Benjamin Zephaniah

Abstract shape
  • By Joy Francis, Executive Director, Words of Colour

    When Museum of Colour’s Samenua Sesher texted that Benjamin Zephaniah had died, tears immediately sprang to my eyes. Disbelieving, I checked The Guardian. My heart felt punched. My mind went numb. Our beloved poet of the people Professor Benjamin Zephaniah had passed, aged 65, on the 7th December 2023.

    Within five minutes of hearing the news, I mindlessly wrote a tweet on the Words of Colour feed and pinned it to the page. Immediate and uncensored, it captured my shock. My denial. My palpable sense of deep loss, like Benjamin was a beloved family member.

    This reaction was a collective one as never since Words of Colour has been on Twitter have I seen such an outpouring of love and positivity in response to a simple, stark, though heartfelt message. In less than a week, 30,000 tweet impressions, 846 likes and 141 shares told us how much he was (and is) missed.

    His unexpected passing, only two months after a diagnosis of a brain tumour, reminds us that life is fleeting and has to be lived intentionally, purposefully. That we cannot take anything or anyone for granted. I believed we had another 20 to 30 years left to enjoy his glorious company, as a poet, musician, activist, playwright, actor, novelist, storyteller, inspirer and legacy-leaver and builder. I was wrong.

    Since the news broke, I’ve heard from friends, family and artists with heartwarming stories to share – of his poetry, meeting him, knowing him, working with him and being inspired by his activism, generosity and outspokenness. As a result, we decided to create a space on our website for invited testimonies in memory of Benjamin.

    The testimonies you will read speak loudly as to why he resonated with virtually everyone on so many levels: creatively, intellectually, politically, poetically and spiritually. On paper he ‘shouldn’t’ have been a global literary success story. Born in Birmingham, his ‘formal’ education ended at 13 years old, unable to read or write due to dyslexia. Yet his informal poetry education showed signs of life at 10 when he performed in a church in Handsworth.

    By the time he was 15, he was performing poetry on international issues with a growing reputation as a Dub poet. A Rastafarian and anarchist, his life trajectory could have taken a different path after he was imprisoned for burglary. After his release, inspired by Jamaica, Marcus Garvey, Bob Marley and Angela Davis, he moved to East London in his early 20s to develop his poetry for a wider audience.

    Aside from seeing him at events and a few conversations, my first proper, in person connection with him was in 2003, when he was supporting the family of David ‘Rocky’ Bennett, killed on 30th October 1998 after being excessively restrained while in a medium secure psychiatric unit in Norwich.

    I was there to help mediate for the family during the public inquiry. Benjamin was there, in love and solidarity. He knew first hand about death at the hands of the state as his cousin Mikey Powell was killed on the 7th September 2003 while in the custody of West Midlands Police. Benjamin was also severely beaten in an unprovoked attack by the police as a 15 year old in Selly Oak.

    His love and solidarity went beyond the borders of Britain. A longstanding supporter and advocate for a free Palestine, he toured the world as a writer, with his band and as an activist, including Brazil, Norway, South Africa, Spain, Mexico, India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Zimbabwe, India, Pakistan, Colombia and China. In 1991, over a 22-day period, he performed on every continent. He also had a Number One Hit Record in the former Yugoslavia where the Rasta LP was released by Helidon.

    For over four decades, since the publication of his first book ‘Pen Rhythm’ (1980), we have watched the self proclaimed ‘poet, writer, lyricist, musician and naughty boy’ evolve as a person and an artist. With nearly 40 books (from poetry collections to children’s books) under his belt, Benjamin never went out of date – or style. When he was off grid, he was writing, visiting schools and prisons, and expanding his spiritual self.

    He recited poetry on the tube and on The Jonathan Ross Show. He was an ardent practitioner of Tai Chi. Awarded at least 16 honorary doctorates, he turned down an OBE and said yes to posing in his socks and underwear in the name of veganism. As an actor he appeared in the internationally acclaimed BBC drama Peaky Blinders, set in his hometown of Birmingham. Despite being racially profiled and tracked while out running in the heart of the English countryside, he divided his time between Lincolnshire and Beijing, China with his second wife Qian Zheng.

