People’s poet Benjamin Zephaniah can’t wait to share stories with Shrewsbury audience
People’s poet Professor Benjamin Zephaniah remembers his last visit to Shrewsbury as though it were yesterday.
He performed a spoken word set at the town’s Theatre Seven and met a writer who suggested he start writing his autobiography. It was eight years ago.
“My agent had always told me I had to write an autobiography,” he remembers. “But I was never really sure. I didn’t want to have a deadline or a deal in place. I just wanted to write without any pressure. Then at Shrewsbury, I met someone who said it was time I got started.”
So he did. And in between then and now, he became one of the few Brits to visit North Korea, he became a Professor at the University of Brunel, became one of the leading stars in the BAFTA-winning Peaky Blinders and released a new album.
He laughs. “I got busy doing other things.
“But that was always the point of doing an autobiography. I wanted to do it well, rather than do it quick.
“And I didn’t just want it to be about my story. I wanted it to be a social history, I wanted it to look back at the fight against racism, the miners’ strike and about the other things that people had to fight for.”
Zephaniah’s autobiography, The Life And Rhymes, was released in May and went straight into the UK best seller list. He’s been on the road to talk about some of the stories from his book – and the dates in Shrewsbury and Birmingham both leap out. He plays Shrewsbury’s Theatre Severn on Thursday and Birmingham Town Hall on Friday.
“It’s great to be back in Shrewsbury,” he says. “I’ve visited a few times and I’m looking forward to it. And Birmingham is always special because that was my home for so many years. They’ll both be special nights and I’m looking forward to seeing a lot of my friends and family there.”
Zephaniah now lives in Lincolnshire, in a small, quiet village, but he is a regular visitor to Birmingham. He visited the city frequently when writing his book.
“It was the strangest thing,” he says. “I had to interview my own mother because I wanted her story. She was part of the Windrush generation and I wanted to know more about her experiences. It’s a social history as well as a life story, so I came to the city to find out what really happened.”
Windrush has, of course, dominated the news in recent months and Zephaniah has been aghast that so many people who were offered British citizenship were caught up in the Home Office’s so-called Hostile Environment.
“Lives has been shattered because of it. Lives have literally been ruined. There was one man who died of a broken heart, he just gave up because he lost his job, his home and everything he’d worked so hard for. It’s been devastating. And I’ve looked at what’s been happening and thought: ‘it could have been me’.
“My parents came from the Caribbean. In my mother’s case, she saw a poster asking people from Jamaica to come over. She moved to Sheffield then settled in Birmingham where she became a nurse.”
In his book, Zephaniah chronicles the race riots of Handsworth in his autobiography as well as his time in gangs. He also reflects on the openly racist attitudes of police and the death of his cousin, Michael Powell, who died in police custody. An inquest heard Powell had been run over by police, sprayed with CS gas and beaten before being bundled into the back of a van. Officers wrongly feared he had a gun and decided not to call an ambulance – only to later realise he was dead.
Zephaniah says: “Things have changed. Things are not as bad as they were in the 1970s. I remember my first experience. I was eight and a boy cycled past me and hit me on the head with a brick. He told me: ‘Go home, you black b-‘.
“And I remember thinking that I was on my way home. When I got back, I told my mother. She explained that some people didn’t like me because of the colour of my skin.”
Zephaniah became involved in petty crime; burglary, car theft and the like. He ran a gang in Birmingham and slept with a gun under his pillow for fear that he would be attacked. He had security outside his door to protect him. Then, one day, he had enough. He’d always been a fan of poetry, after his mother made up impromptu verses at home. And he’d always harboured dreams of becoming a poet. He knew that if he stayed in Birmingham, he’d probably end up in prison or dead – so he fled to London to start afresh.
Gradually, he found himself mixing with other poets and entertainers and somehow he managed to get his life back on track. His book describes his remarkable story, in which he left the sound systems of Birmingham and made it to the world stage.
He became friends with Nelson Mandela, after the anti-apartheid icon heard a poem of his while in prison in South Africa. The two met and Zephaniah describes that as one of the most important moments of his life. He also became the first person to perform with reggae giants The Wailers, following the death of lead singer Bob Marley. More recently, he visited North Korea to find out for himself whether the totalitarian state is really as dangerous as the media portrays.
“I’ve travelled extensively,” he says. “I spend a lot of time in China. I think it’s important to travel because that broadens your horizons. You realise that things aren’t always as they seem, or as the media portrays.”
He enjoyed his role in Peaky Blinders, having been the first person to be cast for the series. His street preacher character, Jeremiah Jesus, was based on a real character called Jimmy Jesus, who served in the army before returning to Jamaica. He’s also been busy educating a new generation, having been made a Professor of Performance Poetry at Brunel and Leicester De Montfort. At Brunel, his office is next to that of the best-selling novelist, Will Self.
“It’s funny. I’m dyslexic and I left school to go to borstal. But I’ve got 16 honorary degrees and I’m a professor. It shows what you can do.”
Zephaniah famously turned down an OBE, objecting to the notion that the word ‘empire’ could be associated with him. And he also distanced himself from calls that he be made the Poet Laureate. He’d rather remain independent and tread his own path.
And he’ll reflect on the remarkable things that have happened – as well as telling some of his favourite poems – when he visits Shrewsbury and Birmingham.
“It’s great to be back,” he adds. “But in many ways, I feel as though I’ve never been away.”