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Benjamin Zephaniah on racism in Britain, life in China & revolution pt.1
Topic: Benjamin Zephaniah on racism in Britain, life in China & revolution pt.1 (Read 3141 times)
Benjamin Zephaniah on racism in Britain, life in China & revolution pt.1
October 02, 2010, 09:28:17 AM »
Benjamin Zephaniah interviewed by Dan Glazebrook
exclusive for Sons of Malcolm
[pic of Benjamin Zephaniah courtesy and copyright of Linda Oliver]
Part 1: Racism and Britain
'Racism today is a lot more sinister'
We were very lucky to get this interview. Benjamin is only in the country for a day or so (he now spends most of his time in Beijing studying martial arts), and we very nearly missed our meeting with him due to a faulty hotel phone system.
But the real reason we were lucky to meet him is that Benjamin Zephaniah is one of very few cultural icons who not only deserve that status, but have consistently used it to further the principles of social justice, cross-cultural understanding and working class unity. He is a household name, and yet – very publicly and in no uncertain terms - refused an OBE; and followers of his work will know that his most recent output is, if anything, more fiery, more biting and more determined than ever – just see his latest collection Too Black, Too Strong for proof of that. And yet he also knows that remaining true to your principles cannot be an excuse for failing to engage the masses; indeed, he is deadly serious about ensuring that his message remains accessible to as large an audience as possible; that it does not drift off into a critically-acclaimed, but otherwise ignored, elitist hinterland. To this end, he will utilise any means necessary to get his message across, and he hates the idea of being restricted to some kind of straight-jacketed view of what poets can do, as he makes clear early on in our meeting: “Originally poetry was oral; it was story telling, and if you wanted to make a point by being funny or going into another character, no one stopped you and said ‘no, you can’t do that, that’s stand up’. You were just a spoken word artist. In West Africa, they have this word “greot” which is someone who goes from village to village, and if they want to talk about a political issue, they talk about it, if they want to do a poem they do a poem, if they want to talk about HIV and AIDS and do some awareness stuff they just do it, if they want to sing, they just do it – nobody says ‘but the last time you came here you were doing poetry!’ One of the things that gets on my nerves in England is people asking me – are you a musician, are you a poet, are you a political commentator? and I can only say, well - I’m all of those things.”
Indeed, Benjamin often blurs the lines between journalism and poetry – utilising rhythm and rhyme in his articles, whilst giving detailed analysis of real life events in poems like The Death of Joy Gardner, (who was killed by immigration officers in 1993). This all has to do, he explains, with the needs of the community at the time: “Poems like Joy Gardner come out of this tradition where we had to go around the community centres to tell these stories, because they weren’t represented in the mainstream media. Sometimes the government would quietly pass immigration bills, for example, and our parents - who it really affected - wouldn’t know about it. So we would have to go and perform in an elderly Caribbean centre or whatever because otherwise they wouldn’t know about it. So we were what I call ‘alternative newscasters’”
More recently, Benjamin has been deeply involved in the Justice for Mikey Powell campaign. Powell, Benjamin’s cousin, was run over and badly beaten by police in Birmingham before being thrown face down in the back of a police car, where he died from asphyxiation. As he explains, “I was already working with Inquest, which is the organisation who monitor deaths in custody, and at one AGM I told the audience that what happened to these people [people killed in police custody like Chistopher Alder, Roger Sylvester and many others] could happen to any of us. And then a couple of years later, I was standing in front of them again but now it had happened to my cousin. So my family and me were now “users” of Inquest. It shows you that none of us are immune – here am I, Benjamin Zephaniah, patron of Inquest and client of Inquest at the same time.”
But whilst the real Benjamin was supporting the victims of police brutality, he discovered that his image was being used to lend credibility to its perpetrators: the very same police force that killed his cousin have a poster of Benjamin on the wall of the police station, presumably to show their support for positive race relations. How do they get away with it this brazen hypocrisy – and murder?
