Benjamin Zephaniah: ‘Coppers were standing on my back and I thought, I’m going to die here’
For the poet and novelist, George Floyd’s death rekindled memories of his cousin’s killing
Benjamin Zephaniah, British writer and dub poet, United Kingdom, 2017. (Photo by Richard Ecclestone/Redferns)
It is 42 years since Benjamin Zephaniah wrote the poem Dis Policeman Keeps on Kicking Me to Death, and it has never felt more resonant. Although, to be fair, there has never been a time when it hasn’t felt resonant.
It resonated when the teenage Zephaniah was battered by the police, it resonated when Rodney King was beaten to within an inch of his life by the LAPD in 1992, it resonated when Zephaniah’s cousin Mikey Powell was killed by the police in Birmingham in 2003, and of course it resonated when the police officer Derek Chauvin asphyxiated George Floyd this May in Minneapolis.
Zephaniah is knackered. The poet/musician/novelist/actor/professor/martial arts teacher thought lockdown meant life would take a turn for the quiet; that he would be able to peacefully tend his allotment at home in rural Spalding, Lincolnshire.
In fact, it couldn’t have been more turbulent. He lost two relatives to Covid-19, and his sister and brother-in-law were almost killed by the virus. Then he found himself at the heart of Black Lives Matter after Floyd was killed.
He asks if I’ve seen the whole film of Floyd being suffocated. He can’t get it out of his head – Floyd’s helplessness, the way he calls for his mother. After Floyd’s death, he knew he couldn’t take a back seat. This was personal. This was family.
Powell’s death politicised the more conservative elements of his family
“Mikey died in almost exactly the same way as George Floyd died – the only difference was that it was inside the vehicle rather than outside. Mikey was crying for his mum, Mikey was saying he couldn’t breathe. After George Floyd died a lot of people were saying, ‘That’s just America.’ No. No no no no.” So he went on TV to tell them so.
Powell, known as Mikey Dread because of his dreadlocks, was 38, had three children, and worked as a team leader in a metal factory. He was loved in the Lozells area of Birmingham, where he lived. Powell suffered from psychosis, and on the night in question he had a severe episode. It was 11.30pm, he was raging outside his mother’s house and he broke a window. His mother called the police, as she had done a few weeks before.
On that occasion, a woman police officer talked to him calmly and everything was resolved amicably. “Mikey was up on a roof and this policewoman came and talked Mikey down.” Zephaniah smiles. “She told him he looked good and said they could hang out. And he came down and they just had a cup of tea.”
This time the officers screamed at him to get on the floor, and he took off his belt and hit the car with it. The police drove straight at him and ran him over, fired CS gas at him, hit him with a baton and restrained him on the ground until a police van arrived to take him to the station. The inquest heard that Powell was put on the floor of the van, face down, “like a dog”. The van parked in the station yard and Powell was kept in it for three minutes before he was carried, still face down, into the “drunk cell”. It was only then that officers realised he was not breathing.
As a black woman in England, you never call the police on your own
It was later reported that the police had acted in self-defence because Powell had been carrying a gun. He hadn’t – it was his belt. Powell did not have a criminal record. Six years after his death, the inquest jury ruled that the police restraint had killed him and Powell had died of positional asphyxia. Ten officers were subsequently charged with criminal offences, but all were cleared. West Midlands police paid compensation to Powell’s family.
Zephaniah says Powell’s death politicised the more conservative elements of his family. His mother and Aunt Claris, Mikey’s mother, had always believed in the decency of the police. But not any more. “Members of the family were always like: ‘You were out late; you must have done something,’ and suddenly it was: ‘Yep, the police are capable of murder!’ One aunt said: ‘We come to dis country, and we tink de police are nice and now we understand!’” He loves impersonating his elders.
Aunt Claris has never forgiven herself for calling the police, he says. She assumed they would deal with Mikey the same way they had previously. “There are people who say she should never have done it – as a black woman in England, you never call the police on your own. But she didn’t see it as grassing – she was just a mother desperate for help, and she thought the same policewoman would come and say: ‘Hey, Mikey, remember me?’”
