RC: How or when did you first become aware of animal suffering and when did you become Vegan?
BZ: When I was 11, I had a conversation with my mother. She had beef on the table and I asked: “Where did the beef come from?” She said: ” From the man in the shop.” I asked, ”where did the man in the shop get it from,” She said, “From the man in the van”, so I asked: “Where does the man in the van get it from?” And she said that it came from the man on the farm. So I asked: “Where did the man on the farm get it from?” And she said, from the cow. So I asked: “Where does the cow get it from?” and she said: “You silly boy! It is the cow!” I stopped eating meat right then because it was at that moment I realised that I had never connected the two things,.
RC: I don’t think that most people do – it’s very sanitised. You see a product in the supermarket and it doesn’t bear any relation to the whole animal – you don’t see the whole animal hanging up. So was it an overnight transition for you from meat-eater to vegetarian?
BZ: Immediately I pushed the meat away and told my mother: “I’m not eating my friends!” A couple of years later I read about what we do to get milk from animals – the cow’s baby is taken away and she never experiences the joy of raising it – just so that we can have the milk.
RC: What reaction do you get from the black community about your Veganism?
BZ: Well, the whole black Rasta thing is Vegan, even Rastas that are not vegan respect vegan, most would like to be. You get different strands – some believe in eating meat and others are vegan – I am completely Ital,* which is Vegan.
RC: How did you become involved in the animal rights movement?
BZ: I can’t quite remember. What happens is when you become famous, people come to you to join their cause – especially me because I speak out on so many causes. What amazes me about Vegans and Vegetarians is that there are so many actors and people in show business generally, but they are unwilling to speak out, whereas I feel that life is political, so I am on television all the time and believe that you have to speak out.
RC: I suppose that’s good in your profession as you are a political poet, so it is expected of you to be controversial.
BZ: I have written poems about various topical issues and people still accuse me of not being political! Everyone thinks I should be their voice, but you can’t be everyone’s voice, and you can’t agree with everyone.
RC: There must be an incredible amount of pressure on you – you are the mouthpiece for everyone, and people expect you to be performing even when you’re out shopping!
BZ: It is difficult. Sometimes I have friends with me and I have to apologise to them!! I don’t think I am that famous as a poet but I am recognisable, but if you had asked people what did Ted Hughes look like or other people who have been important to the poetry world, they probably wouldn’t know. But, because I have been quite public, and done radio, television and been on public debates, people know who I am.
The bottom line is that I have seen people who become well known and even if they live in the city, will drive their cars right up their drives, right inside their high walls and never see ordinary people, whereas I live on a normal street – kids come and knock on my door and ask me to sign autographs – and everybody knows me on the street. Real life is my muse – it’s where I get my inspiration.
RC: You have done some work recently for various Animal Rights groups. How large a role does Animal Rights play in your life? Is it as important to you as your fight against racism?
BZ: I would say they were equal. At times one will become more important or come to the fore depending on what is happening. For example, at the moment, I am really concerned with what is happening in Afghanistan, but I am probably one of the few people who has got on the public platform and asked what is happening about the animals there.
RC: Do you have any companion animals yourself?
BZ: Actually I don’t. A cat used to live with me but it was kicked to death by a gang of kids. What I also used to have (and is very unlike me as I don’t believe in caging animals) is a canary. I went out into the back yard one day and it flew straight in through the kitchen window. I rang an organisation to find out what I should do with it and they told me not to let it out, because it wouldn’t survive. So I decided to keep it, went off and bought a cage – the biggest cage I could find – but then someone said: “You have to get a boyfriend for it, because they don’t like being alone”. So when I got her a boyfriend, I put them together and then I realised I had got the wrong sex and had 2 lesbians! – seems you can tell if they’re male or female by their singing – the men sing sweeter than the women!
RC: Getting back to your writing – do you think you have been influential in changing people’s attitudes towards animals? Or do you write from a personal point of view and whether you change people’s minds isn’t as important to you?
BZ: The reason I write is to get people thinking – not to change their minds – it’s not straightforward propaganda. About two weeks ago, Talking Turkey was voted by children the fifth-best children’s poem of all time on the BBC’s National Poetry Day. I was in my house at the time, feeling fairly depressed, feeling low, because none of the people I love were around me and I felt really lonely. Then this programme came out and there were these children – and I thought of all the poems in the World that they could choose! All the other poems were these all-time classics, and there was Talking Turkey. One of the things I think about the poem is that it has been taken up by the animal rights movement for children but also in the mainstream they love it so much – people still write to me all the time about it – I mean I did that poem ages ago. Talking Turkeys is now seen as a vegan book, a vegan book which is the fifth best Childrens book of all time, as voted by children, wicked, you know what I mean? So you can imagine, there I was feeling tearful and then there’s all these children going “Yes, Benjamin, we love you Benjamin!”
