Young African Magazine
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Benjamin Zephaniah on why he hates being the centre of attention!

Benjamin Zephaniah

Benjamin Zephaniah Photograph: Pascal Saez/Pascal Saez

Benjamin Zephaniah talks to Hannah Pool Link to this audio You famously turned down the OBE and now every interview that I read has that in the introduction.

It does, yes. My poem Bought and Sold [an attack on black artists who had accepted honours], was written a long time before that, so it’s kind of insulting that the OBE was even offered to me in the first place. It shows that they probably hadn’t read my poetry. With most interviews I say, “Let’s try and not talk about it.” And then I see the interview and they’ve mentioned it. On the day I should have received the OBE I was with a lot of deprived kids; I did that to say: this is where my heart is. I don’t want to do government or monarchy-approved poetry. We need the freedom to be critical of these institutions and once you become part of them, that’s very difficult. I like to root myself with everyday people. And to a certain extent I like to blend into the background.

Are you shy?

I don’t think I’m shy, but I don’t like being the centre of attention.

That sounds like a strange thing to say for someone whose profession is to perform.

When I’m on stage, of course I want people to look at me. But when newspaper headlines highlight the fact I got into trouble with the police before, or turning down the OBE, when people start the conversation with that, I find it really difficult. I’m not brave. I was just being true to myself.

Your cousin, Michael Powell, died in police custody. Where are you with the campaign?

The police got found not guilty, so we’re waiting for the findings of the inquest, but I’m very pessimistic about it. We keep fighting. Even if we had Joanna Lumley I don’t think we’d get very far. Because the opposition are so well organised. The police gave a flawless performance: every moment, every minute was well timed.

You live in a small village in Lincolnshire. I’m always confused by black people who choose to live in the English countryside. Why do it to yourself?

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