Karin Ridgers talks to poet, musician, writer and self-confessed trouble maker Benjamin Zephaniah about his many struggles growing up and his following success…
Chatting with vegan legend Benjamin Zephaniah is like being on a roller coaster. At times I couldn’t catch my breath – I laughed, I cried and hung onto his every word not wanting the call to end. What an incredible, inspirational guy. We may see him on stage or on TV and feel he has really got everything – he is funny, clever, charming and everyone loves him. However his background is far from glamourous.
From going to prison for a year for something he didn’t do, to getting into pickpocketing and crime before he was a teenager, Benjamin Zephaniah is now one of the biggest advocates for veganism and being compassionate to others. Although the experiences are what have made Benjamin the man he is today, he says he wouldn’t wish his life on anyone else.
Turning vegan at 13 Benjamin is pretty much a lifelong vegan. He is now 58 and as a busy performer, writer and with a passion for martial arts, he just naturally shows people what it is like being vegan and doesn’t “ram veganism down peoples throats”.
“I was on a TV set recently filming Peaky Blinders and a few of the cast wanted to go vegan. They got stick from some older guys and when I was getting changed these guys asked me how I got a body like this! So I told them this is what you can get being vegan. They were impressed and instead of carrying on with the joking they too said they want to be vegan now!”
“I’m not going to rant on about being vegan. I will answer questions when people ask – and usually they come to be when they have their food related problems.”
I have known Benjamin a very long time. He kindly agreed to filming with me for VeggieVision TV. He came to some of my vegan festivals in Essex many years back and we have had some super chats over the phone. He works very hard, frequently touring and spending a lot of time in China for his martial arts.
He told me a while back about collapsing on stage. “I collapsed just after the last poem, thankfully. I couldn’t move. The doctor came to the hotel and told me that I need to take a rest. So I did a gig the next day and I collapsed again. I told him that I did have a rest – I slept that night.”
JUST SAYING NO
So what’s a typical day in the life of Benjamin?
Its starts around 6.30-7am and he pushes himself to the limits straight away after a typical breakfast of…. A banana! He focuses on strengthening exercises, press ups, martial arts and boxing, then gradually slows it sown to Tai Chi. His exercise regime takes around 1½- 2 hours, Every day.
When he tours he has to stay at a hotel with a gym too. We have a chuckle at this point as this is vital for me too. I ask him more about his martial arts, he says he is a “Jack of all trades and master of none”, however I feel that he is being modest as he has been training Kung Fu since 1973.
Benjamin’s love of martial arts started with Bruce Lee films in the 70’s, and perhaps has added to his inner strength and conviction that has stood him in good stead in the early days of his performing career – saying no to drugs.
“I was in a new world of musicians, poets, actors, TV presenters and so many of them were doing drugs. They took drugs to be hyped up for the stage and drugs to calm down, drugs to be more creative. People I didn’t expect at all too. I remember meeting someone, a really really big star and after I met him he lifted up the lid on a big silver serving tray and instead of food it was full of drugs. He was saying ‘Come on, get with it’ trying to get me to take them too. I told him I don’t do drugs. If I was weak it could have been a different story. If I feel the pressure of work I turn to yoga and martial arts. I was seeing how people were affected, in coherent and dying too. I can understand why they do it. Sometimes poorer people now have money for the first time. They are ordinary people with fans screaming for them – people want their time with 40 concerts in 40 days. It’s incredibly demanding.”
DEALING WITH PRESSURE
Benjamin has never allowed himself to be put on a pedestal, “People don’t know what you do I am not a perfect human being, there are certain things I am bad at.”
I ask Benjamin to share his defining moment of wanting to be a poet and he just always knew that he wanted to do something with words. Although he was ‘kicked out of school’ at the age of 13, this may have not been the course that his peers would have though he would take.
At 13 he was sent an approved school – schools for children who have committed offences or because they were deemed to be beyond parental control. Even in 1971 the school was divided into white children and black children and as Benjamin spoke my heart sank and my eyes filled with tears as he spoke about the children there spending their time trying not be abused.
