Benjamin Zephaniah grew up in Birmingham with poetry in his veins. He creates his poetry to speak about the truth and to educate others. As well as poetry Benjamin has his band, acting career and does a lot for those in need, especially those in education. He started small but has grown into someone that is recognised for what he says and appreciated by his fans on a different level to other celebrities. This is an insight into The Actor, The Influencer, The Dub Poet by Annie Fowler.
Benjamin pictured with Interviewer, Annie Fowler
Benjamin was born in Handsworth, Birmingham after his parents migrated from Jamaica. He explained that growing up where he did meant he was involved with crime and gangs from a young age and was quite a troubled child. Partly due to the ethics of police at the time and partly due to the colour of his skin which meant he had to be going somewhere in order to be out, but without having the money to go anywhere it made this difficult, so he resulted in stealing. This was the beginning of a downward spiral for Benjamin at the start of his teenage years. “My gang was more about crime. So I had a gang who, in those days tools for cars were quite expensive and rare, so we used to open the back of cars and take tools out and then the guys would give them to me and I would then go and sell them to mechanics. That was just our little illegal business. But then when one gang went onto our territory, we used to have marked out territories, and my gang went on to their territory and one of my guys got shot and they said they were going to come and kill me. I just thought this is going to end badly and I just wanted out. So I just left. I woke up one day and just thought I'm not doing this anymore and I had all these people trying to stop me from doing it and going. I was the one with all the contacts, so if they stole tools from a car they haven't got the contacts and also in some areas I could sell tools where people couldn't. There were bent coppers in those days and you give a copper some of the money and they will turn a blind eye. They didn't have those connections, I did. So when I was leaving a lot of people wanted me to stop and I would go no, listen just forget it because if you don't forget it people are going to die, people had already died.”
In the midst of his Birmingham gang life Benjamin decided from the young age of just 11 to become vegetarian and two years later made the decision to be vegan. When asked what his reasoning was for the lifestyle change he simply said he didn't want to be a part of it and that it was mainly for feminist reasons. “I'm 62 now, I went vegan when I was 13 so that means I've been vegan for 50 years and I was vegetarian at 11. I didn't even know what the words were. I just decided I didn't want anything to do with animals and actually, it was because I loved animals and all that stuff so I just didn't think they were there to be eaten and I realised we could live without eating animals.”
Despite having a troubled youth and going through the experiences he did, Benjamin still managed to change his life to become a vegan at the young age of 13, after being vegetarian for 2 years prior. “I went vegan for what I call feminist reasons and that being that females of any animal only create milk for a short time and they create milk for their children, they don't create milk for other animals' children. Human beings are the only animals that drink the milk of another animal, we're the only animal that drinks milk after we grow up. Normally a female of any species will make milk for her baby but as soon as the baby starts growing up the milk stops and that's what milk is for. As soon as I realised we had to keep a cow pregnant, to keep her pregnant all the time, so she'd get pregnant breasts would be ready for milk, take the baby away, take the milk, make her pregnant again. So I just didn’t want anything to do with it, I didn't even think about it too much. I just went, I don't want anything to do with this and that was it.”
Benjamin also shared his thoughts on the herding of animals and the current issue of Covid-19, explaining how our relationship with animals affects the human race more and more as time goes on. “But you know one of the real reasons is so apparent now with Covid-19 I think that's the reason why. You know I look at the world now and I just think it's all because of our relationship with animals. You can’t blame the Chinese, sars came out of hong kong, Murs came out of Saudi Arabia, swine flu came out of Mexico, mad cow disease came out of Britain, aids came out of Africa. They're all viruses that come from animals to us. If you look at the evolution of people, I mean I'm completely vegan and I wouldn't even hunt animals but when people were hunter gatherers, I mean 99% of the time was gathering and just 1% was hunting. We weren't top of the food chain, there were animals that could eat us so we spent a lot of time running from other animals. But the viruses did not pass then because we got the animal we killed and we ate it. As soon as we started herding animals together and farming them and their saliva, their urine and all their mess started getting on us, viruses started to pass from them to us. And as soon as we started putting animals next to them viruses started to go from that animal to this animal and then to us and that's when it gets more complex.”
Due to being involved in Birmingham gang life, Benjamin made the conscious decision to get out and do things for himself pursuing his passion for poetry. He moved to London to create a bigger audience for dub poetry and make it more widely known across the country. “I can remember saying to my mum and a couple of my friends the next time you see me I'll be on television and it was true. They laughed at me and someone said yeah yeah you’ll be on crime watch. And the next time they saw me, I was on television.”
His main reason for moving to London was a misunderstanding with the police. They thought he had committed a murder but in fact, they were chasing the wrong guy. Aside from that he had the ambition of a larger audience for dub poetry and wanted far more people to know about it. “Well I wanted a bigger audience, I was on the run from the police and I wanted to get away from the gangs I was in. Those were the three main reasons. I was actually on the run from a murder that I didn't commit. I mean the police found out later on that I didn't commit it but I was on the run for murder. I was stealing from a car and in the car was a dead body and at first, I thought it was a manikin, so I grabbed its foot and started pulling and realised it was a body and put it in and just went. I started to visit people, this is a long time before mobile phones, and I'd visit people and go somewhere and then these friends would call me or id get a message saying after you left the house the police raided us and id have all these girlfriends and they’d say the police keep stopping me and asking me where you are and stuff like this. I said to one why they after me? And they said you killed somebody. And I was like I ain’t killed anybody and then I realised what it was. I was on the run for a while, it was really bizarre because I was doing television in London and was wanted for murder in Birmingham and I realised I can't do this I'm going to get caught. I went back to Birmingham and just gave myself up and they said oh no we know it wasn't you, we were looking for you for a time and then they got the person that actually did it. They realised it wasn’t me. They realised I was just knicking from the car. So I spent a year or two thinking the police want me for murder and they didn't, they only wanted me for murder for a couple weeks.
Benjamin Zephaniah has a fascinating story about his life. His achievements are far greater than he or his family seem to believe he would ever gain. He had doubters around him but still managed to keep his ambition alive and push himself to be who he wanted to be, making his vision for dub poetry come to light. After becoming a successful poet he broadened his skill set to teaching, creating music and even going into acting. Benjamin Zephaniah has 18 honorary doctorates from various universities, his band is Benjamin Zephaniah and the Revolutionary Minds and stars in the hit show Peaky Blinders as Jeremiah.
Throughout his life, Benjamin has achieved several incredible things that people can only dream of, such as: playing with The Wailers after Bob Marley sadly passed, they played a tribute to Nelson Mandela, who heard the tribute while in prison and requested Benjamin's presence after getting released. He then continued to be a close personal friend of Mandela and was privileged enough to call him Mandi. As well as that, he managed to play on every continent in 22 days without realising it - it’s no wonder he remains such a huge influence around the world.
This is Benjamin Zephaniah - The actor, The influencer and The Dub Poet. Find out more at https://benjaminzephaniah.com/