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Benjamin Zephaniah and the Freedom of Anarchy

Poet shares path to veganism.

Benjamin Zephaniah is a writer, poet, actor and recording artist. His new autobiographical book, The Life and Rhymes of Benjamin Zephaniah, chronicles his personal, spiritual and creative journey.

To understand Benjamin Zephaniah’s journey, one must understand his roots in Rastafarianism–a religion that has its origins in Jamaica. Rastafarianism has informed almost every aspect of Zephaniah’s life–including his art form of dub poetry, his commitment to social issues, and his veganism. And one of the key tenets of how Zephaniah practices Rastafarianism is that each individual has his or her own journey–their own path.

Photo by Adrian Pope
Source: Photo by Adrian Pope

Zephaniah explains the roots of his philosophical approach. “Rastafarians don’t really see themselves as a religion. The way we see ourselves is closer to Buddhism in the sense that you’re not a religion–you have some kind of tenets if you like,” he said. “If you had a Rastafarian that lived in a particular place, ate meat and felt that he had to eat meat for whatever reason–a Rastafarian like me would not say that he’s not a Rastafarian.

“He’s chosen his path.”

Zephaniah practices “dub poetry,” an art form that has its roots in reggae music. Reggae music is seen as a mechanism for spreading the concepts of Rastafarianism. And when Zephaniah was around 16, he became involved in an art form called “toasting.”

“I basically come from the school of what is known as ‘dub poetry,’ which means poetry very closely related to reggae music. The difference between dub poetry and a lot of other poetry is that it can be performed with music and without music. And even when you perform it without music, you still hear the musicality of it,” Zephaniah told me. “And so I got involved in reggae music when I started doing what we call toasting–a kind of rap–kind of free styling on sound systems. And you’d just pick up the microphone and you’d just go with it–make commentary of the day, make commentary on people who are in the hall, whatever. And one of the things about reggae music, consistently, is it has always spoken on social issues; it’s a lot about human rights.

“And my poetry and music have grown side by side really.”

Accordingly, Zephaniah is committed to fighting against various forms of oppression, including racism. In his mind, this includes fighting various forms of bias that may emerge within him. Ultimately, for Zephaniah, what is critical in an individual is their active intention, rather than simply their passive beliefs.

“So, it’s not just good enough in my eyes for someone to say, ‘I don’t like racism.’ Lots of people don’t like racism. I think you have to be anti-racist. You have to consciously be anti-racist,” he said.

In order to develop a better sense of his own intention, Zephaniah engages in meditation. He describes how when he is able to quiet his mind, his various intentions, beliefs and emotions become clearer.

“That’s all I need for my own conscience. Because, when you do the meditation I do, when you start, you have to slow down and listen to your breath. And if you shouted at someone that day it will come in and bear on your conscience,” Zephaniah described. “If you need to apologize to them, you will go and apologize. If you’ve done something wrong, it will bother you,” he explained. What happened with me many years ago–and it’s kind of reinforced with meditation–is I realized that I’m not a body that has a spirit.

“I’m a spirit that has a body.”

It is through meditation that Zephaniah recognized that being respectful of animals through veganism was as important to him as his respect for human beings. “When I became a vegan I was about 13 years old. And I used to look at spiders and go, ‘Where do they go here? Are they going to find food for their children? Are they doing a spider version of shopping?’ As hard as I try, that doesn’t happen to me when I look at plants,” he explained. “And my spirit is connected to all of those animals. I know that from my meditation–when I sit down and meditate–my conscience has to be clear. If I was to eat meat, I couldn’t reach the higher levels of my meditation.

“And so, if I can live without taking from the animal world, then my conscience is clear for my meditation.”

Just as with racism, in considering his own veganism, so intention matters to Zephaniah. “So for me the definition of being a vegan is the intention. I try to live my life without killing animals, without using their products, without using products that contain animal products,” he said. “And sometimes we fail. I drive a car. I know I kill animals when I drive a car. Maybe only tiny animals, but tiny animals are very important. I play football. I know when I am running on the grass there are animals underneath me. But at the same time if I was running on the grass and saw an animal underneath me, I’d step over it. It could be that I step over it and kill another animal underneath.

“But it’s about my intention.”

Consistent with the idea that all people are on their own path and have their own consciousness, Zephaniah is careful to not judge people who do not adopt veganism. Rather, he seeks to understand their perspective.

“When I argue with somebody, about anything, one of the first things I try and do is understand their point of view–understand why they do it. And when somebody comes to me with that attitude–I can understand why they do that,” Zephaniah described. “Depending on the person, it may be that they come from a macho culture. It may be that they’re standing with four of their friends and they’ve got to defend their meat culture. It may be that they’re really taken in by the advertising.”

Zephaniah recognizes that not everyone has the time and money to commit to veganism. “When I’ve got a problem, I’ll go to the universe and I’ll think about it for weeks. It might end up being a line in my poem, that’s it. I have the luxury of that,” Zephaniah said. “There are people who would like the luxury of thinking about these things but are like, ‘I’ve got five kids, I’m on my own, I’m at the supermarket–I want the cheapest quickest food I can get.’ I’m trying to tell them that’s a false economy because in the long run your children will be sicker. You’ll be sicker. But at this moment they’re desperate. They just get on with their life until they get sick. That’s just the way it is for the majority of people.

“So we must not be holier than thou.”

But make no mistake–just because he tries to understand other people’s perspectives does not mean that he does not challenge people. One of the main issues that he feels needs to be confronted is when people say they are “animal lovers” but consume animal products.