“The truth is that the political class and the police - the establishment - are a law unto themselves. You see them literally stealing money and getting away with it; you see them literally doing crimes and you see them murdering people and getting away with it. We see them on video sometimes beating people and it goes to court and somehow they get off! And you think how can that be?! Sometimes it just blows me away. It’s like magic…”
I bring up the recent revelations about MI5’s complicity in torture and rendition. But he points out that this is not an entirely new phenomenon: “I can honestly say that I have been tortured in Britain. I’ve been tortured in a police station where they’ve put cigarettes out on me naked until I talked. When I was fifteen or sixteen they put me in a police station and made me stand in a corridor and every time a copper came past, they just stamped on my feet. I’ll never forget this policewoman coming past who just smiled at me and I thought oh, she’s ok - and she took her high heels and just went bang! into my feet. That’s torture.” What about the police in Britain today - have things improved at all? “Well, now there are more questions asked, so what they do in the intelligence service is that they privatise it, they ship it out…” he says, in reference to rendition. “And the way that the police stop and search black and Asian people is pretty much the same, but it’s not the SUS law now; they do it under the Anti-terrorism Act.” By way of example, he explains how he saw an Asian man being stopped on his way back from a club recently. The police told him he was being searched under section 44 of the Anti-Terrorism Act. “The guy was just so shocked! He said ‘Wha? Do I look like a terrorist or something?!’ And the policeman comes up to him, right up close, and says: “not only do you look like a terrorist, but you smell like one”. And that whole attitude of the cop was something I was very familiar with when I was a kid. I came away from that incident thinking nothing has changed.” Nothing at all? “Some things have changed. There are more black people on television, there are now black judges and black magistrates - I think it was unheard of when I was in court – the police have to be a bit more accountable when they stop you – and so we’ve improved in that sense. But in another sense we’ve taken so many steps backwards. With the English Defence League it’s like having the blackshirts on the streets again. They’re the kind of racist that starts a sentence by saying “I’m not a racist but..” and then they do all their racism. And that’s what all the political parties are doing at the moment – they cover their racism with talk about “this is not about racism, this is about immigration”, and in a way it’s a lot more sinister.”
Re: Benjamin Zephaniah on racism in Britain, life in China & revolution pt.1
Reply #1 on:
October 02, 2010, 09:33:23 AM »
Zephaniah interview pt.2
PART TWO: The international crisis
I really do think that we have to find a new way of fighting capitalism; the old interpretations of Marxism are not happening but there has to be something on an international level. If I had my way I would kind of get some people together to form a new party, and I have two leaders in mind for this party, but I know they wouldn’t want the job. One is Arundhati Roy and the other is Noam Chomsky."
Benjamin is very familiar with the use of the “terrorist” label to demonise legitimate struggles, and was a long-standing campaigner against apartheid in South Africa. He is also prominent in the campaign for Palestinian self-determination, and I ask him where he stands on the boycott of Israel. “Me personally, if I go to buy something and see it’s from Israel, I don’t buy it. But sometimes they do tricks, with fruit drinks for example: if its got more than one country’s produce in it, it doesn’t have to say where its from, it just says ‘more than one country of origin’. So they make it 99% from Israel and get 1% from somewhere else. It’s what the South Africans used to do, they used to make it 99% South African, ship it to Israel and put 1% in from Israel and then send it to England. I think Israel should be completely isolated.
The way that the west goes on about Iran’s nuclear weapons: we should be down on Israel about theirs! Israel should be accountable for all their atrocities and war crimes in Gaza; certainly from the last war, and probably in the wars before that as well. I just think it’s a terrorist state – it was built on terrorism and it was founded on terrorism. Those politicians in their suits, Labour and Tory politicians who say terrorism doesn’t work: well, it works in Israel! They’ve done terrorism and they’ve got a country run a group of terrorists that won! That was successful! Its an example of where it actually was acceptable; they terrorised the British and locals and eventually just declared a state and got it. Having said that, I am all for a two state solution – but if Israel is going to call itself a country and take its place in the family of nations and all that bullshit, then its got to be accountable, just like everybody else. So a consumer boycott and a cultural boycott is one thing, but there should be a diplomatic boycott until they get their house in order. Did you see what happened with Ziggy Marley? He was going to do a gig in Jerusalem, but he doesn’t know the difference between Israel and Palestine, so he dressed up in Arab headwear and arrived in Tel Aviv looking like Yasser Arafat! The Israelis were horrified!”
What I really want to get out of this interview is some idea of where Benjamin sees any positive political developments in the world today. What were his thoughts, for example, on the election of Barack Obama?
“I think after George Bush, it would have been a relief to get Mickey Mouse elected, I don’t think it could have got any lower. But Barack Obama? When he was elected I think for a couple of days I celebrated: in my lifetime I didn’t think I would see a black president elected in the States. But I remember Thatcher being elected, and I don’t think that was a great triumph for feminism, and so I don’t celebrate for very long just for the fact that Barack Obama is black: I do it for a day or so and then say, right what does he stand for? I think he is trying to do, in his own small way, some good things. But he’s still a politician, he’s still going to do all the compromises that politicians do and he’s got blood on his hands. He shouldn’t be in Afghanistan, and whatever they say they are still in Iraq. I don’t think he should have got the Nobel prize for peace when he was at war, and then go and collect the Nobel peace price and talk about why war is necessary. That’s twisted. So he’s not good, but I think trying to get healthcare for poor people doesn’t make him a Stalinist, like some people are trying to make out…”
How about the current crisis of capitalism? Is there a movement against capitalism developing? How should we organise in the face of this crisis?
