It’s with great sad­ness that I Am Hip Hop Magazine announces the death of poet and author Ben­jamin Oba­di­ah Iqbal Zephaniah. In an era where many people of col­our accept appoint­ments from the mon­archy, Zephaniah stood firm in the rejec­tion of such things and cri­tiqued those who accep­ted on grounds of inclus­iv­ity, great­er plat­form and pro-mon­archy fam­ily history;

 “…these rock stars, suc­cess­ful women, and ex-mil­it­ants write to me with the OBE after their name as if I should be impressed. I’m not. Quite the oppos­ite — you’ve been had.”

Dubbed by some sec­tions of the press as “Mr. No‑B.E”, Zephaniah fam­ously rejec­ted an O.B.E (Office of the Brit­ish Empire) appoint­ment for ser­vices to lit­er­at­ure in 2003, he out­lined his reas­on­ing in a Guard­i­an news­pa­per art­icle in Novem­ber that year, the open­ing para­graph I believe is worth quot­ing in full;

“Me? I thought, OBE me? Up yours, I thought. I get angry when I hear that word “empire”; it reminds me of slavery, it reminds of thou­sands of years of bru­tal­ity, it reminds me of how my fore­moth­ers were raped and my fore­fath­ers bru­tal­ised. It is because of this concept of empire that my Brit­ish edu­ca­tion led me to believe that the his­tory of black people star­ted with slavery and that we were born slaves, and should there­fore be grate­ful that we were giv­en free­dom by our caring white mas­ters. It is because of this idea of empire that black people like myself don’t even know our true names or our true his­tor­ic­al cul­ture. I am not one of those who are obsessed with their roots, and I’m cer­tainly not suf­fer­ing from a crisis of iden­tity; my obses­sion is about the future and the polit­ic­al rights of all people. Ben­jamin Zephaniah OBE — no way Mr Blair, no way Mrs Queen. I am pro­foundly anti-empire.” (Guard­i­an, Novem­ber 27th 2003.)

Zephaniah also used the art­icle to high­light the case of his cous­in Michael Pow­ell who died under sus­pi­cious cir­cum­stances whilst in cus­tody at Thornhill Road police sta­tion, Birm­ing­ham and called out the then Prime min­is­ter Tony Blair for writ­ing to him to dis­cuss the award but ignor­ing his requests to dis­cuss his cous­in’s death.

Born on 15th April 1958 in Handsworth Birm­ing­ham, Zephaniah was the son of a Jamaic­an moth­er and a Bar­ba­di­an fath­er who were a nurse and a post­man respect­ively. He was dys­lex­ic and he left school at the age of 13, being unable to read or write. He joined a gang and spent time in a bor­stal and served a pris­on sen­tence for burg­lary. He would go on to pion­eer a style of per­form­ance poetry that was primar­ily com­posed to be spoken aloud and spoken aloud with oth­ers, stat­ing that “Writ­ing books was the last thing on my agenda.”

His first col­lec­tion of poetry Pen Rhythm was released in 1980 after he moved to Strat­ford East Lon­don at the age of 22 and got involved with a worker’s coöper­at­ive. Zephaniah recalled that his very lim­ited writ­ing skills meant that he had to write the book phon­et­ic­ally; “How I thought the words would look.” and hav­ing to show it to people for help; “When I pub­lished my first book, I could­n’t read or write so I wanted to reach people like myself.”

1982 saw the release of his first EP Dub Rant­ing, which was pro­duced by Dub pro­du­cer Mad Pro­fess­or and 1983 also saw the release of his first album Rasta, from Upright Records. Zephaniah’s offi­cial web­site describes the record as “World Music before World Music” describ­ing it as “Roots reg­gae but with sit­ar, man­dolin, oboe, and west Afric­an drum­ming.The album was recor­ded with the sur­viv­ing mem­bers of Bob Mar­ley’s band The Wail­ers. Anec­dotes of a very young Zephaniah writ­ing to Bob Mar­ley and get­ting a reply that inspired him to be a great Brit­ish writer have recently resur­faced on social media. The album includes a trib­ute to the incar­cer­ated Nel­son Man­dela who would go on to work with Zephaniah on con­certs and social pro­jects and also described Zephaniah as his favour­ite poet.

Rasta along with Dread Beat an’ Blood (1978) from Lin­ton Kwesi John­son are con­sidered sem­in­al records for the Dub Poetry genre. Zephaniah would have an ambi­val­ent rela­tion­ship with the Dub Poet Label that was applied to his work.

