In the early hours of Thursday the 7th of December, it was announced that British writer and poet, Benjamin Zephaniah had died at the age of 65, eight weeks after being diagnosed with a brain tumour.
Zephaniah was born and raised in Birmingham, UK and couldn’t remember a time when he wasn’t writing poetry. He said that his poetry was strongly influenced by the music and poetry of Jamaica what he calls ‘street politics’. His work started off popular within the African-Caribbean and Asian community in his town of Handsworth. He was not satisfied teaching the sufferings of black people to black people themselves, instead seeking a wider mainstream audience.
Zephaniah’s first book, Pen Rhythm was published by Page One Books when he was 22. Page One was a small, East London based publishing co-operative keen on publishing poets rooted in their communities, and published Zephaniah when others failed to acknowledge his ground-breaking poetry. In the early eighties when Punks and Rastas were on the streets protesting about SUS Laws, high unemployment, homelessness and the National Front, Zephaniah’s poetry filled the cries of people at demonstrations, youth gatherings, the outside of police stations and the dance floors.
Zephaniah’s poetry filled the cries of people at demonstrations, youth gatherings, the outside of police stations and the dance floors.
His aim was always to recover the dead image that academia and the establishment had given poetry, and declared that he was out to popularise poetry by reaching people who did not read books. His poetry remained political, musical, radical, relevant, and on TV for his whole life.
Zephaniah was also keen to take poetry to every corner of the earth. In 1991, over a period of 22 days, he performed his poetry somewhere in every continent on the planet. Notably, he also toured in different places to what may be expected. He toured in Zimbabwe, Colombia and Pakistan (to name but a few examples) as he wanted his works to be tangible across the world.
Zephaniah also dabbled in music, largely falling into the Reggae or Dub Poetry category. One of his albums ‘Naked’ defies categorisation as it is a mixture of Jazz, Reggae, Hip Hop, Rock and house music. In order to complement the music, graffiti artist Banksy gave exclusive permission for his artwork to feature in the booklet that comes with the CD.
With the news of his death, many are choosing to remember his quotes about turning down the offer of an OBE two decades ago.
Zephaniah wrote in the Guardian back in 2003: “Me? I thought, OBE me? Up yours, I thought.”
Me? I thought, OBE me? Up yours, I thoughtBenjamin Zephaniah
He went on to say that the concept of Empire that British education had presented him, led him to believe that black people were born slaves and were therefore lucky that they were given freedom by white masters.
“Benjamin Zephaniah OBE – no way Mr Blair, no way Mrs Queen,” he added. “I am profoundly anti-empire.”
It was a move that shocked people but made sense considering colonisation was the very concept he fought against in his poetry.
Exeter students have been sharing the sadness at the loss of such a revolutionary poet.
Angus Regan, a third year English student said: “Benjamin Zephaniah was the first introduction I had to poetry as a child. It was the first poetry I ever read and for that reason his death touches me a lot. He changed the scene of poetry for kids like me and for that I’m grateful.”
He changed the scene of poetry for kids like me and for that I’m gratefulAngus Regan
Anna Kane, another English student, said she was “devastated to hear about Zephaniah’s passing. He was an inspiring poet and advocate for liberalism, it’s important that we value his legacy.”
Zephaniah’s own family coined him “a true pioneer and innovator”, adding that he “gave the world so much.”
Not only is his death a loss for English students but for poetry and music fans worldwide. Zephaniah changed the scene of literature and inspired generations of young people to follow in his footsteps of revolution within writing. His legacy will continue to live on.