Benjamin Zephaniah

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Benjamin Zephaniah
Zephaniah in 2018
Zephaniah in 2018
BornBenjamin Obadiah Iqbal Zephaniah
(1958-04-15) 15 April 1958 (age 65)
Handsworth, Birmingham, England
  • Poet
  • playwright
  • author
GenrePoetry, teen fiction
Literary movement
Years active1980–present
(m. 1990; div. 2001)

Benjamin Obadiah Iqbal Zephaniah (born 15 April 1958)[1] is a British writer and dub poet. He was included in The Times list of Britain's top 50 post-war writers in 2008.[2]

Early life and education

Zephaniah was born and raised in the Handsworth district of Birmingham, England,[3] which he has called the "Jamaican capital of Europe".[4] He is the son of a Barbadian postman and a Jamaican nurse.[5][6] A dyslexic, he attended an approved school but left aged 13 unable to read or write.[6] During his childhood he was given an old, manual typewriter which he says inspired him to become a writer. It is now in the collection of Birmingham Museums Trust.[7]

He writes that his poetry is strongly influenced by the music and poetry of Jamaica and what he calls "street politics". His first performance was in church when he was 11 years old, and by the age of 15, his poetry was already known among Handsworth's Afro-Caribbean and Asian communities.[8]

As a young man,[when?] he received a criminal record and served a prison sentence for burglary.[6][9] Tired of the limitations of being a black poet communicating with black people only, he decided to expand his audience, and headed to London at the age of 22.[5]

While living in London, Zephaniah was caught up in the 1980s race riots and experienced racism on a regular basis:[10]

"They happened around me. Back then, racism was very in your face. There was the National Front against black and foreign people and the police were also very racist. I got stopped four times after I bought a BMW when I became successful with poetry. I kept getting stopped by the police so I sold it."

Written work and poetry

Zephaniah became actively involved in a workers' co-operative in Stratford, London, which led to the publication of his first book of poetry, Pen Rhythm (Page One Books, 1980). Three editions were published. Zephaniah has said that his mission is to fight the dead image of poetry in academia, and to "take [it] everywhere" to people who do not read books, so he turned poetry readings into concert-like performances.[5]

His second collection of poetry, The Dread Affair: Collected Poems (1985), contained a number of poems attacking the British legal system. Rasta Time in Palestine (1990), an account of a visit to the Palestinian occupied territories, contained poetry and travelogue.

Zephaniah was poet in residence at the chambers of Michael Mansfield QC, and sat in on the inquiry into Bloody Sunday and other cases,[11] these experiences leading to his Too Black, Too Strong poetry collection (2001).[6] We Are Britain! (2002) is a collection of poems celebrating cultural diversity in Britain.

Zephaniah's first book of poetry for children, called Talking Turkeys (1994), was reprinted after six weeks.[12][13] In 1999, he wrote a novel for teenagers, Face, the first of four novels to date.[14][15][16]

In May 2011, Zephaniah accepted a year-long position as poet-in-residence at Keats House in Hampstead, London, his first residency role for more than ten years. Accepting the role, he commented: "I don't do residencies, but Keats is different. He's a one-off, and he has always been one of my favourite poets."[17][18]

In 2016, Zephaniah wrote the foreword to Angry White People: Coming face-to-face with the British far right by Hsiao-Hung Pai.[19]

His frank autobiography The Life And Rhymes of Benjamin Zephaniah was published to coincide with his 60th birthday in 2018, when BBC Sounds broadcast him reading his own text. "I'm still as angry as I was in my twenties," he says.[20][21] The Birmingham Mail has dubbed him "The people's laureate".[22]

Acting and television

Zephaniah has made minor appearances in several TV programmes in the 1980s and 1990s, including The Bill (1994), The Comic Strip Presents... (1994) and Crucial Tales (1996).[23]

In 1990, he appeared in the film Farendj, directed by Sabine Prenczina and starring Tim Roth.[24]

