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Tribute: Benjamin Zephaniah  (1958 – 2023)

Updated: Dec 11, 2023

Benjamin Zephaniah poet, novelist, musician, actor and activist dubbed “The people's laureate" by The Birmingham Mail died on Thursday 7 December 2023 after a short-lived battle with a brain tumour.


There has been an outpouring of tributes from across the spectrum for one of the most prominent contemporary and politically active poets from Britain.


The Black Actors Guild wrote: “Our family of writers is in mourning at the loss of a deeply valued friend and a titan of British Literature. Benjamin Zephaniah was instrumental in establishing the Black Writers Guild not only as a founding member but as a mentor, guide, and supporter to several generations of our writers…We love him. We will miss him and we are thankful to him.”


A prolific creative, Benjamin Zephaniah was born in Birmingham on 15 April 1958. His birth name was Benjamin Springer but he would adopt Zephaniah after the Old Testament prophet following his first-ever poetry performance in a church. Getting into trouble and going to jail as a teen for burglary, he vowed to make something of his life.


Zephaniah dropped out of school at age 13 without being able to read and write. He would learn that he was dyslexic at 21 when he began attending adult education classes in his early 20s after moving to London where he would become known as a politically conscious and active poet who would go on to gain national and international fame.


He wrote novels and poetry collections as well as books for children and young adults. He released seven music albums and played Jeremiah "Jimmy" Jesus, an itinerant preacher and former soldier in the hit TV series Peaky Blinders. His turn in Peaky Blinders brought him to the consciousness of a younger and more global audience.


His poems captured the multifaceted angst of people of colour in multicultural Britain. His poem, “The British Poem” is at once playful and political employing the conceit of a culinary recipe to riff on the multi-diverse  nature of contemporary Britain:


Mix some hot Chileans, cool Jamaicans, Dominicans,

Trinidadians and Bajans with some Ethiopians, Chinese,

Vietnamese and Sudanese.

 

Then take a blend of Somalians, Sri Lankans, Nigerians

And Pakistanis,

Combine with some Guyanese

And turn up the heat.

Sprinkle some fresh Indians, Malaysians, Bosnians,

Iraqis and Bangladeshis together with some

Afghans, Spanish, Turkish, Kurdish, Japanese

And Palestinians

 

Then add to the melting pot.

 

Leave the ingredients to simmer.

 

In 2003, Benjamin Zephaniah famously rejected an OBE from Queen Elizabeth II with an emphatic “No way, Mrs Queen”


He would go on to add on a TV show that “I’ve been fighting against empire all my life. I’ve been fighting against slavery and colonialism all my life. I’ve been writing to connect with people, not to impress governments and monarchy. So how could I then go and accept an honour that puts the word ’empire’ onto my name? That would be hypocritical.’


Benjamin Zephaniah was honoured globally; a hospital wing is named after him at the Ealing Hospital and he was a recipient of over 16 honorary degrees.

 

 

 

 

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