Friday, 29 December 2017


By Tobias Schlosser

On his seventh album, dub poet Benjamin Zephaniah shows that he still has a great deal of energy and anger, but also heaps of empathy and love.

The title of his complex and well-thought-out record Revolutionary Minds (Fane Phonics label) immediately makes clear that his main agenda is changing the world. He wants to see people liberating themselves from oppressing forces.

The cover of Revolutionary Minds.
As with his former records, Zephaniah does not focus on one specific issue of marginalisation and exclusion, but on a range of issues that include unequal educational opportunities, animal rights, women’s rights, indigenous rights, religious freedom, sexual abuse of children by religious authorities, political and artistic corruption, police arbitrariness, the state of whistle-blowers, past and possible future environmental catastrophes and so on (the list doesn’t end here).

Some might associate revolution with chaos, violence and inherently dangerous movements that could lead to totalitarian regimes. But this is not the revolution Zephaniah has in mind. The artist is turning the tables and making it perfectly clear that the most dangerous thing is not being a revolutionary. He demonstrates the danger of passivity in the song “In this World”: 

We live in a world where they say we communicate more, but the world stayed silent when the slave trade was making money, the world stayed silent when the Nazis started to kill trade unionists, people with disabilities, homosexuals, left-handed people and Jews, and now in the age of the global village and mass communications, the world is staying silent as the Palestinians are annihilated.

Benjamin Zephaniah and band (photo R. Ecclestone).
The same thought is brought up when actor Matt Damon reads the words of the American historian and activist Howard Zinn on the track “Revolutionary Minds”: “The problem is not civil disobedience, the problem is civil obedience”. Thus, no one can fail to understand that from Zephaniah’s point of view, being a revolutionary means uprightness and honesty. And with this righteousness the artist deeply disagrees with the current status quo, which, he asserts, comes from the “greed and short-sightedness” of politicians and economic leaders.

The heart of Revolutionary Minds consists of the longest, electronic, dub-wise track “In this World”. The poem is a mere enumeration of injustices in the world we inhabit:

We live in a world where one in four people live in a state of absolute poverty, 35,000 children die each day because they are born to poor parents, each year 24,000 people are killed and maimed by landmines, and when you hear the information rich telling you that the world is ‘wired’ and getting smaller, remember many people in the world have never made a phone call.

A serious Zephaniah (R. Ecclestone).
This counting and accounting goes on for more than six minutes, so after a while, listeners may start feeling uncomfortable. The strength of the poem is its descriptive power, a merciless and enduring confrontation with something that is there, but which nobody seems to have any interest in discussing. Nevertheless, the poem ends on a positive note: “We care, but we don’t fear”. The message is that not everything is lost, that there is still hope.

Fans may sometimes get the impression that they’re at a philosophy lecture, hearing a smart person creatively explain Hannah Arendt’s idea of the banality of evil, and learning that evil powers can emerge when everybody just plays by the rules of the current regime, focusing on what is right or wrong in the eyes of the leaders. Here, moral obligations – which might result in disagreement and resistance – are rejected by the individual. Are most people just too lazy or afraid to make an effort to achieve change?

This passivity might also be the reason that a certain president is currently in power; he is the subject of the poem “President”. Without revealing the name of the person, it is still clear whom Zephaniah has in mind when he vents his fury: “Dear Mister President [...] you suck presidentially. Just run, run as slowly as you can, and take your arms trade with you”.

Zephaniah’s anger seems equally a sign of deep sadness. In the poem “What Stephen Lawrence Has Taught Us”, the artist reminds his listeners of the death of the young British man who was murdered in 1993. The case unveiled institutionalised racism in Britain and questioned the juridical practice of double jeopardy with regard to murder cases. With the current incidents of police violence in the United States, bringing up the case of Stephen Lawrence is like witnessing a never-ending tragic cycle. Almost 25 years later, his murder reminds us that we live in a world where freedom and justice are not rights that can be taken for granted.

With respect to musical influences, Revolutionary Minds is quite diverse, very electronic, very roots and very reggae-based. It is not easy to put Zephaniah’s artistic styles into one genre. However, it is not necessary to do so. The artist has other motivations, as he has already stated on his last record Naked: “Is it hip hop or is it reggae, who really care? As long as it’s loud, as long as it’s clear”. And it is clear.

Tobias Schlosser is a writer, researcher and expert drink-maker, based in Germany. 

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