Benjamin Zephaniah

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Benjamin Zephaniah
Benjamin Zephaniah 20181206.jpg
Benjamin Zephaniah, Waterstones, Piccadilly, London, December 2018
BornBenjamin Obadiah Iqbal Zephaniah
(1958-04-15) 15 April 1958 (age 60)
Handsworth, Birmingham, England
OccupationPoet, playwright, author
GenrePoetry, teen fiction
Literary movement Rastafari movement
Years active1980 – present
SpouseAmina (m. 1990 divorced 2001)

Benjamin Obadiah Iqbal Zephaniah (born 15 April 1958) [1] is a British writer, dub poet and Rastafarian. He was included in The Times list of Britain's top 50 post-war writers in 2008. [2]

Dub poetry is a form of performance poetry of West Indian origin, which evolved out of dub music in Kingston, Jamaica, in the 1970s, as well as in London, England and Toronto, Canada, both, cities which have large populations of Caribbean immigrants. It consists of spoken word over reggae rhythms. Unlike dee jaying, which also features the use of the spoken word, the dub poet's performance is normally prepared, rather than the extemporized chat of the dancehall dee jay. In musical setting, the dub poet usually appears on stage with a band performing music specifically written to accompany each poem, rather than simply perform over the top of dub plates, or riddims, in the dancehall fashion. Musicality is built into dub poems, yet, dub poets generally perform without backing music, delivering chanted speech with pronounced rhythmic accentuation and dramatic stylization of gesture. Sometimes dub music effects, e.g. echo, reverb, are dubbed spontaneously by a poet into live versions of a poem. Many dub poets also employ call-and-response devices to engage audiences.


Life and work

Zephaniah was born and raised in the Handsworth district of Birmingham, [3] which he has called the "Jamaican capital of Europe". He is the son of a Barbadian postman and a Jamaican nurse. [4] [5] A dyslexic, he attended an approved school but left aged 13 unable to read or write. [5]

Handsworth, West Midlands district of Birmingham, England, formerly in Staffordshire.

Handsworth is now an inner city, urban area of northwest Birmingham in the West Midlands. Handsworth lies just outside the Birmingham City Centre.

Birmingham City in the English Midlands, 2nd highest population of UK cities

Birmingham is the second-most populous city in the United Kingdom, after London, and the most populous city in the English Midlands. With an estimated population of 1,137,100 as of 2017, Birmingham is the cultural, social, financial and commercial centre of the Midlands. It is the main centre of the West Midlands conurbation, which is the third most populated urban area in the United Kingdom, with a population in 2011 of 2,440,986. The wider Birmingham metropolitan area is the second largest in the United Kingdom with a population of over 3.7 million. Birmingham is frequently referred to as the United Kingdom's "second city".

Barbados country in the Caribbean

Barbados is an island country in the Lesser Antilles of the West Indies, in the Caribbean region of North America. It is 34 kilometres in length and up to 23 km (14 mi) in width, covering an area of 432 km2 (167 sq mi). It is situated in the western area of the North Atlantic and 100 km (62 mi) east of the Windward Islands and the Caribbean Sea; therein, Barbados is east of the Windwards, part of the Lesser Antilles, roughly at 13°N of the equator. It is about 168 km (104 mi) east of both the countries of Saint Lucia and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines and 400 km (250 mi) north-east of Trinidad and Tobago. Barbados is outside the principal Atlantic hurricane belt. Its capital and largest city is Bridgetown.

