Benjamin Zephaniah interview: “A world without music is unimaginable”


Benjamin Zephaniah (Credit:Artists Facebook page)

As Benjamin Zephaniah plays a Liverpool date, Getintothis’ Rafe Janwai Wan chats with him about the state of poetry, Extinction Rebellion and kung fu training in China.

Benjamin Zephaniah is one of the UK’s most celebrated live performers and he is coming back to Liverpool on November 28 with his band The Revolutionary Minds to perform at Liverpool’s newest venue, The Christmas Spiegeltent.

His poetry has challenged, informed, entertained and educated multiple generations – positioning him as one of the most important and vital voices in contemporary Britain.

Zephaniah’s music and collaboration with The Revolutionary Minds is just as impressive.

His last album, Revolutionary Minds was met with huge critical acclaim; it’s a work which includes dance-inducing, dub-reggae juggernauts fused and threaded together through the imagination, power and passion of his lyrics.

We caught up with Benjamin to discuss his relationship with Liverpool, what inspired him to become a poet, the importance of Greta Thunberg and the Extinction Rebellion movement and what’s coming up in the future.

Getintothis’ Lost Liverpool: dig in to our archives of the other side of the city

Getintothis:  You used to live in Liverpool for a while, how do you feel coming back to play here?

Benjamin Zephaniah: “I lived in Liverpool from around ‘88-‘92. No.1 Princess Avenue, a big three-storey building, and I loved it there.

I was just re-reading ​Inna Liverpool ​the other day actually, I wrote it as a celebration of my residency there.

For me, Liverpool is a funny one, you know?

Because even before I lived there I always felt a sort of affinity for the place you know.

It was the nearest thing to Birmingham than any other city I’ve been to. The way people are straight talking, if they didn’t like you they told you they didn’t fuckin’ like you!

I like that about a people. I liked that kids still played on the streets where I lived, that’s how it was in Birmingham; a place that was talkative and together.

I remember bringing my band to come and play Liverpool, they did a sound check and then went out.

When they got back they said “God can’t people talk around here… I went into the shop to buy a drink and even the shopkeeper talked my ear off!’’ I laughed and just said yeah you gotta get used to that here! In London it’s the opposite, people just don’t talk! So, for me Liverpool is the closest thing to playing at home if I’m not playing in Birmingham.”

Benjamin Zephaniah and The Revolutionary Minds (Credit: Artists Facebook page)

Getintothis:  What do you think is the biggest political issue for this generation?

Benjamin Zephaniah: “I have just read the Greta Thunberg book ​No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference. ​I was in the Green movement back in the ‘80’s ad we were called the ‘looney left’ back then.

I think this is a book for the younger generations, but for us it’s kind of a reminder that we took our eye off the ball. The great thing about these young kids now is that they say ‘Hey! Don’t just listen to me, look at the science!’. That’s what I like about them, and Greta has really done a lot to shake things up.

You know, my album is called Revolutionary Minds, my band is called Revolutionary Minds, and I wanted to gather revolutionary people who think differently to be involved.

I’m not telling people what revolution to have, but what we are saying is that everything else is failing us so I’m making music that, yeah you can dance to, we make good dance reggae music, but at the same time we are unashamedly trying to open minds.

We’re not telling you what to think, we just want to get you thinking. I think you can dance and think at the same time. So that’s the basic kind of philosophy of the band – open your mind, think differently, and enjoy music!

A world without music is unimaginable. Every tribe all over the world has music you know, and they all live in this world. We all want to save this world that we share and we can’t leave because look at our politicians and what they’re doing – they’re selling off the rainforest! So, you know, its gotta come from the ground upwards, and I think as musicians we can add to the conversation.”

Benjamin Zephaniah Revolutionary Minds

Getintothis:  Who were you listening to that inspired you when you were a budding poet?

Benjamin Zephaniah: “In my spoken word show I talk about being a little kid listening to Marvin Gaye’s ​What’s Going On​. At the time Marvin Gaye had this reputation as a romantic, then he made this really political record – it was soul but it was also political.

So, I talk about listening to him and how it shook me up. It made me think ‘right, I’m going to do something with my poetry’.

Along with that I was listening to people like the Ras Poets, Gil Scott Heron, Linton Kwesi Johnson, with whom I later became good friends with, and the punk poets of course; people like John Cooper Clarke.“

Getintothis: Where is the UK poetry going at the moment?

Benjamin Zephaniah: “The performance poetry scene right now is so vibrant. I look at the scene now and I am so proud of it, because we were there when it started. It’s amazing.

You’ve got people performing poetry gigs in every city every weekend, and people can earn a living from it now! When I was young, I remember one newspaper reporting that Roger McGough, Brian Patten and myself were the only people in the country that earned a living from performance poetry!

There are some great young poets on the scene at the moment. James Massiah, who I sort of mentored for a while, is really exciting. Holly McNish (Hollie Poetry) makes some great videos on YouTube, and Deanna Rodger is a Bristol based poet who has done some really good stuff. “

Getintothis:  Once you have finished touring, can we expect any new material from you?

Benjamin Zephaniah: “I am working on a new novel for young adults at the moment, which I hope will be finished by the end of the year.

I’ll also be in a film which the BBC are making. But there are no dates on anything yet.

Next year once the tour is over, I am going to go to China for some martial arts. I am kind of Kung Fu crazy. I do Wing Chun and Tai Chi. I used to train in the Union Centre in Liverpool actually!

But yeah, I’ve travelled all over China and have spent six years on and off training at a temple in Chen Jia Gou. I like to go straight to the source and get the real deal!”

  • Benjamin Zephaniah and The Revolutionary Minds play Liverpool’s Christmas Spiegeltent on November 28.