RC: Do you have a lot of feedback from children regarding your work?
BZ: Women and children mostly. It’s a strange thing – they say women are more emotional and children get the books in school. They don’t care about being black or white and many of them do wonder why humans are being so bad to other animals. It’s very basic.
They are not indoctrinated yet. I don’t use a dictionary – if I am performing a poem in front of an audience, there is no point in using fancy words. It has to be everyday language – it’s got to be immediate. I may use Jamaican-English words – a lot of it comes from street talk. Nowadays, it’s the teachers who have to go and learn that sort of speech – the kids know Jamaican-speak – they listen to Shaggy, reggae, rap and Hip Hop, yeah, they are in tune with that stuff. The kids understand how to read it.
RC: So, do you think you have changed people’s opinions? BZ: I should say ‘no’ and shut my mouth now. The truth is I know I have because people have told me. When I started as a kid, I loved using language, I loved that words can have an effect on people. Sometimes when I do a poem, it may just be to express an emotion. Sometimes, there is some word-play. I have heard stories where I have changed people’s opinions. I know I have – it’s not a brag or anything – it’s what people tell me.
I was doing a reading in a school one day – it wasn’t anything to do with animal rights or anything. At the end of the class, one kid asked me what I do as a hobby and I said that I did martial arts. It just happened that one boy in front of me did the same martial art as me so we did a couple of moves on each other and then he went. About a month later, the teacher wrote to me that that boy’s father is a Combat 18 (the Nazi organisation) organiser for this area and she sent me a poem that he wrote about me to his Father saying that he doesn’t want to be a racist anymore because he met this black poet and that poet had inspired him. It touched him and it didn’t die he said. Now that’s changing somebody.
I don’t know if I could change the World, but I have changed individuals. Kids write to me saying that they want to go vegetarian or vegan and I automatically say to them to get the right protein, be good vegetarians and vegans. There are vegans and then there are people who don’t eat meat. Just not eating meat is not good enough – you’ve got to get all your nutrients. I usually say to kids – don’t do it because of me, they’ve got to do it for themselves.
RC: The anger is missing in the AR movement – it is not even appealing to people in the movement let alone the general public – why?
BZ: It’s not an answer, but I think it’s true of a lot of areas of politics now. I think it is true of our age. People are almost fed up of demonstrations – others demonstrate to get into power and then once they’re there, they close the door behind them. I think there needs to be a big umbrella party who can represent us. I’ve got my fingers in different pies. Some people are concentrating on animal experimentation but the overall thing would be Animal Rights. I don’t mind even if they all aren’t vegan. I think one of the reasons that I’ve gone really far is because I am involved in the movement, and people may be laughing and smiling but it makes people think! I am not ramming it down their throats. I am gently pushing it there!
But, we don’t have the power of media. Look at the old days. The troops would come into the country, and grab the emperor or president, kill them and tell the country that they were now in power. Now what they do is take the television and radio stations – that’s what it’s about now and we don’t have that. We can make records and we can write books and we can do that independently. You can publish books on a computer, but that’s nothing like coming into people’s living rooms through the television. And when you’ve got all these people in smart suits sounding authoritative, sounding as if they have done their work – it just makes such a big impression on people who don’t have the energy to look deeper. We need people at that level, who can say that they are doing a programme but want to be involved in the editing on the overall production. You need to get stuff on television – that way you can go straight into peoples houses. But I think the Internet will get bigger, and let’s be honest, the meat industry is shooting itself in the foot all the time. Every time they have a crisis they create more vegetarians. Some of those will get persuaded to start eating meat again, but a lot of them will stay-put. The issues are becoming more well-known.
RC: Are you a supporter of direct action?
BZ: This is war.
RC: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future?
BZ: I’m kind of optimistic, but to be honest, I don’t think it’s going to happen whilst I’m around. I want to see the Revolution, even if I will be an old man. Someone said that Capitalism will eat itself, and I think that’s like the meat industry, the meat industry itself will become dead meat and compassion will reign supreme.
Ital is a term used by Rastafarians and is derived from the word vital, which means a natural and sane way of life. Food is an aspect of Ital – because the body is a temple( Jah creation), unpure food should not be consumed. Ital is generally a vegan diet.
Arkangel Magazine, 2002