He writes that his poetry is strongly influenced by the music and poetry of Jamaica and what he calls "street politics". His first performance was in church when he was eleven, and by the age of fifteen, his poetry was already known among Handsworth's Afro-Caribbean and Asian communities. [6] He received a criminal record with the police as a young man and served a prison sentence for burglary. [5] [7] Tired of the limitations of being a black poet communicating with black people only, he decided to expand his audience, and headed to London at the age of twenty-two. [4]

He became actively involved in a workers co-operative in Stratford, London, which led to the publication of his first book of poetry, Pen Rhythm (Page One Books, 1980). Three editions were published. Zephaniah has said that his mission is to fight the dead image of poetry in academia, and to "take [it] everywhere" to people who do not read books so he turned poetry readings into concert-like performances. [4]

Stratford, London district of the London Borough of Newham in East London, England

Stratford is a metropolitan district in the London Borough of Newham in Greater London, England. It is 6 miles (10 km) east-northeast of Charing Cross and is in East London. Stratford is part of the Lower Lea Valley and includes the localities of Maryland, East Village and Stratford City. Historically part of the ancient parish and subsequent County Borough of West Ham, which became the western half of the modern borough in 1965. Historically an agrarian settlement in the county of Essex, Stratford was transformed into an industrial suburb following the introduction of the railway in 1839.

His second collection of poetry, The Dread Affair: Collected Poems (1985), contained a number of poems attacking the British legal system. Rasta Time in Palestine (1990), an account of a visit to the Palestinian occupied territories, contained poetry and travelogue.

His 1982 album Rasta, which featured The Wailers' first recording since the death of Bob Marley as well as a tribute to Nelson Mandela, gained him international prestige [8] and topped the Yugoslavian pop charts. [6] [8] It was because of this recording that he was introduced to the political prisoner and soon-to-be South African president Nelson Mandela, and in 1996, Mandela requested that Zephaniah host the president's Two Nations Concert at the Royal Albert Hall, London. Zephaniah was poet in residence at the chambers of Michael Mansfield QC, and sat in on the inquiry into Bloody Sunday and other cases, these experiences leading to his Too Black, Too Strong poetry collection (2001). [5] We Are Britain! (2002) is a collection of poems celebrating cultural diversity in Britain.

Bob Marley Jamaican singer-songwriter

Robert Nesta Marley, OM was a Jamaican singer-songwriter who became an international musical and cultural icon, blending mostly reggae, ska, and rocksteady in his compositions. He started in 1963 with the group the Wailers and forged a distinctive songwriting and vocal style that became popular with audiences worldwide. The Wailers released some of the earliest reggae records with producer Lee "Scratch" Perry.

Nelson Mandela President of South Africa, anti-apartheid activist

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was a South African anti-apartheid revolutionary, political leader, and philanthropist who served as President of South Africa from 1994 to 1999. He was the country's first black head of state and the first elected in a fully representative democratic election. His government focused on dismantling the legacy of apartheid by tackling institutionalised racism and fostering racial reconciliation. Ideologically an African nationalist and socialist, he served as President of the African National Congress (ANC) party from 1991 to 1997.

Yugoslavia 1918–1992 country in Southeastern and Central Europe

Yugoslavia was a country in Southeastern and Central Europe for most of the 20th century. It came into existence after World War I in 1918 under the name of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes by the merger of the provisional State of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs with the Kingdom of Serbia, and constituted the first union of the South Slavic people as a sovereign state, following centuries in which the region had been part of the Ottoman Empire and Austria-Hungary. Peter I of Serbia was its first sovereign. The kingdom gained international recognition on 13 July 1922 at the Conference of Ambassadors in Paris. The official name of the state was changed to Kingdom of Yugoslavia on 3 October 1929.

Zephaniah's first book of poetry for children, called Talking Turkeys, was reprinted after six weeks. In 1999 he wrote a novel for teenagers, Face , the first of four novels to date.

<i>Face</i> (novel) novel by Benjamin Zephaniah

Face is a British novel by British-Jamaican author and poet Benjamin Zephaniah, published in 1999. It's about a teenage boy who suffers facial injuries in a joyriding accident. Face has also been adapted as a stage play.

Zephaniah lived for many years in East London but in 2008 began dividing his time between Beijing and a village near Spalding, Lincolnshire. [9]

He was married for twelve years to Amina, a theatre administrator, whom he divorced in 2001. [10]

In 2011, Zephaniah accepted a year-long position as poet in residence at Keats House in Hampstead, London.

