Benjamin Zephaniah

Not Ben Downing Street

“Whoa! A TEN! Not just a five out of five. Not just four or five stars, but a TEN!”

Benjamin Zephaniah is presently considering the fact that his stupendously brilliant current album “Naked” has achieved the first “10” rating I’ve given an album this year. The great man – reggae artist, musician, poet and civil rights campaigner – turned down an OBE early last year on the grounds of the British Empire being something of a hark back to the dark ages of slavery. I don’t blame him.

Anyway, now I’ve got him in a good mood, let’s hear what he has to say:

AD: First of all, is there anything you’d like to get off your chest?

BZ: Yes! Prince Charles and bloody Camilla! At last, they’re getting married! Oooh I’m so excited! They’re doing it on the M6 – hooray, we can all run over them!
Seriously though, there’s been nothing else on the news since they announced it and does anybody really care? Ugh…I can just see the Roral baby now…hideous…
Also, I want to have a moan about our Foreign Affairs people – I can’t believe we’re here and just carrying on as always. Walking around Oxford Street you don’t even feel like anyone’s come back (from war). If you close your eyes you might just as well be in Burma or Kenya.

You see, I lived through the Cold War and we were forever being told “Protect and serve”, and that the Russians would eventually come over here and kill us. We were told that we were going to have more freedom, what with the Internet and mobile phones. If you just stop and think about where we are though, we are actually communicating less than we ever were, and we are more insecure now than we ever were, and THAT makes me mad. This…mass paranoia…seems to have found its way over here from America now, and it’s getting worse.

AD: A lot of that paranoia seems to have stemmed from the hysterical right wing press over the Asylum Seeker issue. Why do you think our society is so xenophobic today, and how do you think we’ll ever be able to change that?

BZ: That’s a very big question, and a very difficult one to answer. My response though would be that this country NEEDS immigrants…badly! You can tell the public that too, because it’s the only way people are going to learn to understand and overcome their prejudices.

I remember doing a TV programme – a talk show – where I was on with a member of the Department of Education, and I suggested that it would be a good idea if we made sure that every child in Britain went to another place where they had to eat differently and go to the toilet differently for a while, just so they could get another perspective of living and be aware of their own advantages from an early age; and do you know what the reply was? They said “Do you know how much that would COST?” without even considering the idea! I hate ignorance passionately.
I always like to use the Ghandi quote that Tony Benn always used to bring up: when asked what he thought of Western civilization, he said “I think it would be a good idea”.

Another answer to your question is that politics should be done by more people part time, because power does corrupt, and once it becomes a career it seems that people become less trustworthy.

AD: It makes me laugh that many of the people who COMPLAIN about Asylum Seekers were actually in favour of the war with Iraq! How do they think these problems were created in the first place?

BZ: Exactly. You’ve summed it up. I don’t think I need to add anything there…

AD: So, is there anything the government – or the monarchy – could have done to have made you consider accepting that OBE?

BZ: Yes: abolish themselves! I wrote in my last book about the honours system being corrupt. I know full well that Tony Blair wanted a picture of me, Mick Jagger and David Beckham all collecting our OBEs that day, fresh and ready for the tabloids to print the following morning. He wanted to appeal to the rock crowd, the sports fraternity and to the black community. It’s all about votes.
Now, I know there are several members of the black community that believe we ought to “big ourselves up” at every opportunity, but I won’t – at least not in that way.
I DID accept a “Black Achievement” award not so long ago though, as well as a Portsmouth Book Award after some kids voted my book, “The Refugee Boy”, as the best children’s story, so if I believe in something and think it’s worthwhile, I’m happy to accept the award.

AD: I remember a quite over hysterical headline – in the Daily Mail I think – that read “After all we’ve done for him!” after you refused it…

BZ: Yeah, I remember being really upset about that at the time. They took everything I said completely out of context. What exactly did they think they’d “done” for me? I didn’t come here as an immigrant – I was born here; I’m more British than white Australians! I’m one of the biggest ambassadors for multi-national, multi-cultural societies, so I was very hurt at first. Then Martin Bell (politician and ex-news reporter) said to me “Don’t worry about it Benjamin – the day the Daily Mail starts saying GOOD things about you, THAT’S when you’ve got to worry!”
Did you see that thing on TV about the House of Commons the other day?

AD: What was that?

BZ: Oh, I was appalled! All the workers from the House of Commons had gone on strike, and when you saw them, they were all black! I mean, I knew the BBC’s cleaners were all black, but the House of Commons? Maybe we haven’t come as far from slavery as we’d like to think!

AD: That’s a pretty shocking revelation admittedly, and even more shocking was the fatal plight of your cousin Michael, and I think everyone should be made aware of the atrocity of his situation (NB – neither we nor Benjamin can say much about this, but what it boils down to is that Michael died whilst in police custody, under highly suspicious circumstances), so I’d like to know what we, and the readers of our website can do to help.

BZ: Well, first of all you can put a link through your website to the campaign (see below). Then, every now and again we have demonstrations and marches. It’s not just for friends and family – ANYONE can come and support us, and it gets bigger and bigger every year. My advice to you and your readers is this: Don’t wait until this happens to one of your own family – act now, because it could happen to anyone.

AD: Thanks Benjamin, and good luck with everything.

So go on, act now. Benjamin should be a role model for us all, if you ask me. Here’s that link http – oh, and don’t forget, Benjamin’s superb album, “Naked” is out right now.

Interview - Tone E

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