For Benjamin Zephaniah (1958-2023)

“Certainly, a lot of people in Britain, when you say ‘anarchists,’ they just think of riots. And the news will say, ‘Today, twenty anarchists went on a rampage.’ They don’t understand anarchism,” he said. “Politically, I’m a revolutionary. I believe in breaking the whole system down and f*cking starting again. And I can see that that’s not going to happen for a while. And when I say I’m a revolutionary, I’m an anarchist. I think that the political system we have right now lead to corruption at all kinds of levels,” he said.

Benjamin Zephaniah, interview from Psychology Today, 24 July 2018

People can write about anarchist theories as much they like but there are places that live without government and live peacefully and happily. A lack of power means people of course aren’t fighting over it and the main objective of society is to look after each other.

Benjamin Zephaniah, Palatinate, 27 October 2022

In a 2019 post, we shared Benjamin Zephaniah’s testimonial text, Why I am an anarchist. Today we mark his passing, celebrating the poetry and that artistry that he created, lived and shared with so many.

Dis Poetry

Dis poetry is like a riddim dat drops
De tongue fires a riddim dat shoots like shots
Dis poetry is designed fe rantin
Dance hall style, big mouth chanting,
Dis poetry nar put yu to sleep
Preaching follow me
Like yu is blind sheep,
Dis poetry is not Party Political
Not designed fe dose who are critical.
Dis poetry is wid me when I gu to me bed
It gets into me dreadlocks
It lingers around me head
Dis poetry goes wid me as I pedal me bike
IÕve tried Shakespeare, respect due dere
But did is de stuff I like.

Dis poetry is not afraid of going ina book
Still dis poetry need ears fe hear an eyes fe hav a look
Dis poetry is Verbal Riddim, no big words involved
An if I hav a problem de riddim gets it solved,
IÕve tried to be more romantic, it does nu good for me
So I tek a Reggae Riddim an build me poetry,
I could try be more personal
But youÕve heard it all before,
Pages of written words not needed
Brain has many words in store,
Yu could call dis poetry Dub Ranting
De tongue plays a beat
De body starts skanking,
Dis poetry is quick an childish
Dis poetry is fe de wise an foolish,
Anybody can do it fe free,
Dis poetry is fe yu an me,
DonÕt stretch yu imagination
Dis poetry is fe de good of de Nation,
In de morning
I chant
In de night
I chant
In de darkness
An under de spotlight,
I pass thru University
I pass thru Sociology
An den I got a dread degree
In Dreadfull Ghettology.

Dis poetry stays wid me when I run or walk
An when I am talking to meself in poetry I talk,
Dis poetry is wid me,
Below me an above,
Dis poetry’s from inside me
It goes to yu

The Race Industry

The coconuts have got the jobs.
The race industry is a growth industry.
We despairing, they careering.
We want more peace they want more police.
The Uncle Toms are getting paid.
The race industry is a growth industry.
We say sisters and brothers don’t fear.
They will do anything for the Mayor.
The coconuts have got the jobs.
The race industry is a growth industry.
They’re looking for victims and poets to rent.
They represent me without my consent.
The Uncle Toms are getting paid.
The race industry is a growth industry.
In suits they dither in fear of anarchy.
They take our sufferings and earn a salary.
Steal our souls and make their documentaries.
Inform daily on our community.
Without Black suffering they’d have no jobs.
Without our dead they’d have no office.
Without our tears they’d have no drink.
If they stopped sucking we could get justice.
The coconuts are getting paid.
Men, women and Brixton are being betrayed.

Talking Turkeys

Be nice to yu turkeys dis christmas
Cos’ turkeys just wanna hav fun
Turkeys are cool, turkeys are wicked
An every turkey has a Mum.
Be nice to yu turkeys dis christmas,
Don’t eat it, keep it alive,
It could be yu mate, an not on your plate
Say, Yo! Turkey I’m on your side.
I got lots of friends who are turkeys
An all of dem fear christmas time,
Dey wanna enjoy it, dey say humans destroyed it
An humans are out of dere mind,
Yeah, I got lots of friends who are turkeys
Dey all hav a right to a life,
Not to be caged up an genetically made up
By any farmer an his wife.

Turkeys just wanna play reggae
Turkeys just wanna hip-hop
Can yu imagine a nice young turkey saying,
“I cannot wait for de chop”,
Turkeys like getting presents, dey wanna watch christmas TV,
Turkeys hav brains an turkeys feel pain
In many ways like yu an me.

I once knew a turkey called … Turkey
He said “Benji explain to me please,
Who put de turkey in christmas
An what happens to christmas trees?”,
I said “I am not too sure turkey
But it’s nothing to do wid Christ Mass
Humans get greedy an waste more dan need be
An business men mek loadsa cash”.