Between 2013 and 2022, Zephaniah played the role of preacher Jeremiah "Jimmy" Jesus in BBC drama Peaky Blinders, appearing in 14 episodes across the 6 series.[25]

In 2020, he appeared as a panellist on the BBC television show QI, on the episode "Roaming".[26]


In 1982, Zephaniah released the album Rasta, which featured the Wailers' first recording since the death of Bob Marley as well as a tribute to the political prisoner (later to become South African president) Nelson Mandela. The album gained him international prestige[27] and topped the Yugoslavian pop charts.[8][27] It was because of this recording that he was introduced to Mandela, and in 1996, Mandela requested that Zephaniah host the president's Two Nations Concert at the Royal Albert Hall, London.[10][28]


Animal rights and veganism

Zephaniah became a vegetarian at age 11,[29] and then became a vegan at the age of 13[30][31] when he read poems about "shimmering fish floating in an underwater paradise, and birds flying free in the clear blue sky".[citation needed]

Zephaniah is an honorary patron of The Vegan Society,[32] Viva! (Vegetarians' International Voice for Animals),[33] and EVOLVE! Campaigns,[34] and is an animal rights advocate. In 2004, he wrote the foreword to Keith Mann's book From Dusk 'til Dawn: An insider's view of the growth of the Animal Liberation Movement, a book about the Animal Liberation Front. In August 2007, he announced that he would be launching the Animal Liberation Project, alongside People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.[35]

In February 2001, Zephaniah published The Little Book of Vegan Poems.[36]

Anti-racism activism

Zephaniah has spoken extensively about his personal experiences of anti-Black racism in Britain and has incorporated his experiences in much of his written work.[37]

In 2012, Zephaniah has worked with anti-racism organisation Newham Monitoring Project, with whom he made a video,[38] and Tower Hamlets Summer University about the impact of Olympic policing on black communities.

Other activism

In 2003, Zephaniah was offered appointment as an Officer of the Order of the British Empire, but publicly rejected the honour.[39] In a subsequent article for The Guardian he elaborated upon his reaction to learning about being considered for the award and his reasons for rejecting it: "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... Benjamin Zephaniah OBE – no way Mr Blair, no way Mrs Queen. I am profoundly anti-empire."[40]

Zephaniah has spoken in favour of a British Republic and the dis-establishment of the crown.[41] In 2015 he called for Welsh and Cornish to be taught in English schools, saying: "Hindi, Chinese and French are taught [in schools], so why not Welsh? And why not Cornish? They're part of our culture."[42]

In 2012, Zephaniah joined Amnesty International in speaking out against homophobia in Jamaica, saying: "For many years Jamaica was associated with freedom fighters and liberators, so it hurts when I see that the home of my parents is now associated with the persecution of people because of their sexual orientation."[43]

In 2016, Zephaniah curated We Are All Human, an exhibition at the Southbank Centre presented by the Koestler Trust which exhibited art works by prisoners, detainees and ex-offenders.[44]

Zephaniah is a supporter of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and has joined demonstrations calling for an end to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands, describing the activism as the "Anti Apartheid movement". He is also a supporter of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement.[45][46]

Political views

Zephaniah self-identifies as an anarchist.[47] He appeared in literature to support changing the British electoral system from first-past-the-post to alternative vote for electing members of parliament to the House of Commons in the Alternative Vote referendum in 2011.[48] In a 2017 interview, commenting on the ongoing Brexit negotiations, Zephaniah stated: "For left-wing reasons, I think we should leave the EU but the way that we're leaving is completely wrong".[49]

In December 2019, along with 42 other leading cultural figures, Zephaniah signed a letter endorsing the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn's leadership in the 2019 general election. The letter stated that "Labour's election manifesto under Jeremy Corbyn's leadership offers a transformative plan that prioritises the needs of people and the planet over private profit and the vested interests of a few."[50][51]


Collecting the Hancock at Cambridge Folk Festival 2008, with Martin Carthy looking on.

