concisely summarised in his stated aim, ‘I want to kill educated ignorance.’ His vision is that of an open minded Britain in which political faction and intolerance are replaced with some kind of philanthropic humanism:
Live de life you love
Love de life you live
Live with massive passion
And live it positive.
But there is a problem here. The political comment, like the rhyme which can be innocently simple, even naïve, frequently lacks the punch that it requires to elevate it above Glastonbury-festival-soapbox socialism. It is appropriate that Banksy, once renegade graffiti artist whose pictures now more frequently grace the pages of the Guardian than the streets of East London, has provided the artwork for the album. Like Banksy’s stencils, many of the poems on Naked, will appeal to a wide audience but are no longer revolutionary. The template is familiar and one can’t help but be moved by the enthusiasm behind their creation, but the overall images are becoming tired, and crucially, no longer make us think. There is no doubt that Benjamin deserves his place in the poetic canon, and Naked is certainly an honest, and truthful collaboration. There is, however, a fine line between truth and truism, a line which is crossed too often for the project to be a true success.
Naked and The Naked and Mixed Up EP are out now on One Little Indian.