“There are very few people–I mean we’ve seen films of people in circuses battering animals and stuff like that–but there are very few people in the real world who will say, ‘I don’t like animals. I hate animals,’” Zephaniah said. “You’ve got people sitting there eating meat saying, ‘I love animals.’ And they don’t really. They love meat. You have lots of people who have pets who say they are animal lovers. They are not. They are pet lovers. It’s very different being an animal lover.”

Zephaniah sees this bias as similar to racism. “You’ve decided, like a racist, that you like this race and that race but you don’t like this race and that other race. You’ve decided that you like this animal here–you stroke it when you’re watching television. You give it a cute name,” he said. “The other one you’re happy to hunt it. The other one you’re happy to eat it. The other one you’re happy to stand by and watch it be abused.”

One of the ways that Zephaniah challenges people’s perspectives on veganism is through personal example. This is his tact when people challenge whether veganism is healthy or can be a part of an athletic lifestyle. And he’s found that one of the things that comes up with men is power and strength.

“I do kung fu and I’m really into sports. Students will say, ‘How can you be vegan and do that?’ And I will say, ‘You want to race? You want to arm wrestle? You want to box? I’ll do anything you do and probably better. And I’m twice your age,’” he explained. “People say, ‘Can you really get so much power from being a vegan?’ I say, ‘Look, you need protein. You need vitamins, you need minerals. It’s where you get them from.’ And I was saying to him, some of the strongest animals in the world, the elephants, the gorillas, are basically vegan. And they never thought of that. But basically, I just set the example. I’m quite a strong guy and I’m 57 going on 58 now. People are really freaked out by it – they keep saying you’re in your mid-thirties or whatever. So I don’t preach anymore.

“I just go, ‘Look at me and look at you.’”

That being said, it is very critical to Zephaniah that people don’t engage in veganism just because of him or his example, but rather because the principles of veganism are important to them. “And I’ll tell you what happens to me a lot now. Because I’m a public figure now, a lot of children read this work. They write to me, and they say, ‘I read what you wrote about turkeys.’ A couple of very popular poems of mine are about animals,” he explained. “And they write and say they want to be a vegan. And I write back and say no. You don’t be a vegan because you want to follow me. Look at me. Look at how I operate. Now go and find that way of being a vegan for yourself. Because if I write a song you don’t like or write a poem you don’t like, you’re going to say, ‘Oh I’m going to start eating meat.’

“And so I want it to come from them.”

While on a personal level, Zephaniah’s Rastafarian belief system leads him to value personal freedom, he is aware that there are political and economic forces that influence or even interfere with people making individual choices. In part because of Zephaniah’s Rastafarian roots, he has respect for individuals’ rights and ability to choose their own path, he believes that the current political systems need to change in order to best facilitate that type of freedom. Specifically, Zephaniah considers himself an “anarchist” – mainly due to the corruption in the current political system.

“Certainly, a lot of people in Britain, when you say ‘anarchists,’ they just think of riots. And the news will say, ‘Today, twenty anarchists went on a rampage.’ They don’t understand anarchism,” he said. “Politically, I’m a revolutionary. I believe in breaking the whole system down and f*cking starting again. And I can see that that’s not going to happen for a while. And when I say I’m a revolutionary, I’m an anarchist. I think that the political system we have right now lead to corruption at all kinds of levels,” he said. “From the overt corruption that you find in some developing countries, to the corruption we have in the States and Britain where it’s who you know. It’s the class system. Are you friends with the royal family? Are you from this fraternity and from whatever university you come from in the States? I don’t know about politics in the States, but I know that most presidents come from a handful of universities. Same thing in Britain–there’s a couple of private schools. And all of our prime ministers come from those.”

Zephaniah gives examples of how he has seen corruption undermine individual self-sufficiency. “I have a friend and he controls a little bit of forest. And he takes kids who are at risk for being in trouble with the police and drugs–and he takes them onto the land,” he said. “And he made a big building with a meeting room just from the earth–basically a mud hut. But it looks like a modern building with electricity from solar power, etc. And he told me, ‘There’s no electricity coming here. There’s no gas coming here. Yet we have electricity, we have gas.’”

According to Zephaniah, the energy companies pounced. “And he said immediately all of the electricity companies came immediately and he could have made money selling to them and he said, ‘I don’t want anything to do with you. I don’t want to make money from you,’” he explained. “And they couldn’t understand it. They want us to be connected somewhere. So, the idea that we are living off grid–it’s not in their interest to have us off grid. Even if we are selling them electricity they want to know who we are and where we are.”

Zephaniah envisions a new form of social culture–one that embraces individualism. He personally has an organic garden and feels that one form of expressing individual freedom is controlling one’s food source.

“I always tell kids when I am talking to gangs–we need gang culture. We are pack animals. So, your gang happens to be on the street. Politicians have their gangs as well. Police have their gangs. Military people have their gangs. It’s just that they have the power. I’m a revolutionary, so I think the whole system has to change,” he explained. “It doesn’t mean people are out of control. It just means people taking control locally and stuff like that. If we all decided to be vegan and we all decided–those of us who can–to grow our own food, there’s so much of this capitalistic system that would collapse. Is that anarchy? That’s not people rioting."

“That’s people saying I’m going to grow my own food.”

Ultimately, Zephaniah knows that this path will not be easy and encourages people to find their individuality–particularly if they choose a vegan path.

“Another thing I said to this young man is, ‘Look, the world is against you. You can find pockets of communities, but on the whole the world is against you. You’re going to watch television and films. You’re going to see millions of dollars and pounds spent on product placement and advertisement on meat and other unhealthy things,” Zephaniah said. “I haven’t seen a massive campaign in any country in the world–and I’m a massive internationalist–that spent millions of pounds advertising broccoli. It just doesn’t happen. So you’ve got a lot going against you."

“But you’ve got to have confidence of self.”

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