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A Magazine for Sheffield

Benjamin Zephaniah "People are trying to separate us by nationality"

Ahead of his appearance with The Revolutionary Minds at the Leadmill this month, we chat to the dub poet about live performance, protest and "true anarchy".

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Benjamin Zephaniah is one of Britain's best loved writers, broadcasters and musicians. Born in Birmingham, his career took off in the 1980s after moving to London in his early twenties and performing dub poetry across the capital.

Since then, Zephaniah has published books, poetry and prose for children and adults, and worked with some of the biggest names in music, including The Wailers, Sinéad O'Connor and Sheffield's own Toddla T. We caught up with him ahead of his live show at The Leadmill on 21 June for Migration Matters Festival.

What can people expect from your live show at The Leadmill?

It's modern reggae, very danceable and heavy on the bass. You can't have reggae without bass. It's a Benjamin Zephaniah gig, so there's lots of social commentary, poetry set to music. It's modern dub poetry in the true sense.

Your performance is part of the Migration Matters Festival in Sheffield, which celebrates the contribution of migrants to British society. What do you think the atmosphere is like for people who have a history of migration in the UK?

It can be pretty negative at times. I remember being in Sheffield many years ago, when the city announced itself as one of the first Cities of Sanctuary for refugees, which I thought was absolutely great. It says, 'Look, I know things are tough for us, but things are worse for you, so we welcome you into our family.'

I remember going back to Birmingham and wanting them to do the same. The strange thing is, if you look at Britain, almost everyone here came from somewhere else. We should be proud that we take people from all over the world and we help them feel British.

You've been involved in poetry, music and activism for decades. What are the lessons younger activists can learn from your experience of being involved in campaigns in the 1980s?

A lesson the younger generation could learn from is that taking to the streets is still important. People are trying to separate us by nationality. There's a lot more flag waving now than there was when I was young. I think a lot of young people are starting to understand that actually borders are fake, nationality is fake. We are humans. If we were attacked by aliens from outer space, we wouldn't want to protect our patch of Sheffield or Birmingham, we'd want to protect the planet. We are all one.

What do you think are the stories we need to be telling ourselves and other people to help revolutionise Britain?

Getting in touch with ourselves is one of the most important things we can do. I really believe that we've lost confidence in what we can do. Humankind has been here for thousands of years. For most of those years we have been without government. But you tell people about anarchism now and they always say, 'What would we do without a government?' It's a lack of confidence.

Some people hear the word 'anarchy' and imagine what the media calls anarchy, which is people going crazy in the streets. True anarchy is just people taking control of their lives at a grassroots level, and not leaving it in the control of people who live a hundred miles away in London. What I propose is going back to the principle that we can sort things out ourselves. We don't need experts on 'us'. We need to have confidence in our spirituality.

Learn more

Benjamin Zephaniah & The Revolutionary Minds come to The Leadmill on 21 June 2019.

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