    Benjamin was passionate about children being able to express themselves fully, authentically, creatively. One of his last publications, the aptly titled ‘People Need People’, a picture book for three to five year olds, centres the importance of connecting with others and being kind to one another.

    I hope you find joy, hope and inspiration to live life more fully and creatively after reading the generous contributions featured in our humble tribute to Benjamin.

    Thank you so much Professor Benjamin Obadiah Iqbal Zephaniah for being you. RIEP. It is only fitting that we leave the last word to you.

    “It is important to me that the reader ‘overstands’ the political landscape that my poems are written in. I know that I risk being accused of being out of step with the current ‘artistic culture’ that is prevalent in Britain today, but the thing is I don’t have an identity crisis, and I have no wish to write to win awards. I am told that things could be easier for me if I ‘played the game’ but I could never stand on a platform and honestly say that the height of my career was receiving an OBE, and in an environment where the artist is scorned for being political, I have to confess that I still believe that there are things that are more important than me or my poetry.”

    Benjamin’s funeral will be private with close friends and family only, but the family are going to be organising a series of public memorial events in 2024. Details will be shared on the National Mikey Powell Memorial Family Fund website.

    End banner credit: Courtesy of the family of Benjamin Zephaniah and @msoulfires.

    Benjamin Zephaniah - We Remember 2023 (Full Banner1)
  • In memory of Benjamin Zephaniah

    I never had the honour of meeting Benjamin Zephaniah, but his work has left an indelible and lasting impact on me. His rejection of an OBE and the doctrines of empire, his decades long support of Palestine, his dedication to fighting back against police brutality, his work to empower the next generation – all of this has inspired and reinforced in me that this business of publishing is more than what we put out on the page, but what we put into our communities, and how we can use the power of our words to open doors, plant seeds, and light fires in people’s hearts. He will be dearly missed, but I hope he now rests in power knowing we will keep the beacons lit.

    Cherise Lopes-Baker, Executive Commissioning Editor, Tate Children's Publishing

    Like so many of us I am devastated by the untimely passing of Benjamin. It’s totally beyond words to think about it. I often use his poetry in my workshops. My favourite poem by Benjamin is called ‘For Word’. It appears in one of his earlier children’s anthologies – ‘Funky Chickens’. It’s a beautiful celebration of words and so fitting of Benjamin’s unique creativity. It’s always warmly appreciated. Benjamin has left us all an amazing legacy and many happy memories.

    Sandra Agard, Storyteller, Author and Cultural Historian

    BBC Radio 4 Book Club, Benjamin Zephaniah 

    7 February 2011 @ Bush House, London | First aired on Sunday 6 March 2011 

    Back in the day I regularly blogged at Black Book News. It was my diary – what we would now call journalling. Through it I shared the books, literary events and news about black authors from around the world. And because of this I heard Benjamin Zephaniah speak about his writing and what drove him to write, yet strangely I couldn’t remember ever speaking to him.

    I had bought ‘Refugee Boy’ as a gift for my godchildren many years before and I had my own copy. However I knew where I was and remember the atmosphere generated at a BBC Radio 4 Book Club event, hosted over a decade after ‘Refugee Boy’ had been first published. We gathered at BBC Bush House to discuss what inspired the much-loved poet, and now novelist, to write a book. You can still hear this programme as it’s still available online, over another decade later.

    The best moment for me was when a 15-year-old who was the same age as the book’s lead character Alem read from the book. As Benjamin explains in the programme, he was severely dyslexic and so was unable to read his own story to us. It didn’t matter as he spoke so clearly of the issues of refugees from around the world.

    I recently found my copy of ‘Refugee Boy’. In it is written: Dear Tricia, Stay Great, Benjamin Zephaniah. Reading that now, I am so touched.

    RIEP. Thank you Benjamin for your stories, your writing and for saying what needed to be said.