Zephaniah made his first tele­vi­sion appear­ance in 1983 in the doc­u­ment­ary film Pen Rhythm Poet by Simon Heav­en which was broad­cast on Chan­nel 4. His second col­lec­tion of poetry The Dread Affair was released in 1985 and in 1989 he was nom­in­ated for the pos­i­tion of Oxford Pro­fess­or of Poetry.

His third col­lec­tion, Rasta Time in Palestine was released in 1990 and Talk­ing Tur­keys, his first children’s book was pub­lished in 1994. Talk­ing Tur­keys pro­pelled Zephaniah to great­er main­stream suc­cess and had to be reprin­ted 6 weeks after release in order to keep up with the demand. The Inde­pend­ent on Sunday described Zephaniah as “…the reign­ing king of chil­dren’s poetry… He has an unself­con­scious rel­ish for lan­guage and word-play that nev­er strays into the pat­ron­ising dee-dum-dee-dum-dee-dum ter­rit­ory of so much of chil­dren’s poetry: his are poems that bounce up from the page and demand to be read, rapped, sung and hip-hopped aloud.”. The Times described it as  “poetry with attitude.”

1995 saw a  music­al col­lab­or­a­tion with Sinéad O’Connor on the track Empire by Bomb the Bass. Zephaniah also appeared on the track Rid­dim I like from the album Com­munity Music by Asi­an Dub Found­a­tion in 2000.

In 1997, Zephaniah appeared on BBC’s Desert Island Discs. A pro­gramme where guests are asked to pick their favour­ite records and couple of bonus items that would take if they were cast­away on a desert island. He dis­cussed his brand of per­form­ance poetry and the wear­i­ness around oth­er labels being applied to his work like Dub poetry. His record selec­tion was a mix of folk and reg­gae tracks with a Bally Sagoo track thrown in for good meas­ure, a ref­er­ence to his Birm­ing­ham roots and the cul­tur­al and music­al melt­ing pot that gave rise to UK Bhangra. His chosen book was The Poet­ic­al Works of Shel­ley and chosen lux­ury item was “The law of the land.”, so he could break it!

His col­lec­tion Too Black Too Strong  was released in 2001 after a 5 year hiatus. The col­lec­tion took its title from the 1963 speech, “Mes­sage to the Grass Roots” by Mal­colm X; “It’s just like when you’ve got some cof­fee that’s too black, which means it’s too strong.” The phrase was also used in the track Bring the Noise by Pub­lic Enemy from 1987 and sub­sequent Hip Hop and Jungle records.

Too Black Too Strong fea­tured poems writ­ten while Zephaniah was work­ing as Poet in Res­id­ence with bar­ris­ters who were involved in the Steph­en Lawrence case and the Bloody Sunday Inquiry.

Of the col­lec­tion, Zephaniah said,

‘These poems are about how I feel now…The more I travel, the more I love Bri­tain, and it is because I love the place that I fight for my rights here…It is prob­ably one of the only places that could take an angry, illit­er­ate, uneducated, ex-hust­ler, rebel­li­ous Rasta­far­i­an and give him the oppor­tun­ity to rep­res­ent his country…I live in two places, Bri­tain and the world, and it is my duty to explore and express the state of justice in both of them…I want the “pro­ject” to work. The day will come when we move from the mar­gins and come to the centre; I just want it to be today.’ 

We are Bri­tain from 2022 dealt with sim­il­ar issues and his crit­ic­ally acclaimed auto­bi­o­graphy The Life and Rhymes of Ben­jamin Zephaniah was released in 2018.

Zephaniah was an Anarch­ist and an act­iv­ist with the Palestine Solid­ar­ity Cam­paign he also endorsed Jeremy Corbyn in the 2019 gen­er­al elec­tion. An act­ing role in the tele­vi­sion series Peaky Blinders from 2013 to 2022 brought him to a new­er gen­er­a­tion. He was also a vegan since the age of 13 and took up pat­ron­ages at vari­ous vegan soci­et­ies and was a reg­u­lar fix­ture at vari­ous vegan fairs and festivals.

Rest in Power Ben­jamin Oba­di­ah Iqbal Zephaniah, in reject­ing your OBE you became not only “The Bard of Strat­ford.” but also “The People’s Laureate”. 


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DJ Isuru is a music journ­al­ist and broad­caster on SOAS Radio. He also runs the Mishti Dance event series fea­tur­ing the best in Asi­an Under­ground.


DJ Isuru is a music journalist and broadcaster on SOAS Radio. He also runs the Mishti Dance event series featuring the best in Asian Underground.