Zephaniah won the BBC Young Playwright's Award.[1] He has been awarded honorary doctorates by the University of North London (in 1998),[1] the University of Central England (in 1999), Staffordshire University (in 2001),[52] London South Bank University (in 2003), the University of Exeter and the University of Westminster (in 2006).

On 17 July 2008, Zephaniah received an honorary doctorate from the University of Birmingham.[53] He was listed at 48 in The Times list of 50 greatest postwar writers.[2]

He has released several albums of original music.[54] He was awarded Best Original Song in the Hancocks 2008, Talkawhile Awards for Folk Music (as voted by members of[55]) for his version of Tam Lyn Retold recorded with The Imagined Village. He collected the Award live at The Cambridge Folk Festival on 2 August 2008 and described himself as a "Rasta Folkie".[56]

Personal life

Zephaniah lived for many years in East London; however, in 2008, he began dividing his time between a village near Spalding, Lincolnshire and Beijing in China.[57] He is a keen language learner and has studied Mandarin Chinese for over a decade.[58]

He was married for twelve years to Amina, a theatre administrator, whom he divorced in 2001.[59]

In May 2018, in an interview of BBC Radio Five Live, Zephaniah admitted that he had been violent to a former partner, confessing to having hit her.[60] During the admission, he said:

"The way I treated some of my girlfriends was terrible. At one point I was violent. I was never like one of these persons who have a girlfriend, who'd constantly beat them, but I could lose my temper sometimes." "There was one girlfriend that I had, and I actually hit her a couple of times, and as I got older I really regretted it. It burned my conscience so badly. It really ate at me, you know. And I'm a meditator. It got in the way of my meditation."

Zephaniah's family were Christian but he became a Rastafari at a young age.[61][62] He gave up smoking cannabis in his thirties.[63]

He is a supporter of Aston Villa F.C. and is the patron for an Aston Villa supporters' website.[64]



  • Pen Rhythm (1980)
  • The Dread Affair: Collected Poems (1985), Arena
  • City Psalms (1992), Bloodaxe Books
  • Inna Liverpool (1992), AK Press
  • Talking Turkeys (1994), Puffin Books
  • Propa Propaganda (1996), Bloodaxe Books
  • Funky Chickens (1997), Puffin
  • School's Out: Poems Not for School (1997), AK Press
  • Funky Turkeys (Audiobook) (1999), AB hntj
  • White Comedy (Unknown)
  • Wicked World! (2000), Puffin
  • Too Black, Too Strong (2001), Bloodaxe Books
  • The Little Book of Vegan Poems (2001), AK Press
  • Reggae Head (Audiobook), 57 Productions


  • Face (1999), Bloomsbury (published in children's and adult editions)
  • Refugee Boy (2001), Bloomsbury
  • Gangsta Rap (2004), Bloomsbury
  • Teacher's Dead (2007), Bloomsbury
  • Terror Kid (2014), Bloomsbury[65]


  • We Sang Across the Sea: The Empire Windrush and Me (2022), a biography of Mona Baptiste written by Zephaniah and illustrated by Onyinye Iwu.[66]

Children's books

  • We are Britain (2002), Frances Lincoln Publishers
  • Primary Rhyming Dictionary (2004), Chambers Harrap
  • J is for Jamaica (2006), Frances Lincoln
  • My Story (2011), Collins
  • When I Grow Up (2011), Frances Lincoln


  • Kung Fu Trip (2011), Bloomsbury
  • The Life And Rhymes of Benjamin Zephaniah (2018), Simon & Schuster[20]


  • Playing the Right Tune (1985)
  • Job Rocking (1987). Published in Black Plays: 2, ed. Yvonne Brewster, Methuen Drama, 1989.
  • Delirium (1987)
  • Streetwise (1990)
  • Mickey Tekka (1991)
  • Listen to Your Parents (included in Theatre Centre: Plays for Young People – Celebrating 50 Years of Theatre Centre (2003) Aurora Metro, also published by Longman, 2007)
  • Face: The Play (with Richard Conlon)