“Well, China are so capitalistic it’s amazing. You can be sitting in a club and ask a girl, what do you want to do with your life and its “I want to meet a rich guy, get married to a rich man, have more money, have a baby and make more money, and that’s it..” A long time ago you used to get Marx and Engels pictures all over the place, but now you don’t get any of that. You get Mao, but you don’t get Maoism, you just get Mao the picture and the father and all that stuff.”
But materialism is a very seductive force isn’t it?
“Yeah. A girlfriend of mine spoke to me this morning and said she had a phone installed and she went and bought another phone, and she said after she bought it, she came away thinking she just spent so many hundreds of pounds and she was there listening to this guy saying – its got this function and that function and you can do this and you can do that and she thought all I want to do is make a call – she got drawn in – she was hypnotised by it..”
“I think that people should always be challenging capitalism, and even more now that we’ve seen it fail in such a big way. So what I am going to say is not an excuse - I’m going to be fighting capitalism as long as I live - but I do believe in the end it really will eat itself. All we are seeing at the moment is that it has bitten off its own hand. Brian Eno put it really well: you’ve got capitalism, this big animal, and when it’s sick you bring in socialism to fix it! You get the government to come in and help fix it up and then they go away again. But I really do think that we have to find a new way of fighting capitalism; the old interpretations of Marxism are not happening but there has to be something on an international level. If I had my way I would kind of get some people together to form a new party, and I have two leaders in mind for this party, but I know they wouldn’t want the job. One is Arundhati Roy and the other is Noam Chomsky. Those are the kind of ideas we want out there, about the way the media is controlling us, about they way we can tell our own stories, the way we can take control of our own lives, about the way that the real criminals operate. Arundhati Roy campaigns against the man who was the head of the company that put all the poison in Bhopal: she wants him arrested as a terrorist. Those are the kinds of things that we want people to be talking about.”
So leadership is important then?
“Unfortunately - and I say unfortunately, because I don’t think it should be necessary - but I think we need an inspirational figure to come forward – its not going to be Benjamin Zephaniah, and its probably not going to be anyone any of us can mention. A lot of people imagine that the suffragettes was some massive big movement, but no – it was a small group of people and in fact when it started, I think it was quite a middle class group of people sitting having a cup of tea and biscuits, saying ‘I think we should have the vote – don’t you think we deserve to vote?!’ But it was their dedication - it was a small group of dedicated people. One of my favourite sayings is that you can kill the people but you can’t kill the idea, it will spread and spread and spread.”
Zephaniah’s dream party is clearly a million miles away from the turgid banality-fest of the recent election campaign. What did he make of that spectacle?
“One of the reasons why I’m not interested in the election is that it’s all about money, it’s all about rescuing this economy. We all need money: I had to pay money to get here and to get back home, I’m going to get paid to do a gig tonight and someone’s going to ask me for money for my electricity, so we’ve all got to be realistic, we all need money. But to be driven by money alone…I used to have this wonderful children’s programme in the 70s, this Saturday morning slot called “Poems of the last man on earth” and the idea was that the seas have been polluted, the skies are polluted, no one is around, no one has survived, there’s no fish, there’s no animals, there’s only me, so I’d walk into a bank and there’s all the money in the world but what’s the point?! I’ve got no one to spend it with, there’s nowhere to spend it.
The truth is there should be a law outlawing petrol to come into effect in the next five years – completely outlaw it and find another way of doing things, because of what its doing to us. But if car sales drop by 1/2 % people panic! It’s a news item – they may lose so many jobs and the politicians have got to answer for those jobs and so on. But I’m looking at the campaigners and I’m thinking, what are they saying about us – the air we breathe? You know, the planet we live on – what are they going to do about that? Its all about money: “we can save you some money – come on vote for us”. So I may not agree with everything they say, but almost as a protest I just feel I’m going to vote for the green party. One of my criticisms of the green party was that they are a one issue party and I think they are developing out of that. In many ways they have adopted a lot of the old labour principles, they’ve kind of adopted now. But I’m not very party political because whoever gets in I’m still going to be doing the stuff that I do afterwards.”
Is voting still an important action then?
“Well, deep down, really deep down, I’m a revolutionary; I feel that this whole thing should be torn down and started again. But I just haven’t got enough people with me! And for what we have now, I would urge people to use their vote - even if that means spoiling it because the system is so stacked against us”
Re: Benjamin Zephaniah on racism in Britain, life in China & revolution pt.1
Reply #2 on:
October 02, 2010, 09:38:46 AM »
PART THREE: Fighting back
"I think it’s a fact that it’s not going to be very long before America is not going to be the dominant power. And when you go to China, you can see that China is going to be..."