    Tricia Wombell - Coordinator, Black Reading Group, Booklover, Retired Blogger, Co-Founder of Black Book Swap 

    I shall remember Benjamin as an innovator, supremely talented and a man who would find time to help aspiring writers. He really cared for his community. I’ll never forget his kind words for my novel, CANE WARRIORS. He said I was a brother from another mother. That meant so much to me.

    Alex Wheatle, Writer, Playwright and Screenwriter

    My childhood would not have been the same without Benjamin and his work. I read his book ‘Face’ when I was 13. I was in deaf schools and SEN units at the time and ‘Face’ was the first book I ever read that seemed to humanise disability and challenge the idea of someone with a disfigurement. Media to this day often portrays characters with disabilities/disfigurements as villains / unlikeable or one dimensional pity ploys, but Benjamin wrote a story of hope and recovery where the characters around the protagonist are themselves challenged to look again and consider the true beauty of human connection.

    Raymond Antrobus, Poet and Author

    I met a kindred spirit in Benjamin Zephaniah when I interviewed him for my PhD research about Rastafari absence in drug reform activism in the UK. Our conversation became a reasoning session about spirituality. We connected in conversation with openness, vulnerability, and honesty.

    Benjamin, you discerned that the way of justice was your path and you stood in your truth. With the spirit of Sankofa, you looked back while in flight with dexterity and ingenuity. Alchemist and visionary, your breath weaved words that implored us to listen deeply and create new realities. Thank you. May your spirit continue your adventure.

    Dr Yewande Okuleye PhD, Health and Environmental Humanities Research and Public Engagement

    The day I submitted my debut poetry book coincided with the day you departed. The week before, I had re-visited your enchanting creations and reminisced about your visit to my junior school. The reverberations of your performances and reading your words from ‘Talking Turkeys’ opened my eyes as an impressionable child, and inspired me. Just like countless others you influenced, you helped fuel my passion for sharing and performing poems. Your departure saddened me deeply, but your impactful life and boundless legacy endure. From the bottom of my heart, I thank you. Rest in peace.

    Rochelle LoRo, Spoken Word Poet and Nutritionist

    I met Benjamin when he was first published by Bogle L’Overture, founded by the late Jessica and Eric Huntley early 1980s. I remember being struck by his presence, his humility and beauty. When I worked at Black Londoners with Juliet Alexander and Alex Pascall, he was a kind and humble guest we used to get positive feedback about from listeners.

    Back then, I used to regularly attend community events, whether it be the International Book Fair, the New Cross Fire uprising and black women’s movement gigs. Benjamin had a special relationship with East London Black Women’s Organisation and Newham Bookshop which became my go to place to track Benjamin down as he was often on the bill. He was a professional. He was the real deal. He really was the people’s poet.

    I have been a long-time activist and cultural champion and last worked with Benjamin when I was the consultant for Camden Black History Month at Kilburn library. I remember the event well when Sonia Winifred Head of Libraries was absolutely thrilled for me to book him and have him interviewed by Rashed Ogunlaru and local poet and lawyer Marsha Prescod.

    Mia Morris, Founder,

    My memory is the poem ‘Sonny’. A timeless poem. A message that resonates with us today. Sadly I never had the privilege of meeting you. Family, we feel your loss. He is at peace.

    Elaine Shariff 

    I did a drawing of Benjamin in 2017 and invited him to the Norman Cross Gallery for my ‘This Is Me’ exhibition to view the drawing in person. He called me the Sunday morning, after his gig at the Jazz Cafe in London. “Is the exhibition still on?” he asked. It wasn’t but we opened the gallery and he popped in. He spoke about his meeting with Nelson Mandela among other things. He accepted a print of the drawing, signed a print and the back of the original drawing. Thank you Benjamin Zephaniah for being encouraging and supportive of my work.

    Tony Nero,

    Revolutionary, warrior, but loving and gentle too. Your impact on me is indelible. Against all odds, you fought, overcame, shone and the brilliance of your life and legacy will continue to shine for all time, brighter than the sun. We met over two decades ago. A deep and enduring bond developed. Some crazy years followed, but we stayed friends till the end. I will be forever grateful that you took my call, heard my voice. You departed so soon after. Sincerest, heartfelt condolences to the family. Benjamin will forever be loved, cherished and adored.

