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Benjamin Zephaniah – From illiterate to doctorate

 Ireland's Big Issue 17 October 2019

At the age of 13 illiterate Benjamin Zephaniah was kicked out of school and told he’d never amount to anything, yet he has 15 honorary doctorates and was cited by The Times as being “one of the greatest post-war writers.” Zephaniah shatters prejudices wherever he goes and even if you don’t appreciate his art, you will respect his story. (1509 Words) - By Samantha Bailie

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Benjamin Zephaniah.Photo courtesy of Ireland's Big Issue

Irelands Big Issue_Benjamin Zephaniah 2

Benjamin Zephaniah.Photo courtesy of Ireland's Big Issue


Born on 15 April 2019, Benjamin grew up in Jamaica and Birmingham and then moved to London in 1979 where his first book of poetry Pen Rhythm was published. His second collection of poetry was published 5 years later, The Dread Affair, which attacked the British legal system. This was followed by Rasta Time in Palestine, inspired by his visit to Palestinian occupied territories. Zephaniah, like many poets before him uses his pen to fight social wrongs, but where Benjamin is different is that he is not white, he is not dead and he talks about things that are happening now!

I recently caught up with Dr. Zephaniah, the poet, novelist, playwright, musician, performer and activist:

So Benjamin - you turned the OBE down from the Queen?

"Yes…I mean first of all I think they were crazy to offer me it, as it is obvious they don't understand me, but something I have learned since then is that there are a lot of people who will say 'oh, I'd never accept an award from the Queen or the state' and then the moment they are offered it they are down on their knees 'oh thank you ma'am, oh thank you ma'am'. These people find excuses for accepting the award, like 'I've accepted it for my mother' or 'I've accepted it for my community' and then they say it was the best day of their lives. I don't understand how meeting the Queen could be the best day of your life. Like she was at one of my shows and came backstage with Nelson Mandela, and meeting her did nothing for me.

Wherever I go in the world people will come up to me and say 'you're the guy who told the Queen to stick it', but I mean there was a very interesting article in the newspaper and it said '…actually, if you know Benjamin Zephaniah you'll know that you shouldn't be surprised by this [turning down OBE]. What should sadden us, is that there are few artists that are willing to stand up nowadays and that is why Benjamin Zephaniah stands out,' and I thought that was really true.

It's like in the 80s there were lots of people who would stand up, but now it's all corporate and it's all about being famous. I did a big interview with Jon Snow off Channel 4 News and he turned down the OBE. David Bowie turned down the CBE but then you have Lenny Henry who rejected an OBE under Conservative, but accepted a CBE under Labour, but the thing is, they all do it very quietly, in fact when you get the letter they tell you 'this is hush hush, this is between me and you' because you get a letter from the Prime Minister and I just went '%*$£*%$£… sorry I'm going to tell the world because I wanted to talk to Tony Blair for months about the war in Iraq and I was standing at 10 Downing Street and we had met before, and you don't want to see me and yet now you write me a letter saying you want me and you to go see the Queen….I don't think so.'  I mean it's just me being true to myself…

I couldn't live with myself if I accepted an OBE. The Order of the British Empire reminds me of thousands of years of brutality, it reminds me of how my foremothers were raped and my forefathers brutalised….had they read my work [poems such as Bought and Sold criticises contemporaries who compromise their art by accepting OBEs and such] they'd have known my opinion."

You were kicked out of school at 13, unable to read and write properly yet you obviously had a huge talent, one that would make you famous. Do you think there are children in the system today that may have talent like you but are struggling with undiagnosed dyslexia or other learning problems?

"I don't think…I know. I've seen them, I meet them, and I've seen them in the last few days. It's important to remember though that when I was kicked out of school my teacher told me 'whatever path you choose, you are a born failure, you'll do a life sentence in prison and you will come to nothing' but that same teacher came and paid to see one of my concerts, and she has had to teach my work in class.

Actually, if you look at a classroom of children, and this may be politically incorrect but from my experience the one child who is the rebel in the class, the kid who asks questions, the kid who questions the questions…that is the child who will turn into a really interesting adult - not the kids who answer everything book perfect. The rebel kid will look at the world differently and it may upset the rest of the class, but take me for instance, my teacher was teaching a history lesson and said 'now children, Christopher Columbus discovered black people' and I just stood up and said 'he discovered black people…so we didn't exist until Christopher Columbus discovered us' and suddenly I was seen as the naughty boy because I questioned things.

It's like dyslexia; it's simply seeing the world differently. You can't compute numbers, but you see pictures; that is why 70% of architects are dyslexic, many designers are dyslexic, many painters are dyslexic. In fact, this is scientifically proven, the way we read our language is very artificial, seeing the shape on the paper and relating it to a sound. There's only one language in the world you can't be dyslexic in and that's Chinese, because it's pictures. Many ancient languages were pictorial and that is more natural to us."

You have been called Britain's most filmed, photographed and identifiable poet. Do you enjoy the celebrity side of your job and if so what is your favourite part of being so recognisable?

"It has its good points and bad points. A couple of days ago I was in a shopping centre and a schoolgirl ran up to me and her friend followed her, and she was all excited 'Oh my goodness, its Benjamin Zephaniah, can I have your autograph?' Well, I just happened to have my computer case with me and I keep photographs in there, so I autographed one and as she was walking away her friend went 'who's that?' and she said 'he's a poet' and her friend was disgusted and went 'eugh……a poet' and the girl replied 'you don't understand… he's not like other poets, he talks about human rights and stuff we're interested in' and I had to listen to this girl giving this other girl a lecture about how I wasn't like other poets. The downside of being so recognisable is that being a poet I want to just filter in to the background sometimes and observe, and that is hard."

You are not only a human rights activist, you are really known in animal rights circles.

"Yes, actually I was watching TV recently and someone said 'she behaved like an animal' and I'm wondering, 'what animal' because I've never known a group of animals to form a racist group. When animals kill it's for survival, not because of the colour of their skin. I know that when I was at my lowest point at school, when lots of people were being racist to me and I was the only black person in school, my only friend was the school cat. When I was in the playground, the little black boy with no friends, this cat always wanted to be around me, and even when the other kids told the cat not to play with me; this cat would never leave my side."

In your teenage years your petty crimes led to a prison spell. Was this a turning point in your life?

"I was 15 and the young person's prison was full up and they put me in an adult's prison, and whilst I was there I contracted TB that almost killed me. When I was leaving prison the officer said to me 'I give you 6 months and you'll be back' and I said 'you know, you may well be right, but if I do come back, next time it will be political!' Funnily enough, next time I went back to that prison it was as guest of honour to read poetry to the prisoners.

You have 15 honourary doctorates. Is your house full of graduation photographs?

"There is one room full of photographs. It's my mother's room and she loves the photo of me and Nelson Mandela, so yeah...[laughs]"

What's next for you?

"I am writing my autobiography but I said to my agent that I don't want hampered in with a deadline. I want to write it in my own time, in my own way. My ambitions in life now are kind of not for me. I don't want this to sound grand, but my ambitions are for the world."

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