Acting roles

  • Didn't You Kill My Brother? (1987) – Rufus
  • Farendj (1989) – Moses
  • Dread Poets' Society (1992) – Andy Wilson
  • Truth or Dairy (1994) – The Vegan Society (UK)
  • Crucial Tales (1996) – Richard's father
  • Making the Connection (2010) – Environment Films / The Vegan Society (UK)
  • Peaky Blinders (2013–2022) – Jeremiah Jesus



  • Rasta (1982) Upright (reissued 1989) Workers Playtime (UK Indie #22)[67]
  • Us An Dem (1990) Island
  • Back to Roots (1995) Acid Jazz
  • Belly of De Beast (1996) Ariwa
  • Naked (2005) One Little Indian
  • Naked & Mixed-Up (2006) One Little Indian (Benjamin Zephaniah Vs. Rodney-P)
  • Revolutionary Minds (2017) Fane Productions

Singles, EPs

  • Dub Ranting EP (1982) Radical Wallpaper
  • "Big Boys Don't Make Girls Cry" 12-inch single (1984) Upright
  • "Free South Africa" (1986)
  • "Crisis" 12-inch single (1992) Workers Playtime

Guest appearances

See also


  1. ^ a b c Gregory, Andy (2002), International Who's Who in Popular Music 2002, Europa, p. 562. ISBN 1-85743-161-8.
  2. ^ a b Benjamin Zephaniah, The 50 greatest postwar writers: 48 TimesOnline UK
  3. ^ "Benjamin Zephaniah" Archived 3 October 2007 at the Wayback Machine, British Council. Retrieved 13 April 2008.
  4. ^ Gordon, Mandisa (28 October 2014). "Handsworth Spirit". BBC. Retrieved 11 August 2021.
  5. ^ a b c "Biography". Archived 12 April 2008 at the Wayback Machine, Retrieved 13 April 2008.
  6. ^ a b c d {{cite news|last=Kellaway|first= Kate|author-link=Kate Kellaway|date=4 November 2001|url= Dread poet's society|newspaper[[The Observer}}
  7. ^ "Aston Hall 1". Antiques Roadshow. Series 44. Episode 4. 7 November 2021. BBC Television. Retrieved 11 November 2021.
  8. ^ a b Larkin, Colin (1998), The Virgin Encyclopedia of Reggae, Virgin Books, ISBN 0-7535-0242-9
  9. ^ "ARTICLE: Interview with Raw Edge Magazine: Benjamin talks about how life in prison helped change his future as a poet. Archived 20 May 2009 at the Wayback Machine", Raw Edge magazine, issue 5, Autumn/Winter 1997.
  10. ^ a b Maciuca, Andra (29 October 2019). "Benjamin Zephaniah on Nelson Mandela, Bob Marley and race riots". Saffron Walden Reporter. Retrieved 29 April 2021.
  11. ^ Berlins, Marcel (20 November 2000). "Poetic justice". The Guardian.
  12. ^ "BBC - Arts - Poetry: Out Loud". Retrieved 29 April 2021.
  13. ^ Zephaniah, Benjamin (October 2015). Talking Turkeys. Retrieved 29 April 2021.
  14. ^ "FACE by Benjamin Zephaniah (The Play) | Teaching Resources". Retrieved 29 April 2021.
  15. ^ Face, by Benjamin Zephaniah. | Booklist Online.
  16. ^ "Children's Book Review: FACE by Benjamin Zephaniah, Author . Bloomsbury $15.95 (208p) ISBN 978-1-58234-774-5". November 2002. Retrieved 29 April 2021.
  17. ^ "Q&A: Benjamin Zephaniah". The Guardian. 14 October 2011. Retrieved 29 April 2021.
  18. ^ "Benjamin Zephaniah to take up Keats House residency". Retrieved 29 April 2021.
  19. ^ "Benjamin Zephaniah on fighting the far right: 'If we did nothing we would be killed on the streets'". The Guardian. 28 February 2016. Retrieved 29 April 2021.
  20. ^ a b Jonasson, Jonas (15 August 2017). "S&S scoops Zephaniah's memoir". The Bookseller. Retrieved 27 August 2018.
