“The west doesn’t understand the principles of Tai Chi – it’s gentle, however it is a fighting martial art too.”
Poet, writer, actor, and vegan advocate Benjamin Zephaniah is talking about martial arts, but he could be talking about himself; there is a gentle way about how he spreads his vegan message – he says he doesn’t ‘ram veganism down people’s throats’, but his journey to literary success has been a fight. Battling against all odds, he has managed to share his words and ideas with millions.
The Birmingham native didn’t enjoy typically auspicious beginnings: his formal education came to an abrupt end when he was, in his own words, he was ‘kicked out’ of school aged 13 – an unlikely start for someone who has been awarded a number of honorary doctorates. He then attended an approved school – a place for children who were considered to be trouble-makers. Some had committed criminal offences. As the only black child, Benjamin felt outcast and isolated, so he sought out the company of animals, specifically cats. His bond with animals was a rare positive influence in his early life, he has described them as his ‘only friends’ at this point.
“I was an angry black guy at 13,” he says. After spending time in a school where abuse was rife, and his many fellow pupils were violent, several years later he eventually got caught up in riots himself, starting one after a friend was accused of a criminal offence. Police arrested all the young black men.
A spell in prison followed. He has credited prison with ‘giving him time to think’, but believes the system needs reform, and should provide education. His prison experience was devoid of any education at all, of any reading – there was no library. Performing his poetry to one of the prison guards gave him hope – and pushed him towards pursuing writing as a career. It was time to make a change. He’d known he wanted to be a poet since he was a child: he made the decision when he was eight, his first performance was in a church, aged 10.
“I am going to do something with words” he told himself, so aged 22 he headed to London, when he finally started to make good on his ambition to write poetry. “I was in a club trying to chat up a girl,” he says, “and I told her I was a poet to try and impress her. She seemed to think that was cool, but then she walked off. She ended up on stage, where she invited me to perform. This led to another gig, putting me in front of influential people. I was lucky to have creative types in the audience like Rick Mayall, Alexei Sayle, French and Saunders, Ben Elton. They were all in the scene and came and see me.”
His success continued, making documentaries, writing and performing, creating music, reaching more and more people. Much of Benjamin’s success lies in his performance: he has been open about hating the ‘dead image academia and the establishment had given poetry’. His poetry comes to life on stage when he performs it. People who never picked up books could experience this work on television. Others could see him live, as he toured the entire world, visiting everywhere, especially places where the oral tradition is strong.
His work became so popular that in November 2003, he was offered a New Year’s honour -an OBE. He rejected it outright. Writing about it, he said: “Me? I thought, OBE me? Up yours, I thought. I get angry when I hear that word ‘empire’; it reminds me of slavery, it reminds of thousands of years of brutality, it reminds me of how my foremothers were raped and my forefathers brutalised… I am profoundly anti-empire.”
Despite this unorthodox move, he has been accused of ‘selling out’, saying: “Writers and artists who see themselves as working outside the establishment are constantly being accused of selling out as soon as they have any kind of success. I’ve been called a sell-out for selling too many books, for writing books for children, for performing at the Royal Albert Hall, for going on Desert Island Discs, and for appearing on the Parkinson show. But I want to reach as many people as possible without compromising the content of my work.”
In fact, he doesn’t compromise in any area of his life – he has been unwaveringly committed to veganism for decades, and is a good cook in his own right. His favourite food is Jamaican inspired, he mentions ackee and calloo as favourites, and one of his signature dishes is a pudding called cornmeal porridge. He says: “The trick is to keep stirring as you add the soya milk in, sprinkle in the cornmeal flour and add in nutmeg, cinnamon, brown sugar and vanilla extract.” On the whole, he eats a healthy diet (including a daily breakfast of banana) but occasionally makes himself a bowl of chips. Living in rural Lancashire, he has started growing his own veg, something he wants to do more. Having been asked what he eats many times, he wrote a poem, ‘vegan delight’ listing some of the meals he enjoys (Cocoa an rye toast/I tek dem on tour/Drinking cool maubi/Meks me feel sweet/What was dat question now?/What do we eat?).
He also doesn’t compromise being fit and strong: He focuses on strengthening exercises, press ups, martial arts and boxing and then gradually slows it sown to Tai Chi. His daily exercise regime takes between one and a half to two hours. Physical ability is hugely important to him, though he is philosophical about this too.
He says: “I do a form of Kung Fu called Wing Chun where you gain power and strength being relaxed. With Wing Chun you never meet force with force. In fact I feel it is a reflection of politics – ‘they have an army so we are getting a bigger army’. It isn’t the answer.”
Benjamin Zephaniah’s new music album ‘Revolutionary Minds’ will be released in the Spring, and he will be touring with his band throughout the summer.
Karin Ridgers is the director of Veggie Vision TV. Find out more veggievision.tv.