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.