Benjamin Zephaniah Obituary: one of Britain’s most recognised and outspoken literary voices

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After receiving the BBC News app notification announcing Benjamin Zephaniah’s death last Thursday, I could only think back to my conversation with him last October when I interviewed him for Black History Month in Edition 854.

That morning he was generous with his time to speak to Palatinate. Across 45 minutes, we discussed all things from his upbringing and first call to poetry as a young churchgoing boy, to his anarchist politics and his recent role as Jeremiah Jesus in Peaky Blinders.

What struck me throughout our chat was his honesty and sincerity when answering my questions and engaging with me in our conversation. As a student newspaper, he did not have to take us seriously or agree to our interview. The fact that he did, was a testament to a man who was motivated to speak to and reach as many people as possible regardless of their education or place in society.

As a student newspaper, [Zephaniah] did not have to take us seriously or agree to our interview. The fact that he did, was a testament to a man who was motivated to speak to and reach as many people as possible regardless of their education or place in society

The power of language and poetry was recognised by Zephaniah. In our interview, he defined poetry as “taking everyday words that we use and arranging them in a way that touches people”. He wanted to do so in a way where he could “make people think and change their minds” – the quotation I later used as the headline for the article.

Benjamin Obadial Iqbal Zephaniah was born as Benjamin Springer on 15th April 1958 to a Barbadian postman and a Jamaican nurse in Birmingham. Zephaniah was the joint eldest of seven siblings along with his twin sister, Velda. Having become famous in the community for his performances in church as a child, he was nicknamed ‘Zephaniah’ after the biblical prophet and which he later adopted as a surname that then became a household name.

As a child, he experienced racism daily and his mother was beaten by his father. At the age of 10, Benjamin and his mother left, leaving the rest of his siblings with his father. Having to move whenever his father knew where they were, his mother and him were at times homeless. At the age of 13, Benjamin was expelled from school and so he left unable to read or write due to his diagnosed dyslexia.

After spending time in a borstal and then prison for burglary, Zephaniah moved to London to become a poet. His urge to write and perform poetry came from his desire to fight racism in the 1980s, a motivation he noted in our interview – “as a person of colour, dealing with racism was an urgent priority. You could not get away from it”.

His urge to write and perform poetry came from his desire to fight racism in the 1980s

He began by reading poems during breaks at gigs and eventually at the age of 22 in 1980, his first collection, Penned Ribbon, was published by a co-operative.

Inspired by the reggae music, he turned to dub poetry where he he added words to the music. In 1982, he released his debut album, Rasta, with the Wailers, which included a song about Nelson Mandela, who was then imprisoned in South Africa. Mandela was sent the album along with Zephaniah’s other poems when in prison and asked to meet Zephaniah during his visit to Britain in 1990.

Zephaniah went on to regularly appear on television and radio – notably reciting poetry during Channel 4’s commercial breaks. As well as reaching people in their living rooms, he toured barbershops, sports halls and community centres. Reflecting on this in interview, he said – “I wanted to take poetry to people”.

Most students educated in this country will have come across Zephaniah when studying his poem, “Talking Turkeys (1994), which became a staple of the national literary curriculum. In more recent times, he appeared on our screens as the preacher, Jeremiah Jesus, in Peaky Blinders, a part which he told me seemed like it had just been written for him. 

A regular on panel shows such as Question Time, Zephaniah was known for his contributions to public debate – he self-identified as an anarchist, he was a prominent vegan and an animal rights’ activist. He famously even turned down an OBE in 2003 because he could not write the word ‘Empire’ after his name.

He became the most recognised poet of our generation – often described as “the people’s laureate”, earning 16 honourary doctorates and was voted as one of The Times’ 50 most influential writers in 2008.

Zephaniah was known for his contributions to public debate – he self-identified as an anarchist, he was a prominent vegan and an animal rights’ activist

Beyond the accolades and radicalism, Zephaniah’s unique ability to energise and reach people inspired young writers and gave a voice to a new generation. 

What I shall remember most fondly about our chat is his sincerity. Advising students to always be honest, Zephaniah said that even though he had been in trouble in the past, he was always open about it – “if you want to know about me, the real me, then you have to know the truth”.

As he died as Christmas was drawing near, it would be only fitting to remember his words about the turkeys he sympathised with.

“Be nice to yu turkey dis christmas 
Invite dem indoors fe sum greens 
Let dem eat cake an let dem partake 
In a plate of organic grown beans, 
Be nice to yu turkey dis christmas 
An spare dem de cut of de knife, 
Join Turkeys United an dey’ll be delighted 
An yu will mek new friends ‘FOR LIFE’.”

Benjamin Obadiah Iqbal Zephaniah, poet and author, was born 15 April 1958. He died of a brain tumour on 7 December 2023, aged 65.

Image: David Morris via Wikimedia Commons

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