He was told by another pupil what was going to happen during the initial test when the ‘well meaning’ teacher would see if the new pupil would be easy to target. What he was told happened to Benjamin, but he had the inner strength even at a young age to push his chair away and the teacher left him alone.
“One good thing happened at the school. I remember a teacher who also worked at Rolls Royce coming to the school. He gave me a car engine and told me to take it apart and then put it back together. I now know how car engines work – if a car has engine trouble I know what it will be.”
In his own words Benjamin was an ‘angry black guy’ at age 13. He was in a school where abuse was rife and living with fellow pupils whose parents had been killed, or some who had killed their parents.
At the same time the ‘angry black guy’ was caught up in riots and burglary. He was made to feel an outcast at school and pupils were told not to talk with him as he was black.
A few years later Benjamin started a riot after a friend was accused of a crime. The police arrived and began arresting all of the young black men at The Bull Ring in Birmingham. He was angry, couldn’t get a job, was in and out of institutions and then one day he realised and remembered ‘I am going to do something with words’, so at aged 20 he headed to London.
His big break came after chatting to a young lady in a nightclub.
“I met a girl in this club and was trying to chat her up. She asked me what I did and I said proudly ‘Oh I’m a poet’. She said that was cool and then left me. I wondered what was going on. However, then I look up on the stage and there she is and announcing from the stage ‘My friend is a poet, let’s bring him up here’ – it all started from there. There were contacts in the audience who liked what I did, which led to another gig and with more influential people in the audience.”
Benjamin then filmed one of the first documentaries for Channel 4, the brand new ‘alternative’ channel at the time. Although the film was supposed to be about an unknown poet, by the time it aired Benjamin had made a name for himself
“I was lucky to have creative types in the audience like Rik Mayall, Alexei Sayle, French and Saunders, Ben Elton, Keith Allen (Lilly Allen’s father). They were all in the scene and came and saw me.”
Although Benjamin is on TV, and I aspire to be, we both feel that TV can stop people from living their life. “I know people who don’t have a TV and they think for themselves more and are more enlightened.”
We both would like to see more veganism on TV and Benjamin has been in conversations about this with some TV channels too.
“We chatted intensively for 2 weeks, every day, and they knew I was vegan and the importance of this. Sadly it never happened. To them it’s like a fashion thing, a phase and about money. Like advertising too, we never see a glossy ad for a carrot!”
Benjamin feels we need to educate people about growing their own food, giving the ‘power back to the people’. He has been eating his own potatoes and onions for some time now and is keen to grow more veggies.
We turn to veganism again and we laugh as Benjamin tells me about being voted one of the most hunky vegan guys in the world.
He loves juicing and smoothies, his favourite including blackberries, strawberries and banana. He loves butter beans and tofu, but sometimes he just loves a big bowl of greasy fat chips. My kind of heaven too. Although, needless to say, the chips are his own homegrown organic potatoes!
ONE WORLD ONE VISION
Benjamin has inspired people worldwide to be vegan with his lifestyle and being fit.
“I say to people, you do what you do and I will do what I do and we will see who is feeling better. I will take them for a run or take them to the gym and even guys half my age I can out sport them.”
We chat about music too – his favourites including David Bowie, Prince and old-school reggae. I often wonder if musicians listen to their own music and when I ask Benjamin he says, “Yes of course I do. Other musicians may not admit to listening to their own music, however I create music that I love so I am going to listen to it too!”
After talking for about 2 hours I don’t want the call to end and feel we could chat for a lot longer, however my hairdresser’s appointment is booked and Benjamin is getting ready for boxing, then filming and then some writing, “So what haven’t I asked you that I should have Benjamin?”
I like to see what my interviewee would like to add and no surprises that Benjamin has the most brilliant reply (after some more laughter.)
“Well I’m not sure what the question would be, however the answer is to have more compassion. Have compassion for the refugees, try understanding a little about what it must be like living and fleeing a war zone. My parents came over from Jamaica, for security. Let’s all have more compassion.”
I couldn’t agree more.
Benjamin Zephaniah, a poet, TV and radio presenter, a writer, an actor and inspiration worldwide, a passionate vegan and probably the coolest guy on the planet.