    Lorelle Royeppen, Friend

    I was one of Benjamin Zephaniah’s students studying Creative Writing at Brunel University. I was lucky enough to have Benjamin as one of my lecturers for performance poetry. He was so inspirational as a Black British role model, but also just a very down to earth person. He gave us invaluable advice and really showed us his world, and the people he’s helped as well. It gave me a whole new dimension to my writing. I’m forever grateful.

    Latisha Wright

    My favourite memory of Prof. Zephaniah is when I had the pleasure of interviewing him for my research. The conversation was warm, expansive and edifying. We covered a wide range of topics, from the obvious (poetry) to the significance of community bookshops, vegan ackee recipes, musings on Ozzy Osborne and Bob Marley, discussions on racism and other social justice matters, and insights into navigating the landscape as a black poet in British publishing. I’m always struck by this line in his poem, ‘Who’s who’:

    I used to think poets

    Were boring,

    Until I became one of them.

    What I find truly inspiring about Benjamin was his commitment to connecting young people with the beauty of poetry. He had this remarkable ability to show them that being a poet is not reserved for a select few but a potential within each of them waiting to be explored. It’s a legacy that genuinely speaks to the heart of his impact on aspiring poets.

    Dr Melanie Ramdarshan Bold, Children's and YA scholar, University of Glasgow

    To have listened to Benjamin on stage or on audio is to realise one’s history. He voiced the current issues of life. Benjamin was a true example of determination. His unique observations, crystallised vivid images of Britain and the world, powers the hopes, despairs and yearnings of millions of people from diverse cultures. He observed the planet, capturing its tragedies and hypocrisy with devastating clarity. His whole life was based around raising political awareness and addressing his passion for equal rights and justice.

    To have known him as a person was to discover that he was truly remarkable. What inspired me most about Benjamin was his uncommon outlook on the world, and his confidence in staying true to his calling.

    Colin Graham

    One of my favourite poems of Benjamin’s is ‘The One Minutes of Silence’. It makes me tremble. He let us include it in an anthology, Dance the Guns to Silence:100 poems for Ken Saro Wiwa. This is just one way in which he was generous. Once he’d published a poem, he let it go if someone could use one of his poems for a good cause. Poetry saved him. He wanted his poetry to save other people. For those of us who have had loved ones die due to state violence, this poem is so deep. It’s one of the things we would talk about as his cousin Mikey Powell, and my cousin Sheku Bayoh both died at the hands of the police. It seemed that often when I spoke to him, he’d been to a funeral. We often talked about mortality, funerals, ancestors and legacy.

    Kadija Sesay, Poet, Academic, Literary Activist and Founder/Publisher of SABLE LitMag

    I remember being seven years old and seeing a video of ‘Talking Turkeys,’ then reading the book. This was one of my first introductions to poetry. It was loud. It was rhythmic. It was funny. It was political (something I came to realise a bit later). It was by someone who looked like me and my family. Cliches exist for a reason, so I’m happy to go with an obvious poem from his repertoire and go one step further to say that it was instrumental in inspiring me to become a poet.

    Keisha Thompson, Poet

    My mentor and friend, Brother Benjamin Zephaniah has passed. I’m totally heartbroken and shocked. Forever thankful for his poetry, writings, spoken word performances, worldly humanitarian actions, animal and mental health campaigns and his personal support for me and WAPPY. He helped shaped my work as a performance artiste, writer and activist. Brother Benjamin was the most generous spirit I knew.

    In 2014 Brother Benjamin also visited WAPPY at Ealing Library in 2014 where 15 young writers/artists interviewed him about his life work as well as entertained him. He also contributed to WAPPY’s 2018 publication ‘Wonderful World of WAPPY’.

