Benjamin Zephaniah in Rasta colours

Dub Poet: Benjamin Zephaniah

Posted by Speakeasy News > Friday 08 December 2023 > Celebrate

We were very sad to hear of the sudden death of Benjamin Zephaniah, one of Britain’s most popular poets. Benjamin Zephaniah said the art of poetry, and of life, is in how you look at things. Perhaps not surprising for a man of many faces: a dyslexic who left school at 13, who became a university professor. A Rasta poet who was by turns fiercely political and a children’s favourite.

Benjamin Zephaniah, the son of Jamaican and Barbadian immigrants, was born and raised in 1960s Birmingham. He did badly at school, hindered by undiagnosed dyslexia, and seemed doomed to be the stereotypical young black failure: reform school, petty crime and a short spell in prison. But instead he forged a successful career as a performance poet, “dubbing” his poems to reggae backing tracks.

Zephaniah was the only living poet to be voted into the top ten of the BBC’s “Nation’s Favourite Poet”. In addition to his many albums and poetry collections for adults and children, he wrote plays, screenplays, and several acclaimed novels for teenagers. More recently, he obtained a doctorate, became Professor of Creative Writing at Brunel University in London and had a successful acting career in the hit series Peaky Blinders, set in his beloved Birmingham.

Four of Zephaniah's books including poetry for children and adults and YA fiction.
Four of Zephaniah's books including poetry for children and adults and YA fiction.

He was also an activist, protesting against apartheid and institutionalized racism. He was active in the campaign to force the Metropolitan Police to seriously investigate the 1993 murder of schoolboy Stephen Lawrence. In 2003, he very publicly refused to accept a national honour, the Order of the British Empire, saying, “I get angry when I hear that word ‘empire’; it reminds me of slavery, it reminds me of thousands of years of brutality, it reminds me of how my foremothers were raped and my forefathers brutalised.”

Zephaniah's autobiography was nominated for the National Book Awards and Costa Book Awards.

Dis Poetry
His poetry bridges the gulf between the oral tradition and the written tradition, as he explained in “Dis Poetry”:

Dis poetry is not afraid of going in a book.
Still dis poetry need ears fe hear an eyes fe hav a look.
Dis poetry is Verbal Riddim, no big words involved,
An if I hav a problem de riddim gets it solved.

He strongly believed that young people needed to see diversity at work, that “If you can’t see it, you can’t be it.” But that didn’t stop him using humour to get his point across, as in this short poem, “Who’s Who”:

I used to think nurses
Were women,
I used to think police
Were men,
I used to think poets
Were boring,
Until I became one of them.

Resolutely “internationalist”, Zephaniah reworked Martin Luther King’s famous speech, to create “I Have a Scheme”:

…And as an Equal Opportunities poet,
It pleases me
To give you this opportunity
To share my vision of hope
And I just hope you can cope
With a future as black as this.

Renaissance Man
Zephaniah was full of surprises. He was a vegan and kung-fu expert who loved Bob Marley and John Keats with equal fervour and learned Urdu for fun.

While he has always been widely recognised for his writings and was frequently featured on radio and television shows, Benjamin Zephaniah gained international popularity in the early 2010s for his role in Peaky Blinders.

Zephaniah with Cillian Murphy as Thomas Shelby, in Peaky Blinders.

He portrayed the character of Preacher Jeremiah "Jimmy" Jesus, a charismatic and enigmatic figure, throughout the nine seasons of the BBC series. The character is a Jamaican-born street preacher who fought in the war alongside the main character, Thomas Shelby.

He roamed the streets of Birmingham preaching hellfire and damnation, injecting a touch of spirituality and moral complexity into the gritty gangster drama. Zephaniah's nuanced performance brought to the forefront the power of words to inspire, challenge, and unite communities, adding an extra layer of depth to the series' compelling narrative.
Jimmy Jesus's sermons often challenged the established order, questioning moral authority and exposing the hypocrisy of those in power.

Benjamin Zephaniah died on 7 December, 2023 at the age of 65, just eight weeks after being diagnosed with a brain tumour.

To find out more about his life and work, and read more of his poetry, visit his website.

Back in 2012, we had the great privilege of interviewing Benjamin Zephaniah. Head over to this page to see what he had to say.