Benjamin Zephaniah – From illiterate to doctorate

By: Big Issue  11-11-2011

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.

Born on April 15, 1958, Zephaniah 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 five 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 he is different is that he is not white, he is not dead and he talks about things that are happening now.

Samantha Bailie caught up with Dr Zephaniah, the poet, novelist, playwright, musician, performer and activist:

[SB] So Benjamin, you turned the OBE down from the Queen?
[BZ] 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, “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.

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 they’d have known my opinion.

[SB] You are not only a human rights activist, you are really known in animal rights circles.
[BZ] 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 towards 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.

[SB] In your teenage years your petty crimes led to a prison spell. Was this a turning point in your life?
[BZ] I was 15 and the young person’s prison was full up so 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 six months and you’ll be back’. 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.

[SB] You have 15 honorary doctorates. Is your house full of graduation photographs?
[BZ] 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].

[SB] What’s next for you?
[BZ] I am writing my autobiography but I said to my agent that I don’t want to be 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.”  © Ireland’s Big Issue / www.streetnewsservice.org


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