Dr Benjamin Obadiah Iqbal Zephaniah was a poet, performer, activist and humanitarian. On 7 December, he died of a brain tumour that had been discovered only eight weeks previously. He was 65 years old.
Made in Birmingham
Zephaniah was born Benjamin Springer in Handsworth, Birmingham, where he grew up. His dyslexia meant that he was expelled from school at the age of 13, unable to read or write. Like many who find that mainstream schools don’t work for them, his adolescence was peppered with disruption. He attended an approved school, spent time in borstal and served a short prison sentence for burglary.
When he was 11, he started performing his poetry in church and was given the name Zephaniah, by the elders of the church because of his prophet-like way with words. By the time he was 15, his work was well known in the Afro-Caribbean and Asian communities of Handsworth. The gift of a typewriter inspired him to become a writer.
As a young adult, he moved to London to find a larger audience. He joined a workers’ co-operative in Stratford which led to the publication of his first book of poetry, Pen Rhythm in 1980. During the following decade, he found himself in the middle of London’s race riots.
“They happened around me. Back then, racism was very in your face. There was the National Front against black and foreign people and the police were also very racist. I got stopped four times after I bought a BMW when I became successful with poetry. I kept getting stopped by the police so I sold it.”
For the rest of his long career, he would speak and write about his experiences of anti-Black racism in Britain. Even as late as 1987, the mainstream media regarded his success and celebrity as something to be denigrated, smearing his background, his work, his views and his very appearance.
Zephaniah refused to be pigeon-holed only as a ‘Black’ writer. He spoke and wrote about a wide range of issues – animal rights, republicanism, homophobia, and electoral reform. Characteristically, he rejected the OBE he was awarded in 2003.
“Me? I thought, OBE me? Up yours, I thought. I get angry when I hear that word ‘empire’; it reminds me of slavery, it reminds me of thousands of years of brutality [..] Benjamin Zephaniah OBE – no way Mr Blair, no way Mrs Queen. I am profoundly anti-empire.”
Right from the very beginning of his career, Zephaniah’s remarkable dub poetry and writing earned him both critical and commercial success. He published poetry, novels, plays, children’s books and non-fiction, including his own autobiography.
He was awarded numerous honorary doctorates and made The Times’ list of the Top 50 best British post-war writers. He won a BAFTA, had a hospital ward named after him and a recurring role in Peaky Blinders. He was the first person to record with the Wailers after the death of Bob Marley. And he was a staunch Aston Villa fan.
Feel the love
On his death, his peers and contemporaries flocked to pay tribute to the man that Birmingham called the People’s Laureate. His friend and fellow-Brummie, Joan Armatrading, spoke of her shock, saying that “the world has lost a poet, an intellectual and a cultural revolutionary. I have lost a great friend.”
But more moving by far was the vast out-pouring of love for him from ordinary people on social media.
Stay cool, Benjamin.
Benjamin Zephaniah, 1958-2023