    Yeda Wase, we thank you my Brother. Rest in Power BZ. The People’s Poetical Friend

    Grace Quansah (Akuba), Poet, Storyteller and Founder of WAPPY - Writing, Acting and Publishing Project for Youngsters

    Alas, I never met Benjamin. I was incredibly sad by his passing though. For me, he’s one of a very few poets who are known beyond the poetry world. My mum knows who he is as do my friends. You didn’t have to be a poetry/literary bod to know of him and I think that’s hugely important. It demonstrated his ability to speak his words and his truth in a way that was open and accessible, and we don’t have many poets who are truly like that. He’ll be greatly missed.

    Annette, Playwright

    I shall always cherish the personal conversation that I had with Brother Professor Benjamin Zephaniah at the Sister Empowerment Circle event, Saturday 29th June 2019. During our personal chat, following brother Professor Benjamin Zephaniah’s acceptance of the Honouring and Valuing our Brothers with Love Certificate of Recognition for his exemplary arts and culture activist work, he shared his views on a number of social concerns.

    Let us all that love the great, legendary Benjamin Zephaniah, never forget please that he is also a Reparations Leader.


    Alesia Greenidge, Author

    I was at work at the time, as a teacher, taking a well-earned break from my many children. I decided to check my email for any new messages which come throughout the day – and to scroll through the latest news. When l read that the Professor had passed away, l genuinely let out a sorrowful sigh and found that my hand had instantly clasped itself over my mouth in utter shock and surprise, As the day progressed, I felt a sincere sense of loss and sadness.

    R.I.P Professor. Sadly missed but never forgotten.

  • What is your favourite memory of meeting Benjamin?

    Our shared love of the martial arts Taiji (Tai Chi). During a visit, he performed his Chen Style Form for me at his gym. He loved doing it so much, and it was so inspiring to watch him.

    What is your favourite memory of seeing Benjamin or hearing Benjamin perform his work?

    I remember sitting in his studio. He would play a recording and rhyme to it. He showed so much energy and calmness at the same time. It was such an extremely unique quality he had.

    What is your favourite poem, play or book of his? 

    ‘Having a Word’ from ‘Too Black, Too Strong’ – it opened my eyes to the reality of the world in which we live in.

    What do you feel / believe is Benjamin’s biggest gift and/or legacy?

    There are so many things, but for me his biggest legacy was showing others how doing what you truly love can bring so much spirit and passion to your life.

    How has his passing impacted you?

    I want to live in spirit, passion and openness as he did, doing what I love.

    Samantha Watson, Artist and Digital Entrepreneur

    What is your favourite memory of seeing Benjamin or hearing Benjamin perform his work?

    Hearing a Midlands voice on the radio alongside his love of punk and reggae, and talking about sus and racial discrimination. Hearing ‘Dis Policeman Keep on Kicking Me to Death’.

    What is your favourite poem, play or book of his?

    ‘We Refugees’ and ‘The British’. Both poems deeply resonated with me. They are simple, pithy yet neatly encapsulate world history. The power to be able to tell the story of empire and the human race from a different perspective, through oppressed eyes. To talk about the struggles faced by refugees and migrants.

    What do you feel / believe is Benjamin’s biggest gift and/or legacy?

    His wisdom, his humour, his honesty, his integrity, and the ability to lead by example. To have the courage to believe in his convictions and to put his head above the parapet.

    How has his passing impacted you?

    Growing up in the 1980s, he was the backdrop to my youth, to my social awakening around race, education, and history. He gave my generation a voice. He taught us about social injustice, peace, and kindness.

    Veena Josh, Activist

  • Poetry inspired by Benjamin Zephaniah

    Only admiration via reputation,
    Experiencing willing, virtual participation
    as lockdown gripped community sections
    He gave positive contribution.
    Not just tripping words from the tongue…He got the job done!
    Excellent example of eloquence as Nubian
    Yard man, Roots man. Honourable Man
    Able to look hypocrisy in the eyes
    Standing,  No Compromise
    Yet now, to reside by the side
    Of Our Father of Creation
    His Gift & Legacy shall live on
    We walk in Rights and write of wrongs
    Inspiration with education, regardless of where One is from
    Thank You for being You, Blessed Son of The Creator…
    R I E P…Benjamin Zephaniah.