If Zephaniah is haunted by the deaths of Floyd and Powell it is not surprising. He tells me of the time he was convinced the same fate awaited him. “When I thought I was going to die I just thought about my mum,” he says quietly. “I was in a police station in Birmingham, being beaten in the 70s, and I was on the floor and coppers were standing on my back and I remember thinking: ‘OK, I’m going to die here.’ It wasn’t like: ‘I think I might die here’, it was: ‘Right, I’m going to die.’ I very calmly thought: ‘How is my mother going to know? Will they bury me?’ I was only 17 at the time, and I just thought I was going to die.”
Zephaniah’s life has been defined by race and racism. Nearly every story he tells (and there are many of them) has a racial aspect – from his aborted athletics career to his attempts to adopt right through to his experience of the pandemic.
Benjamin Obadiah Iqbal Zephaniah was born to a Jamaican mother who worked as a nurse and a Barbadian father who worked for the post office. He grew up in Handsworth, a district of Birmingham that he calls the Jamaican capital of Europe. Zephaniah is one of eight siblings, including twin sister, Velda. He was nine or 10 when he witnessed his abusive father giving his mother yet another beating. Benjamin tried to intervene, kicking his father’s ankles. His mother fled, taking only Benjamin with her – she was in such fear that she didn’t have time to pick up the other children.
They went on the run, were turned away from women’s refuges because they were black, and ended up homeless for a while. His mother sought solace in church, and it was there that young Benjamin gave his first semi-public performance. The parishioners called him a prophet, and one of the pastors gave him the name Zephaniah (meaning “treasured by God” or “the Lord has protected”).
The young Zephaniah was a tearaway. He had dyslexia, was expelled at 13 and ended up at approved school. He may not have been able to spell, but he was a keen wordsmith. By the age of 15, he was already becoming known locally for his dub poetry.
In his late teens he was imprisoned for a variety of offences, including affray and burglary. At the age of 22, he made a new start, headed for London, and had his first poetry book published by a worker’s co-op. He believed poetry should be accessible and that readings should be as lively as gigs, so he started performing with a reggae band.
Alongside the likes of John Cooper Clarke, Atilla the Stockbroker and Linton Kwesi Johnson, he made performance poetry fashionable. He wrote about his experience as a young black man, his parents’ experience as migrants, police beatings, Christopher Columbus living off slavery, Palestine, Rastafarianism – the things we are talking about today. Zephaniah was sharp-eyed, streetwise, political, sexy, surprising and funny.
Zephaniah appealed to everybody – young kids, teenagers, grandmothers, gangsters, students. Everybody wanted a bit of him. The first recording the Wailers made after Bob Marley’s death was with Zephaniah (the single Free South Africa, 1986). When a concert was held in honour of Nelson Mandela at the Royal Albert Hall in 1996, Mandela requested that Zephaniah host it.
At 62, he is still playing 11-a-side football – with a team of under-30s, naturally
The wonderful thing is that Zephaniah never seemed to be making an effort to be liked. He just did his thing, and continued to evolve – becoming a bestselling novelist in his 40s and starring in the TV drama series Peaky Blinders in his 50s and 60s.
He is still energetic, impassioned, surprising. When we Zoom, he is sitting in his immaculate office at home in Spalding. Shelves are filled with colour-coded folders – royalties, contracts, tax, you name it. When he’s not here he spends his time in China in a small village called Chen Jia Gou, where he hangs out with the elders practising tai chi.
At 62, he is still playing 11-a-side football – with a team of under-30s, naturally. “They cannot believe how fast I can run,” he says with boyish delight. “I’m still a good sprinter and a reasonably good dribbler.” Could he have been a professional? “I’m not so sure about professional football, but I could have been a proper sprinter.”
He became the 100-metre Amateur Athletic Association regional champion at 12. “I broke the record and it stood for ages.” He loved running, captained the under-13 team at county level, and then one day realised his teammates regarded him as alien. “We went to a race against southern European countries and on the way there they were telling me: ‘You’ll never be English.’ I was captain of the team and we won, and they gave me the flag to drape myself in and I couldn’t do it.” He never raced again.
“I said: ‘I’m not interested in this sport any more.’ Not only did it turn me away from athletics; I started smoking weed more or less immediately.”
Family has always been so important to him
He has been drug-free, teetotal and vegan since he was 30. “It was just a habit and I learned how to get high on not being high. How to get high on breathing. And I learned a lot about the evils of tobacco companies and decided they’re not having my money.”