Be nice to yu turkey dis christmas
Invite dem indoors fe sum greens
Let dem eat cake an let dem partake
In a plate of organic grown beans,
Be nice to yu turkey dis christmas
An spare dem de cut of de knife,
Join Turkeys United an dey’ll be delighted
An yu will mek new friends “FOR LIFE”.

The British

Take some Picts, Celts and Silures
And let them settle,
Then overrun them with Roman conquerors.

Remove the Romans after approximately 400 years
Add lots of Norman French to some
Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Vikings, then stir vigorously.

Mix some hot Chileans, cool Jamaicans, Dominicans,
Trinidadians and Bajans with some Ethiopians, Chinese,
Vietnamese and Sudanese.

Then take a blend of Somalians, Sri Lankans, Nigerians
And Pakistanis,
Combine with some Guyanese
And turn up the heat.

Sprinkle some fresh Indians, Malaysians, Bosnians,
Iraqis and Bangladeshis together with some
Afghans, Spanish, Turkish, Kurdish, Japanese
And Palestinians
Then add to the melting pot.

Leave the ingredients to simmer.

As they mix and blend allow their languages to flourish
Binding them together with English.

Allow time to be cool.

Add some unity, understanding, and respect for the future,
Serve with justice
And enjoy.

Note: All the ingredients are equally important. Treating one ingredient better than another will leave a bitter unpleasant taste.

Warning: An unequal spread of justice will damage the people and cause pain. Give justice and equality to all.

We Refugees

I come from a musical place
Where they shoot me for my song
And my brother has been tortured
By my brother in my land.

I come from a beautiful place
Where they hate my shade of skin
They don’t like the way I pray
And they ban free poetry.

I come from a beautiful place
Where girls cannot go to school
There you are told what to believe
And even young boys must grow beards.

I come from a great old forest
I think it is now a field
And the people I once knew
Are not there now.

We can all be refugees
Nobody is safe,
All it takes is a mad leader
Or no rain to bring forth food,
We can all be refugees
We can all be told to go,
We can be hated by someone
For being someone.

I come from a beautiful place
Where the valley floods each year
And each year the hurricane tells us
That we must keep moving on.
I come from an ancient place
All my family were born there
And I would like to go there
But I really want to live.

I come from a sunny, sandy place
Where tourists go to darken skin
And dealers like to sell guns there
I just can’t tell you what’s the price.

I am told I have no country now
I am told I am a lie
I am told that modern history books
May forget my name.

We can all be refugees
Sometimes it only takes a day,
Sometimes it only takes a handshake
Or a paper that is signed.
We all came from refugees
Nobody simply just appeared,
Nobody’s here without a struggle,
And why should we live in fear
Of the weather or the troubles?
We all came here from somewhere.

People will always need people

People need people,
To walk to
To talk to
To cry and rely on,
People will always need people.
To love and to miss
To hug and to kiss,
It’s useful to have other people.
To whom to moan
If you’re all alone,
It’s so hard to share
When no one is there.
There’s not much to do
When there’s no one but you.
People will always need people.

To please
To tease
To put you at ease,
People will always need people.
To make life appealing
And give life some meaning,
It’s useful to have other people.
It you need a change
To whom will you turn.
If you need a lesson
From whom will you learn.
If you need to play
You’ll know why I say
People will always need people.

As girlfriends
As boyfriends
From Bombay
To Ostend,
People will always need people-
To have friendly fights with
And share tasty bites with,
It’s useful to have other people.
People live in families
Gangs, posses and packs,
Its seems we need company
Before we relax,
So stop making enemies
And let’s face the facts,
People will always need people,
People will always need people.

An interview with Anu Shukla, for Red Pepper Magazine (10/04/2018)

‘Reforming has done nothing. That’s why I’m an anarchist.’ An interview with Benjamin Zephaniah

enjamin Zephaniah is still angry. The legendary novelist, actor, playwright, poet and musician has spent a career raging against the racist machine – and he’s not about to stop any time soon. As a young black man growing up in the 70s and 80s, he saw more than his share of police violence and spent a stint in prison himself. Those experiences informed a body of work which pulls no punches in its critique of institutional racism.

For Benjamin, success didn’t come easy. He left school at thirteen, gaining a reputation as a wordsmith on the dub poetry scene before publishing his first book of poetry by the age of just 22. The following year, police stop and search brutality gave rise to the Brixton Riots of 1981. Benjamin was in the thick of it, and chronicled those experiences in the 1983 album, Rasta.

‘When I was picked up by white police officers I told them they were being racist, so they sent in a black officer to beat me instead. Could I tell a black copper he was being racist? He was with the institution. It happened a lot back then. They’d just jump out the car and beat me up and drive off. That’s why we had a lot of riots.’ The Scarman Report of the time concluded the police were not racist – rather, the black community harboured the dangerous misbelief that they were being treated unfairly by the institution.