    Dionne Kerr 

    I was commissioned to write a poetic tribute to Benjamin Zephaniah by Culture Matter.  I hope it speaks to you and would be honoured if you cared to share it.

    Jenny Mitchell, Poet

    The Day Mr Zephaniah Died
    after Frank O’Hara

    On the seventh day of the twelfth month
    2023, at the National Maritime Museum, a minute
    since the break began, I wish the woman in my class
    would not look at her phone, tell us you are gone,
    leaving this behind – a chill that traps
    the room when freedom is our aim – to write
    that poetry can open prison doors. Your voice was key
    to that great task, Brummie to your core
    with a prophet’s force, labelled worthless by police
    when only a young man, growing strong enough
    with words to decline an OBE, your stated aim
    to bring empire down – rhythm and not guns,
    rhymes instead of bombs.

    We fill the break with Is it true? Perhaps
    a dreadful hoax,
     checking every phone, the chill
    ten minutes long – seeing it writ large,
    your birth date and your death.

    Now the class must share a poem –
    Langston Hughes alive again – Freedom
    will not come… through compromise and fear.

    But the man who reads this out in a gentle voice
    has to stop, contain his tears the day that you are gone.

    Jenny Mitchell

    My youngest has been studying poetry in school and they were tasked to write a poem in the style of Benjamin Zephaniah. Thought I’d share it as it was the best in his class and it might make you smile.
    Kate Symonds, Architectural Designer

    Smelly Sprouts

    Sprouts are mekkin ya breath terrible man,
    The brussley little fellas are rotten flesh balls.
    Don’t eat dem massive bogeys dis Christmas.

    Trust me young fellas out dere, dese green monsters are ‘orrible.

    We don’t want ya fartin on the best day of da year!
    Da sprouts aren’t de only ones stinkin out ya beautiful house,
    Do you really want to embarrass yourself infront of yer homies?
    So don’t eat dem rotten flesh ballz dis Christmas,
    Just say nah to them fart ballz dis Christmas!

    Tom Symonds, aged 11

    The People’s Poetical Friend

    Brother Benjamin Zephaniah,
    Your poetry and lyrics keep me ever-inspired.
    Grounded reasonings are rife
    Of your political passions in life

    With humour and honesty, you connect with your fans,
    By keeping it real and making a stand,
    On grassroots issues including animal rights,
    Through your work, young and mature aspire to great heights.

    Today 60 Earthstrong years you celebrate!
    I wish you eternal happiness on this special date,

    Congratulations on your new book, an exciting biography,
    As soon as I can I’ll buy one to read.

    Give thanks Brother Ben,
    For supporting our local libraries’ campaign,
    And for biggin up WAPPY,
    You’ve inspired members to immeasurable ends.

    In Jah’s time I’m sure Ealing will welcome you again,
    Bless up, Happy Earthday, Peace and Love
    The people’s poetical friend.

    Akuba x 2018

    Grace Quansah (Akuba)
  • Photographs courtesy of Grace Quansah (Akuba).
    Photo credit: Duane Jay

    • IMG-20231212-WA0008
    • IMG-20231212-WA0009
    • IMG-20231212-WA0010
    • IMG-20231212-WA0012
    • IMG-20231212-WA0013
    • IMG-20231212-WA0015
  • @jrossshow Benjamin Zephaniah: Writer, poet and Peaky Blinders star has passed away at the age of 65. Here he is performing “Overstanding” on The Jonathan Ross Show back in October 2022, a poem about connection. #thejrshow #benjaminzephaniah #peakyblinders #jonathanross ♬ original sound – The Jonathan Ross Show

    @c4news “I’m an anarchist – I believe this needs to be torn down, I believe we need to start again.” Poet and writer Benjamin Zephaniah has died at the age of 65. In 2018 he told us his political philosophy for changing the world. #BenjaminZephaniah #Zephaniah #Poetry #Poet #UKNews #NewsUK #UK #poetrylover #poetrytok #poetry🥀 #poetrylovers ♬ original sound – Channel 4 News