“No way Mr Blair, no way Mrs Queen. I am profoundly anti-empire”. An abiding memory for many of us was when Benjamin Zepahaniah refused an OBE with these words in 2003. Such a glorious refusal!
He was a self-proclaimed anarchist, a role model for many young people, a vegan, a great enthusiast for Jeremy Corbyn’s politics, a passionate activist supporting numerous causes and an Aston Villa supporter.
It is difficult to even begin to do Benjamin justice. He died on 7th December aged 65, and his achievements and impact were outstanding. During his life he accomplished a breathtaking level of activity and he contributed to so much cultural life and to so many causes. He became known and loved for his writing, poetry and literature for all ages, for acting, music, appearing on both television and radio and for his activism. He espoused many causes and promoted them in his unique way with characteristic energy and passion, always prepared to speak out and challenge the establishment. He received many awards and was sometimes referred to as “the people’s laureate”, but his life was not about pursuing fame and stature. His achievements were even more remarkable when we consider that the odds were not stacked in his favour; a young Black lad from Birmingham, with a violent father, involved in petty crime that landed him in prison for a time.
He moved to London in 1979, and in 1980 his first collection, Pen Rhythm, was published. He dealt with issues such as poverty and racism, to which he had been subjected many times. His second collection, The Dread Affair: Collected Poems (1985), contained several attacks on the British legal system, and Rasta Time in Palestine (1990) was a collection of poems and a travelogue, an account of his visit to Palestine.
WIth his writing influenced by Jamaican music and poetry and Rastafari and backed by dub reggae music, he was attempting to break down social barriers and make poetry more accessible to everyone. He also did this both by encouraging ethnic minority representation in children’s literature and by other means of making literature accessible. He described himself as a street poet and explained the reasons for his enthusiasm for rap: “Rap comes from the oral tradition. The oral tradition gives voice to those who would have otherwise been voiceless.” He did not see poetry “as a luxury,” but “a vital necessity of the human spirit.”
He was widely acclaimed and, among numerous other awards, won the BBC Young Playwright’s Award and received at least 16 honorary doctorates. He appeared in The Times list of the 50 greatest post-war writers in 2008 and in Ealing Hospital a ward was named after him. Also in 2008 he received the award for the Best Original Song in The Hancocks. He received a British Academy Television Award (BAFTA) and the Lew Grade Award for Best Entertainment Programme in 2021. This was for Life & Rhymes which was featured on Sky Arts. Benjamin was poet-in-residence at the chambers of the QC Michael Mansfield, and sat in on various cases, including the inquiry into Bloody Sunday. In May 2011, he spent a year as poet-in-residence at Keats House in Hampstead in London. Keats was one of his favourite poets. In the same year he also took up the appointment of Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Brunel University.
Many of the mainstream media outlets’ obituaries focus on Benjamin’s contribution to culture and list the awards he received but others, including Jewish Voice for Labour, emphasise his fight for justice in the UK and beyond. He was an activist for decades, championed the marginalised, and he supported the Palestinians for most of his life. He was known for his commitment to fighting for what is right. “When I was young,” he said, “there were two things that I really wanted to see; a free South Africa, and a free Palestine.” He was a Patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC), another group which is mourning the loss of such an inspirational figure. Benjamin was honoured in more than one speech at a march in London this month in support of the people of Palestine.
In 2010, Benjamin spoke to Democracy Now: “I didn’t know big words like ‘democracy.’ I didn’t know the difference between left or right or anything like that. I just knew I was suffering racism, I was suffering police brutality, our schools were run down, our houses were run down, and I wanted to speak about it. It was political, but I couldn’t spell the word ‘politics’. I just wanted to talk about the conditions we lived in.”
Perhaps less well-known is that Benjamin was an advocate for animal rights and championed the vegan way of life. He became a vegan aged 13 and, when he was bullied at school, he remarked that he preferred the company of animals: “Amazingly, I never met a racist animal.” He pointed out that there were parallels between the way that his forebears had been enslaved and the way in which wild animals in circuses are exploited: ”The way animals are carted around reminds me of the slavery of my people… The slavery of animals has to be ended too.” In 2001 he published The Little Book of Vegan Poems. Benjamin mentioned the climate crisis in his poetry well before many others realised that we were approaching a crisis. As well as his concern for animal rights, he had the same concern for the future of the planet and all the life it supports.
Benjamin’s impact was not only great but was felt by a considerable range of different groups, causes and individuals. His poetry and the way he delivered it were unique. He broke down barriers and determinedly encouraged young Black people and all those he felt did not have a voice or were suffering from injustice. Emma Lewis in Global Voice paid tribute to him: “A unique creative, Zephaniah put his own stamp on poetry in Britain, becoming a beloved artist and performer who crossed all boundaries. He also offered hope and support to Black British youth, and sought to heal the fractured society engendered by colonialism, racism and social injustice. There is no doubt that his voice, at once humane, refreshing and challenging, will be greatly missed.”