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Benjamin Zephaniah Q&A: “My first racist attack was a brick in the back of the head”

The poet talks Noam Chomsky, growing his own veg, and travelling into the future.

Benjamin Zephaniah, 59, was born in Birmingham and has written plays, children’s books and novels as well as poetry. He is an honorary patron of the Vegan Society, has topped the Yugoslavian charts as a musician and has appeared as an actor in “Peaky Blinders”.

What’s your earliest memory?

We had just moved home, out of a very multiracial area – Indians, Jamaicans and Irish – into a purely white area. My dad sent me to buy some light bulbs. I didn’t understand that when you went to the shop, you just had to come back. I met some kids and played a bit of football. I got back about five hours later with the light bulb, but my parents were really angry.

Who are your heroes?

When I was a child, Illya Kuryakin from The Man from UNCLE. I thought he was so cool. Now, Noam Chomsky. I can’t understand how he keeps so much in his head.

What was the last book that changed your thinking?

Wayne Gerard Trotman’s The Kairi Chronicles. I would never have thought you could set science fiction in the Caribbean.

What political figure, past or present, do you look up to?

Angela Davis. I was young and I’d had my first racist attack: someone slapping me with a brick in the back of my head. My mum was always telling me to be quiet, that I was a guest in this country. And then there was this woman with this afro, speaking about black people. The police were after her… This was a real-life superhero.

What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

I’ve done Mastermind – a celebrity special for charity. They said you can’t do Bob Marley because someone else is doing it – and they changed my subject to the history of reggae music. I failed miserably.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

I’d like to go 100 years in the future. For left-wing reasons, I think we should leave the EU but the way that we’re leaving is completely wrong. I’d like to see what comes out of this mess.

What TV show could you not live without?

Can I do a radio show? Gardeners’ Question Time. I grow my own organic vegetables.

Who would paint your portrait?

Anybody, as long as I am not there. You spend so much time sitting there and then they sell it – you don’t get nothing.

What’s your theme tune?

“We and Dem” by Bob Marley. I do really believe that there’s a class of people who don’t care about us.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

Never eat anything with a face on it and don’t eat anything you’re not willing to kill. And I’ve followed it since I was 11.

What’s currently bugging you?

My back. In a minute I’m going to sit in my sauna and see if I can stretch it out a bit.

When were you happiest?

It was in 1986. I went back to Jamaica and did absolutely nothing but hang out with my grandparents.

If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?

I would teach kung fu and t’ai chi. It lowers your heart rate. You find such inner peace.

Are we all doomed?

Of course we’re all doomed. But we get over it.

Benjamin Zephaniah’s “Refugee Boy” and “Gangsta Rap” have been republished  by Bloomsbury Children’s. His new album is “Revolutionary Minds” (Banquet Records)

This article first appeared in the 30 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The most powerful man in the world

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SRSLY #132: Lady Bird / Collateral / The Young Offenders

On the pop culture podcast: Greta Gerwig's film Lady Bird, the BBC police drama Collateral, and the Irish comedy Young Offenders.

This is SRSLY, the pop culture podcast from the New Statesman. Here, you can find links to all the things we talk about in the show as well as a bit more detail about who we are and where else you can find us online.

Listen using the player below. . .

. . .or subscribe in iTunes. We’re also on StitcherRSS and SoundCloud – but if you use a podcast app that we’re not appearing in, let us know.

SRSLY is hosted by Caroline Crampton and Anna Leszkiewicz, the NS’s head of podcasts and pop culture writer. We’re on Twitter as @c_crampton and @annaleszkie, where between us we post a heady mixture of Serious Journalism, excellent gifs and regularly ask questions J K Rowling needs to answer.

The Links

Lady Bird

The trailer.

The NS review.


The show on BBC iPlayer.

Young Offenders

Watch it now.

An interview with the cast.

Book club

For our 27 February book club episode, we are reading The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton. Order it in print here or as an audiobook on Audible here.

Tweet us on #srslybookclub to tell us your thoughts as you read, and send us a voice memo with your review of the book at srslypod@gmail.com.

You can find us on Twitter @srslypod, or send us your thoughts on tumblr here. If you like the podcast, we’d love you to leave a review on iTunes - this helps other people come across it.

Get in touch

We love reading out your emails. If you have thoughts you want to share on anything we’ve discussed, or questions you want to ask us, please email us on srslypod[at]gmail.com, or @ us on Twitter @srslypod, or get in touch via tumblr here. We also have Facebook now.

Our theme music is “Guatemala - Panama March” (by Heftone Banjo Orchestra), licensed under Creative Commons. 

See you next week!