What about the struggle on a global scale? Recent years have witnessed an impressive development of unity in the developing world, which has been growing into a challenge to US political dominance and discriminatory trade policies. This has largely been spearheaded by China along with the new left movement developing in Latin America. Benjamin has lived in China for some years now so I am interested to hear his take on this.
“I think it’s a fact that it’s not going to be very long before America is not going to be the dominant power. And when you go to China, you can see that China is going to be. And China also has to change because if China has the power that America has, and doesn’t change, and doesn’t become more transparent, we will be really f---d! The Chinese government and the people are not sentimental at all. If you try and talk to the average Chinese person about the death penalty, they just say “no – kill them”. “What, but somebody just stole a bag, they may need some help.” “Kill them – and then take their kidneys and take them to someone who needs a kidney” So I would hope that in this new world order China is more influenced by Chavez and some other people who are a little less brutal than the Chinese, but it is going to happen, it really is. Unless you are there in China and seeing it, its almost like there are some boxers in a boxing ring, and they are boxing away, but what you don’t see is that there’s one being trained in the gym that hasn’t come into the ring yet and this one is going to knock you all out! This is the big one, it really is: China is nuclear, it has more dollars, almost than America itself – it’s certainly got the biggest reserves - and if you think about some of the positive stuff – it’s moved more people out of poverty than in the history of mankind…”
“When you meet people in China now who see themselves as middle class, they can remember when they were peasants in the field – in Britain you’d have to talk to people a few generations back, in China you just talk to one. And I do like the fact that they can take a stand against America sometimes. What Venezuela do sometimes is fascinating and I’ve spent time in Cuba. Chavez, a few years ago, said he we’re not going to just have the army sit there waiting for a war: start making houses! And he got them to work, building roads, building houses. These places aren’t heaven, but then there’s another thing: in China there are so many people who write against China; it’s a very fashionable thing to do right now, how people suffered during the Cultural Revolution. But what the f*** happened before it? This so called state had absolute power. Look at Cuba – what was before Castro? Women were forced into prostitution, Americans didn’t even need a passport to go there, it was their playground for sex and gambling - and now Cuba has 99.9% literacy, it’s the only country in the world to have achieved that. When the New Orleans disaster happened, there were something like 500 Cuban doctors volunteered to go and they wouldn’t let them in and at a time when they wouldn’t even get their own doctors there. These doctors were willing to volunteer: fly themselves there, work without wages and all that; but Bush didn’t care.”
What about China’s commitment to the environment? I have heard they are building some eco cities using the latest green technology?
“Yeah, they are quite amazing: you get some of the most polluted cities in the world, and then you get this complete carbon neutral city, and there’s a couple of carbon neutral villages. They’re very efficient. One of the good things about having a one party state is that if there’s something that needs to be done, it just gets done. The bad thing is that if there is a bad thing that’s being done there’s no one to oppose it; but if something really needs to be done, they just get it done.” I tell him how impressed I was with the Chinese relief effort during the earthquake, when the army was on the scene almost immediately. “Even in the mountainous zone, even before the army got there, the local police, anybody that survived, just started digging.”
Is there anything positive in the current rise in popularity of religious movements?
“If Jesus saw Christianity, if Mohammed saw Islam, I think they’d all be horrified by it, by the way it’s manifested itself. Mohammed was quite progressive. People see it as reactionary now, you know a man marrying lots of women – but at the time he was saving the lives of those women – they were going to be condemned to live on the streets and prostitution, so at the time it was a very progressive thing to do. But what happened is men have held this power thing over women and they misuse religion for their own gain and things get wrongly interpreted. There’s no such thing in the Koran about women wearing a veil, people brought this stuff in. In Christianity the only time Christ ever went into a church was the only time he ever lost his temper, so it shows you it’s not about the church. I mean, where did he spend his time? On the streets with what we’d call today the whores and the AIDS victims, the lepers, that’s where he was! He wasn’t in church dressing up on Sunday banging the bible! And people find it hard to imagine Jesus not having blonde hair and blue eyes! My mother who is a black woman finds it hard to! But his family came out of Egypt – he would have looked like a cross between Yasser Arafat and Bob Marley!”
Before we part company, I ask Benjamin what projects he is currently working on.
“Well actually I have a book about my travels in China coming out. It’s a very small book; I wanted to call it “Enter the Money Monk” but for some reason the publishers didn’t like that. So they are calling it a “Kung Fu Trip” or something.” Benjamin has so far written four acclaimed novels aimed at teens; I ask if there are any new ones in the pipeline. I don’t want to give too much away but it’s about kids taking over the world…A bit Lord of the Flies, a bit Animal Farm.”
Any films coming out?
“Teachers Dead” is being made into a film. Well, the script has been delivered to the BBC but I’m not happy with it. It’s a bit complicated; we are having a re-think, so it may happen, it may not. And Face, my first novel, has also been made into a film.
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