Benjamin speaks about this incident on the album track, Dis Policeman Keeps Kicking me to Death (Lord Scarman Dub) with the lyrics:

I am living in de ghetto
trying to do my best
when dis policeman tells me
I’m under damn arrest
Him beat me so badly
I was on the floor
him said if I don’t plead guilty
him gwan kick me more
I was feeling sick, I pleaded RACIST ATTACK
another policeman come to finish me off
dis one was black
In dis war we have traitors
who don’t think to sell you out
In dis war der are people
who refuse to hear de shout
for human rights to be regarded
as a basic right
Still dis policeman kicks me
every day and every night

He notes that the recent influx of deportation stories circulated by UK news media show how little has changed since those times. From the relatives of migrant victims of Grenfell Tower fighting to extend visas so they can see through the public inquiry – to former members of Commonwealth nations living under the radar from fear of deportation: institutional racism, he said, is still here.

Benjamin himself is a patron of the UK Chagos Support Association, which was launched in aid of ‘illegal’ islanders who have lived most their lives in the UK. He said the UK’s treatment of them is ‘shameful’ and proves the system was built to start as it meant to go on. Another reason, he said, for it to be dismantled and rebuilt.

‘I find it really astonishing and depressing that racism is still here. We had movements around Thatcher and racism and sexism in the eighties. By the 90s, I thought “it’s calmed down a bit”. But suddenly, it’s just got worse. We’ve gone back. It’s unbelievable.  

‘So it’s crazy when people say the system isn’t racist, because it’s built on racism, it’s built on empire and its wealth has been gained from racism. And when you get people who are defensive and say it doesn’t exist, maybe it’s because sometimes, they’re guilty of it themselves?’

When riots erupted across the UK in 2011, many drew parallels to the 80s era experienced by a young Zephaniah: a time when rioters cited police violence and discrimination as key reasons for their participation. But when Channel 4 asked him to write a poem about why people riot, he decided to do the opposite: ‘I decided to write about why they don’t riot instead, so I told them:

You don’t riot if you have a nice job
and a home to come to at night
You don’t riot if you’re well fed
and unemployment doesn’t pressure your head.
You don’t riot if you live in the city
but have a country cottage with a view so pretty.
You don’t riot.
Riot happen too late.
And that’s South Africa,
Britain is great.

He notes that anti-immigrant propaganda spun by the mainstream media pits poverty-stricken white working class people against BAME communities. This is why, he said, unity has the power to defy such divisions and prevent the empowerment of institutionally racist structures.

‘White marginalised communities are the ones we should be uniting with. Making us hate each other is a conscious method of divide and rule. It means those in power won’t have to set up black and white armies because we would already have divided ourselves. So the last thing they want is for poor people from black and white communities to unite and say, “shit, we’ve got the same oppressor”.’

‘But when you speak to people in the BNP and the National Front, you realise they’re just poor little white kids. And when you ask them “what is it you want?” They’ll reply, “we just want somewhere to hang out and play, like in a community centre – and those guys over there said if we follow them, we can.” This is exactly what Hitler did. He’d say: “look at how downtrodden Germany is; follow me and I’ll make you great again”.’

In fact, he said, a former neo-Nazi who fought him on the streets of east London got in touch once to say he’d become a Buddhist monk – a spirituality with echoes of Benjamin’s own Rastafarianism. But when it comes to uniting against a common enemy, he said racists can also be reformed in other constructive ways.

‘When I meditate, I feel connected with the trees, the animals and everything around us. I feel like I’m part of them, that we’re all one. But when you’re arguing politically, you can’t exactly tell someone, “you need to go meditate because you’re a fucking racist”. Reforming racists is more effective when it’s coming from someone who used to be one. It’s a bit like when I go into prisons. I don’t lecture prisoners. I tell them I was a prisoner too. It’s how I use my energy to fight the system.

‘Seriously though, the solution to getting rid of systematic racism is to tear it down. I’m a revolutionary and these institutions, including the police, need to be fucking disbanded, torn down, and we need to start again.  

‘Not many people talk about revolution like me though because most are reformists. But there’s lots of different ways of having a revolution, though no one can really imagine what it looks like until it happens. Look at the Arab spring: some of it was successful, some of it less, and it began in Tunisia of all places.

‘Revolutions have started because of poets or because somebody spoke up at just the right time when everybody else had just had enough. What we need is a grand swell of people saying, okay, we recognise all the other stuff we’re trying is not working.

‘But they keep going on about reforming. Reforming does nothing. That’s why I’m an anarchist. I really sincerely believe this – but we will have a revolution in Britain one day.’

Benjamin Zephaniah’s collection of poetry, Too Black, Too Strong, is available online at the Anarchist Library.

For The Guardian obituary for Benjamin Zephaniah, click here.

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