Benjamin Zephaniah: poet, writer, musician, actor & trouble maker (1958 – 2023) – Toni Kan
I met Benjamin Zephaniah, once, in Lagos.
It must have been 1996 or 1997.
Dates blur with age.
I remember that the British Council was still at its old location on Kingsway Road (Now Alfred Rewane) and they had invited him over as they did many black British writers back in the day from Zephaniah to Buchi Emecheta to Diana Evans and even a much younger and not so garlanded Bernadine Evaristo.
He was tall, dreadlocked, animated and charming. His British accent had a tinge of the Caribbean twang and as a young poet and writer; it was as always a pleasure to meet a celebrated writer.
I no longer recall what poems he read. If it was today, there would be a post on X (formerly Twitter) or a selfie on Instagram to mark the meeting. All I remember now is that the poems were fresh and political and delivered in English but inflected with patois and recited over reggae music. He called it “Dub Poetry”.
Speaking about his poetic style he told The Guardian “I wanted to change the image of poetry. I wanted to bring it to life and talk about now and what was happening to us.”
His visit to Lagos was at a time before spoken word poetry became a staple in the Nigerian literary firmament.
Efe Paul and Wana Udobang and Titilope Sonuga were most likely still in secondary school and a long way from becoming the dominant spoken word poets of a generation.
Time passed, we moved on and I had forgotten about Benjamin Zephaniah until 2003 when news came that he had refused an OBE from Queen Elizabeth II
He was emphatic in his refusal. “‘No way, Mrs Queen.’
He would go on to add on a TV show that “I’ve been fighting against empire all my life. I’ve been fighting against slavery and colonialism all my life. I’ve been writing to connect with people, not to impress governments and monarchy. So how could I then go and accept an honour that puts the word ’empire’ onto my name? That would be hypocritical.’
A prolific creative, Benjamin Zephaniah was born Born in Birmingham on 15 April 1958. His birth name was Benjamin Springer but he would adopt Zephaniah after the Old Testament prophet after his first ever poetry performance in a church. Getting into trouble and going to jail as a teen for burglary, he vowed to make something of his life.
Zephaniah dropped out of school at age 13 without being able to read and write. He would learn that he was dyslexic at 21 when he began attending adult education classes in his early 20s after moving to London where he would become known as a politically conscious and active poet who would go on to gain national and international fame.
He wrote novels and poetry collections as well as books for children and young adults. He released seven music albums and played Jeremiah “Jimmy” Jesus, an itinerant preacher and former soldier in the hit TV series Peaky Blinders. His turn in Peaky Blinders brought him to the consciousness of a younger and more global audience.
His poems captured the multifaceted angst of people of colour in multicultural Britain. His poem, “The British Poem” is at once playful and political employing the conceit of a culinary recipe to riff on the multi-diverse nature of contemporary Britain:
Mix some hot Chileans, cool Jamaicans, Dominicans,
Trinidadians and Bajans with some Ethiopians, Chinese,
Vietnamese and Sudanese.
Then take a blend of Somalians, Sri Lankans, Nigerians