In Memory of Benjamin Zephaniah (1958–2023)

Artists and writers remember ‘the people’s poet’, whose prolific career foregrounded the power of the pen in engaging meaningful social commentary

BY Yomi Ṣode, Axel Kacoutié, Shaheen Baig AND Rianna Jade Parker in Opinion | 13 DEC 23

‘When an elder dies,’ the adage goes, ‘a library burns down.’ This sentiment is particularly resonant as artists, writers, poets, musicians and countless others mourn the recent passing of poet and campaigner Benjamin Zephaniah.

Born in Handsworth, Birmingham, in 1958, Zephaniah's first book of poetry, Pen Rhythm (1980), fearlessly tackled everything from Thatcherite politics to the rise of the National Front through the power of rhyme. His subsequent works, Talking Turkeys (1994) and Funky Chickens (1996), a compilation of street poems covering topics as wide-ranging as racism and veganism, were published for children but maintained their unapologetic political tilt. These early releases marked the beginning of a prolific career that foregrounded the potency of the pen and spoken word in engaging in meaningful social commentary.

For multiple generations of people in the UK, Zephaniah's poetry was a gust of wind, sweeping away the dust from time-bound books, liberating stanzas from their tired dance with hackneyed metres. Through live performances and televised readings, he infused each word with the spark of life; the alphabet came dancing and jittering off the page, directly into people’s homes, reaching audiences previously believed to be disaffected by poetry. His achievements were all the more remarkable for the fact that Zephaniah only properly learned to read and write at the age of 21.

Refusing to become an establishment figure, despite the inclusion of his work in the national school curriculum in the 1990s and the offer – which he refused – of an OBE from Queen Elizabeth II, Zephaniah's uncompromising politics and rebellious spirit have propelled his memory beyond that of simple literary hero. Below, two poets, a writer and a casting director have come together to share a few words on how ‘the people’s poet’ inspired their work and imaginations. –Angel Lambo

Benjamin Zephaniah portrait
Benjamin Zephaniah. Courtesy: United Agents/Bloomsbury Publishing; photograph: Adrian Pope

Yomi Ṣode

Benjamin Zephaniah’s legacy is of such a great scale that I feel like he walks with me every day. That kind of impact is only possible with someone who takes – not asks for – the permission to assert their autonomy and interrogate the world around them. Whether it’s his courage, his philosophy, or the fact that he represented a distinctly Black British experience, his words continue to surge through the spirits of generations of people.  

Seeing him smile through a poetry set, or cracking jokes mid-interview, always filled me with joy. He was equal parts happiness and anarchy. His vim and his style were unmatched. He reminded me that I could do it too; be funny, as well as daring. I could write that uncomfortable poem knowing the likes of Benjamin have paved the way.

There is a sad beauty in not having known him personally, but I have seen the traces of his influence on other poets, filmmakers, novelists and curators. Now, he will continue to orbit my career and practice through a cultivated community; a community ensuring that we never forget his name. This is how his work lives on.  

Benjamin Zephaniah 2010 graduation by David Morris
Benjamin Zephaniah becomes an honorary graduate at Hull University, 2010. Courtesy and photograph: David Morris

Axel Kacoutié

Loss has a way of reminding poets that words are not enough. You can write and still not say anything. You can sing, hum, strum and drum and still feel incomplete. There’s a valley between Zephaniah’s memory and legacy. In there, establishments will speak of a ‘pioneer’, a ‘genius’, and maybe a ‘rebel’, but on the streets the words of the people will echo: ‘teacher, rasta, revolutionary, friend.'

As a young man in Birmingham, dealing with the violent, racist and oppressive realities not only of the UK government but also the National Front, he refused to turn the other cheek. Instead he declared that ‘self-defence is no offence’ – a slogan made popular during the fight against the Front in the early 1980s – in his reggae album Back to Roots (1995). This moral and philosophical clarity enabled him to embody a political rage that didn’t fade with age.

He knew that art wasn’t neutral. He understood that every creative decision was political. In my practice, now more than ever, I’m confronted with the question: are we, the minoritized people, manufacturing liberal illusions of our struggle, or are we, the global majority, finding liberatory truths? Zephaniah knew the answer, and with every pen stroke and drum strike he led those who heard the call down less-trodden creative paths.

Benjamin Zephaniah, Spotify artist page portrait
Benjamin Zephaniah. Courtesy: Spotify

Shaheen Baig

I first became aware of Benjamin’s work while at primary school in Birmingham. He was quite the local hero. His words stood out, his poetry was exciting and he made me feel different: seen and heard. Many years later, I was casting actors for the first series of Peaky Blinders (2013–2022), a television series set in Birmingham, and I wanted to find someone who felt iconic – a hometown legend.

Benjamin felt like the most natural choice to play Jeremiah Jesus, a preacher who would be a friend to the protagonist family – the Shelbys – throughout the series, a character who was a beacon of the community. Like Benjamin, he became the eyes and ears of those who were underappreciated and overlooked in society. Benjamin’s childhood growing up in Handsworth and Aston was the backdrop for the show. His casting will remain one of my proudest moments and I will greatly miss his passion, wit and charisma. We’ll have his words forever.

Benjamin Zephaniah, Peaky Blinders, BBC Films
Peaky Blinders, 2013–2022, production still. Courtesy: BBC Films

Rianna Jade Parker

West Indian poetry traditions rarely appeared in state education in the UK. So when his work was briefly included to the national curriculum in the 1990s, his work was my first formal introduction to a British-born Black poet. Growing up in South London and seeing Zephaniah on TV, I found his subtle disobedience exciting and affirming. His well-wrapped crown of locs and warm cadence reminded me of my uncles and brothers; aurally stimulating, highly rhythmic, biting.

Although the content of his work may refer to specific periods and cultural contexts, his dedication to the Black diaspora and to advocating for the liberation of all people around the world has cemented his work in the political continuum. Benjamin’s protest in voice and in print challenged notions of the self, nationhood and demonstrated love as praxis. This kind of poetics, where his intuitive revolutionary sentiments were demonstrated in deed, not just word, will always be revered.

Main image: Benjamin Zephaniah. Courtesy: Bloomsbury Publishing/United Agents; photograph: Adrian Pope

Yomi Ṣode is an award-winning Nigerian-British writer. He is a recipient of the 2019 Jerwood Compton Poetry Fellowship and was shortlisted for The Brunel International African Poetry Prize 2021. His debut collection of poetry and short stories, Manorism, was published by Penguin in 2022.

Axel Kacoutié is an audio artist and poet based in London.

Shaheen Baig is a BAFTA-nominated casting director based in London.

Rianna Jade Parker is a writer, historian and curator. Her first book, A Brief History of Black British Art, was released by Tate Publishing in 2021, and her second is forthcoming from Frances Lincoln. She is an advisory board member for Forensic Architecture, a contributing writer of frieze and a contributing editor of Tate Publishing.