The Peaky Blinders star and pioneer of performance poetry continues to fight for social justice in both his life and work
As a poet, playwright, activist, musician and more, Benjamin Zephaniah has continually defied societal expectations. Growing up in 1960s Birmingham, with his formal education ending at the age of 13, Zephaniah's shield against the institutional racism and oppression he faced daily was an innate ability to construct words into powerful narratives and lyrical monologues.
'It's really interesting because a lot of black singers will say they learnt to sing in the church,' he notes, 'but I wasn't really singing with the choir. I was looking at the preacher and just looking at the way that he performed. The way he would use repetition was quite poetic, the way that he would weave storytelling and rhyme and rhythm; there's always a rhythm to the way they speak.'
Though he wouldn't consider himself religious now, his early experiences in church have had a profound impact on his performance style today, with his poetry and voice renowned for its sermon-like flow, commanding audiences of all ages like the preacher he once revered. In his memoir, The Life and Rhymes of Benjamin Zephaniah, we're presented with an account of a life well lived, a social history of changing political and cultural landscapes, and the injustice faced by those on the periphery. Zephaniah's book provides a snapshot of the workings of a pioneer, whose voice has been a key force in movements of resistance and activism in Britain and beyond.
'It was nominated for the Costa Book Award and the National Literary Award and this really surprised me,' he says of the book's success. 'The reason why it's shaken me a little bit is because this is my life, it's not a character I created. These people are interested in me, and now people say, "what an interesting life you've lived". And I just think, "really? There's so much more to do"!'
On top of writing, touring and teaching, Zephaniah stars in Birmingham-set Peaky Blinders as Jeremiah Jesus, which he confesses gives him a great sense of pride. But of all of the roles he's played in his professional life, he is perhaps known best for his compelling alliance of poetry and activism. 'Nelson Mandela once said to me "if anybody asks you whether politics and art go together, send them to me". Why did he say that? Because he knew that in certain places, it was the poets and musicians that started getting behind movements. He knew that made a difference, and made people in power listen.'
Young Benjamin Zephaniah
Zephaniah has been credited for having much to do with pushing poetry further into mainstream culture, something he always considered a key tenet of his quest to spread the artform's power. So with the recent rise of 'Instagram poets' taking verse even further into the mainstream, how does he feel about this new generation of creatives? 'I think it's fantastic. I think most ways of getting poetry into people's lives is great. Some of those poets won't necessary be published but they'll still be poets. And then there are crossovers between genres too. So it's a sort-of golden age for poetry. These are the days I was dreaming of and talking about back in 1978. And sometimes people laughed at me. I've always said that I wanted to see it be a thriving area and, now, I am a professor in that subject: I teach that subject!'
Despite confessing to hating school as a child, Zephaniah is in possession of no less than 16 honorary degrees, and education means far more to him now, both as a professor and artist. But above all else, he admits that his belief in the importance of education for young people has only strengthened over time. 'The thing I realised very quickly was that the people who oppress us, the people who hold us down, the people who control us are all educated. So it's our job to also be educated and turn things around and use our education for the better. First of all, it's good to have knowledge of self, to understand your own history, your own people's history. And you should not just sit down and read things that you agree with; you've got to understand how people you disagree with work and what their belief systems are.'
This is especially poignant within our current political climate, which Zephaniah has spoken out against both publicly and in his own work. 'My position has always been that the way we do politics is really flawed. There's this thing I do at the end of my show with my track "One Tribe" and I ask the audience, "is anybody here from Glasgow? Is anybody here from Edinburgh? Is anybody here from Manchester?" And people put their hands up and I go, it doesn't matter. We are one tribe. The borders are fake, the flags are fake, the way we do politics and are separated into constituencies and all of this stuff is all fake. We are one people. As artists, I think it's our duty to show people all the things we have in common and all the ways that we connect with each other.'
Having played a number of festival dates with his band The Revolutionary Minds this summer, Zephaniah is heading off on a book tour to promote The Life and Rhymes, including a date in Edinburgh. 'I'm really lucky that I'm doing what I love doing. I always thought that when I got to my age, I'd be a lot more relaxed about politics. But I'm going to keep fighting; I feel as energised and as pumped up as I was when I was 18. I don't have any great ambitions; I just love doing what I'm doing. It'll never be perfect, but I want to see a fair and just society. It's our job as creative people to speak to the heart and soul of who we are, not just the political imaginations of who we are.'
Benjamin Zephaniah, Charlotte Square Gardens, 17 Aug, 6.45pm, pay what you can.
A radical poet, political visionary and popular reggae artist, Benjamin Zephaniah has travelled the world promoting peace, humanitarianism and animal welfare – concerns prominent in his writing too. With new autobiography The Life and Rhymes of Benjamin Zephaniah, he tells the story of his life and the issues that propel…