What makes Zephaniah so special is his scrupulous honesty – even in his dishonesty. When I mention the time he was jailed for burglary after being set up by the police, he corrects me. “Well, there were some things I did and some things I didn’t do.” He still prides himself on his old pickpocketing skills. He didn’t simply remove wallets from jackets; he carefully replaced them in the owners’ pocket once he had removed the cash.
In his wonderful memoir, The Life and Rhymes of Benjamin Zephaniah, he admits to knocking out a disabled boy at approved school (he later apologised to him). He has also confessed to hitting a girlfriend when he was a young man (he went on to became an ambassador for two domestic abuse charities).
When he discovered he was infertile, again he told us about it. He and his former wife were desperate to adopt, but his past intervened. “My social worker said: ‘We’ve got to check your police record,’ and I said: ‘There’s a lot of stuff on there – I’ve been done for affray, for fighting police officers, for this …’ He said: ‘That’s so long ago it won’t matter.’ He said: ‘Have you got any sexual offences or offences against children?’ and I said no.”
Coming on marches is one thing, but you’ve got to go back to your racist community and tell them they’ve got to change
But Zephaniah was refused permission to adopt. As a teenager he had been convicted of robbing a girl – and this time he had been framed by the police. Social services could find no age or address for her, but the record stood. Zephaniah was told they had to assume she was a minor and was not allowed to adopt.
He was heartbroken, as was his social worker. “My social worker left the job after that. He said it was outrageous and that I was one of the best candidates to be a father he had met.” Zephaniah smiles. “I later discovered that the two cops who arrested me had been imprisoned for importing marijuana.”
Family has always been so important to him. He talks about how his sister Joyce and her husband caught Covid-19. “Joyce has bad asthma, so she was very close to death. She came out of hospital on the Sunday and on the Saturday afternoon her husband, Frank, went in – a 7ft Nigerian guy, a really hard guy, a bouncer, and he’s crying like a baby. He was on an open ward, and he saw people dying in front of him. Frank saw people panting for air, it’s as if they’re on fire.
“My sister didn’t see it because she was in a private room. She’s OK now, but Frank is messed up mentally. There’s going to be a lot of counselling needed for the mental side of it when we get through it.”
The two relatives who died were older. “My uncle, we call him Cowboy, was in his 80s and a cousin was in his early 70s. They were both in Birmingham.” Did it scare him? “It did. What scared me a lot was this rush back to work and this rush back to normal because we haven’t got on top of it. I’ve had people say: ‘Come and do a gig,’ and people are thinking September/October, and I’m thinking I don’t want to die because of a gig.
“When I was young, I had TB. It was a long time ago and I’ve been told it’s gone, but you just never know. This virus is acting in such strange ways. There might be a bit of a weakness in my body, and bang!”
Zephaniah says he was angered by the Thursday night clapping. “I saw people doing that who six months ago were talking about getting rid of black people and making the National Health Service a ‘British health service’. I wanted to make a badge that had the NHS symbol merged in with Black Lives Matter because they are connected.”
Does he think BLM is different from previous movements? “Probably. The most brilliant thing is the white kids saying: ‘Not in my name.’ I saw one girl holding up a placard saying: ‘Black lives matter, and that’s the truth. Can’t you see it, Dad?’ Some of these kids have got racist parents. Malcolm X was asked by a white person: ‘What do I do to help you?’ – I’m paraphrasing now – and he said: ‘Well, coming on marches is one thing, but you’ve got to go back to your racist community and tell them they’ve got to change,’ and I think that’s the difference now.”
You seem hopeful, I say. “Well, I can’t prove it, but I just believe in the triumph of good over evil. You’ve got to be hopeful. One of the things our oppressors hate is when they try to hold us down and – it’s Maya Angelou – still I rise. You try to hold me down, but I’ll keep coming back.”
Zephaniah says in all his years he has never had writer’s block. And now he’s writing furiously – a play for school, a novel about Windrush and another about mixed-race adoption. Any poetry? “I’ve not written much poetry, actually. But I do feel a poetry time coming. I feel pregnant with some poetry.” He says it with such joy. And so he should. I can’t wait until he gives birth. – Guardian