Zephaniah is a supporter of Aston Villa F.C. and is the patron for an Aston Villa supporters' website. [11]


Zephaniah is an honorary patron of The Vegan Society, [12] Viva! (Vegetarians' International Voice for Animals), [13] EVOLVE! Campaigns, [14] the anti-racism organisation Newham Monitoring Project with whom he made a video [15] in 2012 about the impact of Olympic policing on black communities, Tower Hamlets Summer University and is an animal rights advocate. In 2004 he wrote the foreword to Keith Mann's book From Dusk 'til Dawn: An insider's view of the growth of the Animal Liberation Movement, a book about the Animal Liberation Front. In August 2007, he announced that he would be launching the Animal Liberation Project, alongside People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. [16] He became a vegan when he read poems about "shimmering fish floating in an underwater paradise, and birds flying free in the clear blue sky".

In 2016 Zephaniah curated We Are All Human, an exhibition at the Southbank Centre presented by the Koestler Trust which exhibited art works by prisoners, detainees and ex-offenders. [17]

The poet joined Amnesty International in speaking out against homophobia in Jamaica, saying: "For many years Jamaica was associated with freedom fighters and liberators, so it hurts when I see that the home of my parents is now associated with the persecution of people because of their sexual orientation." [18]

Zephaniah has spoken in favour of a British Republic and the dis-establishment of the crown. [19]

Zephaniah appeared in literature to support changing the British electoral system from first-past-the-post to alternative vote for electing members of parliament to the House of Commons in the Alternative Vote referendum in 2011. [20]

Zephaniah is a Rastafari. [21] He gave up smoking cannabis in his thirties. [22]

In 2003, Zephaniah was offered appointment as an Officer of the Order of the British Empire, but publicly rejected it. [23] In a subsequent article for The Guardian he elaborated upon his reaction to learning about being considered for the award and his reasons for rejecting it: "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 of thousands of years of brutality, it reminds me of how my foremothers were raped and my forefathers brutalised...Benjamin Zephaniah OBE – no way Mr Blair, no way Mrs Queen. I am profoundly anti-empire." [24]

In 2015 he called for Welsh and Cornish to be taught in English schools, saying "Hindi, Chinese and French are taught [in schools], so why not Welsh? And why not Cornish? They're part of our culture." [25]

In a 2017 interview, commenting on the ongoing Brexit negotiations, Zephaniah stated that "For left-wing reasons, I think we should leave the EU but the way that we’re leaving is completely wrong". [26]


Collecting the Hancock at Cambridge Folk Festival 2008 with Martin Carthy looking on. Benjaminzephaniahcamff.jpg
Collecting the Hancock at Cambridge Folk Festival 2008 with Martin Carthy looking on.

Zephaniah won the BBC Young Playwright's Award. [1] He has been awarded honorary doctorates by the University of North London (in 1998), [1] the University of Central England (in 1999), Staffordshire University (in 2001), [27] London South Bank University (in 2003), the University of Exeter and the University of Westminster (in 2006). On 17 July 2008 Zephaniah received an honorary doctorate from the University of Birmingham. [28] He was listed at 48 in The Times' list of 50 greatest postwar writers. [2]

He has released several albums of original music. [29] He was awarded Best Original Song in the Hancocks 2008, Talkawhile Awards for Folk Music (as voted by members of [30] ) for his version of Tam Lyn Retold recorded with The Imagined Village. He collected the Award live at The Cambridge Folk Festival on 2 August 2008 and described himself as a "Rasta Folkie". [31]




