Benjamin Zephaniah, a unique British poet with Caribbean roots and a wide appeal in a multicultural society, passes on at age 65

Benjamin Zephaniah, Waterstones, Piccadilly, London, December 6, 2018. Photo by Edwardx via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED.

A special tribute to Benjamin Zephaniah for the UK’s Black History Month in October 2023 noted that the much-loved British/Caribbean poet, author, playwright, actor, and activist, does not see poetry “as a luxury,” but “a vital necessity of the human spirit.”

Zephaniah died from a brain tumour at age 65, eight weeks after being diagnosed. His family posted on X (formerly Twitter):

He was born Benjamin Springer in 1958 in the tough neighbourhood of Handsworth, Birmingham (where veteran roots reggae band Steel Pulse originated). He once described that area of the UK Midlands as the “Jamaican capital of Europe.” His father was Barbadian, and his mother a Jamaican nurse. Zephaniah’s early years were not promising. He experienced violence at the hands of his father and the family eventually split up. Dyslexia contributed to his struggles in school and he never completed his education, having been expelled at age 13. He spent time in a borstal, or juvenile correctional centre. In his late teens, he had stints in jail, having been charged with various offences, including burglary. “I went off the rails,” he said. His early life was, sadly, typical of many young Black men of Caribbean heritage growing up in urban Britain in the 1960s and '70s; it would end up influencing much of his work.

At age 22, Zephaniah got away from negative influences and left Birmingham for London, where he began to make a name as a poet and performer. “I still consider myself as a street poet,” he told the UK’s Sky News in a recent interview. “I was very angry with the world — to be blunt, I still am angry with the world — but I have this outlet … I have a way of expressing myself, and that has saved my life.”

Strongly influenced by Rastafari, the poetry and music of Jamaica and what he called “street poetry,” Zephaniah became involved in a number of creative ventures, performing his radical dub poetry and social commentary in London venues. He published his first book of poetry, “Pen Rhythm,” in 1980 and his first album, “Rasta,” in 1982. There followed 13 more poetry collections and several dub albums, as well as a number of plays. His play “Hurricane Dub” was one of the winners of the BBC Young Playwrights Festival Award in 1998, and his stage plays have been performed at the Riverside Studios in London, at the Hay-on-Wye Literature Festival, and on television and radio.

Zephaniah also had a career as an actor, with his most well-known performance as a preacher in 14 episodes of the popular gangster series “Peaky Blinders,” set in Birmingham. The series lead actor, Cillian Murphy, paid tribute to Zephaniah as “a truly gifted and beautiful human being, a generational poet, writer, musician and activist. A proud Brummie [Birmingham native] and a Peaky Blinder.”

Later in his career, Zephaniah’s original and accessible poetry, addressing social issues with sharp insight, greatly appealed to young people and was welcomed by educators. One school posted recently that his poem “The British (Serves 60 Million)” inspired some interesting poetic “recipes” among the students:

Another school shared their enjoyment of one of his teen novels:

Zephaniah was a prolific author, writing books for all ages. With his direct and accessible manner, Zephaniah was always thought-provoking and repeatedly took jabs at the British establishment with his uncompromising advocacy for social justice. Having endured racism from an early age, he was an outspoken anti-colonial activist throughout his life, turning down the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 2003 and commenting, “Stick it, Mr. Blair and Mrs. Queen. Stop going on about the empire.”

He did not just talk, however, but actively supported and sponsored numerous causes focusing on race relations and institutional racism, such as the Newham Monitoring Project in East London, where he was living at the time. Later in life, he moved to rural Lincolnshire but continued his activism from there.

Zephaniah was a born activist throughout his life, including as an outspoken advocate for veganism. As he once related, this began at a young age — he was bullied in school and would retreat to the edges of the schoolyard, preferring the animals’ company: “Amazingly, I never met a racist animal.”

One animal rights group shared recently on X:

He became a vegan at the age of 13, and his poem “Talking Turkeys” from his first poetry book for children reflected this lifelong and firmly held belief:

Zephaniah received no less than 16 honorary degrees and, in 2011, took up the post of Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at the UK's Brunel University, which paid him tribute. He was also Writer in Residence at the Africa Arts Collective in Liverpool, and was a candidate for the post of Professor of Poetry at Oxford University.

Benjamin Zephaniah always had an acute eye on society. In August, he shared a video suggesting that the surveillance society is here:

The BBC, meanwhile, shared a clip of an interview with the young poet:

His friend and fellow “Brummie” singer Joan Armatrading, who was born in St. Kitts, honoured his remarkable inclusiveness: “He wanted people to question things…he wanted people to know, is there a better way?”

The Stephen Lawrence Day Foundation (established in honour of the Black British teen who was murdered in a racist attack in 1993) summed up Zephaniah's activism and was heartfelt in its tribute:

A unique creative, Zephaniah put his own stamp on poetry in Britain, becoming a beloved artist and performer who crossed all boundaries. He also offered hope and support to Black British youth, and sought to heal the fractured society engendered by colonialism, racism and social injustice. There is no doubt that his voice, at once humane, refreshing and challenging, will be greatly missed.

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