Children's books



Acting roles



Singles, EPs

Guest appearances

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  2. 1 2 Benjamin Zephaniah, The 50 greatest postwar writers: 48 TimesOnline UK
  3. "Benjamin Zephaniah" Archived 3 October 2007 at the Wayback Machine , British Council. Retrieved 13 April 2008.
  4. 1 2 3 "Biography" Archived 12 April 2008 at the Wayback Machine , Retrieved 13 April 2008.
  5. 1 2 3 4 Kellaway, Kate (2001) "Dread poet's society", The Guardian , 4 November 2001.
  6. 1 2 Larkin, Colin (1998), The Virgin Encyclopedia of Reggae, Virgin Books, ISBN   0-7535-0242-9
  7. "ARTICLE: Interview with Raw Edge Magazine: Benjamin talks about how life in prison helped change his future as a poet. Archived 20 May 2009 at the Wayback Machine ", Raw Edge magazine, issue 5, Autumn/Winter 1997.
  8. 1 2 "Brighton Magazine – Benjamin Zephaniah: Well Read Rastafarian Poet Comes To Lewes".
  9. Lynn Barber interviews Benjamin Zephaniah, The Observer, 18 January 2009.
  10. Independent Arts and Books, 19 June 2009.
  11. "A Poet Called Benjamin Zephaniah". Archived from the original on 7 August 2011. Retrieved 10 May 2011.
  12. "Honorary Patrons". Archived from the original on 28 September 2011. Retrieved 10 May 2011.
  13. "Vegetarians International Voice for Animals". Viva!. Retrieved 10 May 2011.
  14. "Evolve Campaigns". EVOLVE! Campaigns. Retrieved 10 May 2011.
  15. "Benjamin Zephaniah – Put the Number in Your Phone". Newham Monitoring Project. Archived from the original on 29 July 2012. Retrieved 14 March 2012.
  16. Arkangel for Animal Liberation :: Online News Magazine Archived 17 April 2008 at the Wayback Machine
  17. Bankes, Ariane. "Why we need to free art by prisoners from behind bars". Apollo Magazine. Retrieved 31 January 2019.
  18. "Jamaica: Benjamin Zephaniah calls on Jamaicans everywhere to stand up against homophobia". Amnesty International. Archived from the original on 3 September 2012. Retrieved 12 October 2012.
  19. "Statement of Principles". Republic. 29 April 2011. Archived from the original on 3 August 2009. Retrieved 10 May 2011.
  20. "Benjamin Zephaniah 'airbrushed from Yes to AV leaflets'". BBC News. 3 April 2011.
  21. Benjamin Zephaniah. "Has Snoop Dogg seen the Rastafari light, or is this just a midlife crisis?". The Guardian.
  22. Benjamin Zephaniah: ‘I don’t want to grow old alone’ The Guardian 6 May 2018
  23. Merope Mills, "Rasta poet publicly rejects his OBE", The Guardian , 27 November 2003. Retrieved 7 June 2012.
  24. Zephaniah, Benjamin. "'Me? I thought, OBE me? Up yours, I thought'", The Guardian, 27 November 2003.
  25. "Benjamin Zephaniah calls for English schools to teach Welsh". BBC News. Retrieved 27 August 2018.
  26. "Benjamin Zephaniah Q&A: "My first racist attack was a brick in the back of the head"". New Statesman . 4 December 2017. Retrieved 9 December 2017.
  27. "Recipients of Honorary Awards". Staffordshire University. Archived from the original on 22 February 2013. Retrieved 16 April 2013.
  28. Collins, Tony (2008) "University honour for Doug Eliis",Birmingham Mail, 11 July 2008
  29. Perry, Kevin (7 March 2006). "Benjamin Zephaniah interview about Naked". London: The Beaver . Retrieved 29 September 2010.
  30. "TalkAwhile UK Acoustic music forum". Retrieved 10 May 2011.
  31. "Best Original Song". 3 August 2008. Retrieved 10 May 2011.
  32. Zephaniah, Benjamin (2014). Terror Kid. Bloomsbury. ISBN   978-1471401770.
  33. Jonasson, Jonas (15 August 2017). "S&S scoops Zephaniah's memoir". The Bookseller. Retrieved 27 August 2018.
  34. Lazell, Barry (1997) Indie Hits 1980–1989, Cherry Red Books, ISBN   0-9517206-9-4