  21. ^ "The Life And Rhymes of Benjamin Zephaniah". BBC Sounds. 30 April 2018. Retrieved 12 February 2023.
  22. ^ The Life And Rhymes of Benjamin Zephaniah. Simon & Schuster. 2 May 2019. ISBN 9781471168956. Retrieved 12 February 2023.
  23. ^ "Benjamin Zephaniah". IMDb. Retrieved 28 April 2021.
  24. ^ Prenczina, Sabine (27 March 1991). "Farendj" (Drama). Tim Roth, Marie Matheron, Matthias Habich, Joe Sheridan. River Films, Sofica Lumière, Trimark Entertainment. Retrieved 28 April 2021.
  25. ^ Layton, Josh (7 January 2018). "Peaky Blinders actor on the real-life character behind TV role". BirminghamLive. Retrieved 28 April 2021.
  26. ^ "Roaming". QI. Series R. Episode 11. BBC Television. Retrieved 11 November 2021.
  27. ^ a b "Brighton Magazine – Benjamin Zephaniah: Well Read Rastafarian Poet Comes To Lewes". 21 June 2023.
  28. ^ "Benjamin Zephaniah - Nelson Mandela |". Retrieved 29 April 2021.
  29. ^ Zephaniah, Benjamin (28 December 2022). "'I'll stop saying I don't eat meat – and tell people I don't eat animals': the thing I'll do differently in 2023". The Guardian. Retrieved 28 December 2022.
  30. ^ Vegan Food and Living (4 July 2016). "Benjamin Zephaniah: The Interview". Retrieved 29 April 2021.
  31. ^ Hind, John (17 July 2010). "Interview: Benjamin Zephaniah". The Guardian. Retrieved 29 April 2021.
  32. ^ "Honorary Patrons". Archived from the original on 28 September 2011. Retrieved 10 May 2011.
  33. ^ "Vegetarians International Voice for Animals". Viva!. Retrieved 10 May 2011.
  34. ^ "Evolve Campaigns". EVOLVE! Campaigns. Retrieved 10 May 2011.
  35. ^ Arkangel for Animal Liberation :: Online News Magazine Archived 17 April 2008 at the Wayback Machine
  36. ^ "The Little Book Of Vegan Poems by Benjamin Zephaniah | Waterstones". Retrieved 29 April 2021.
  37. ^ Morris, Natalie (26 October 2020). "Benjamin Zephaniah: 'The racist thugs of my youth are older and wear suits now'". Metro. Retrieved 29 April 2021.
  38. ^ "Benjamin Zephaniah – Put the Number in Your Phone". Newham Monitoring Project. Archived from the original on 29 July 2012. Retrieved 14 March 2012.
  39. ^ Mills, Merope (27 November 2003). "Rasta poet publicly rejects his OBE". The Guardian. Retrieved 7 June 2012.
  40. ^ Zephaniah, Benjamin (27 November 2003). "'Me? I thought, OBE me? Up yours, I thought'". The Guardian.
  41. ^ "Statement of Principles". Republic. 29 April 2011. Archived from the original on 3 August 2009. Retrieved 10 May 2011.
  42. ^ "Benjamin Zephaniah calls for English schools to teach Welsh". BBC News. 10 August 2015. Retrieved 27 August 2018.
  43. ^ "Jamaica: Benjamin Zephaniah calls on Jamaicans everywhere to stand up against homophobia". Amnesty International. Archived from the original on 3 September 2012. Retrieved 12 October 2012.
  44. ^ Bankes, Ariane (8 January 2018). "Why we need to free art by prisoners from behind bars". Apollo Magazine. Retrieved 31 January 2019.
  45. ^ Sagir, Ceren (12 May 2019). "Thousands in London call for an end to Israeli occupation of Palestine". Morning Star. Retrieved 14 July 2020.
  46. ^ Bratu, Alex (7 May 2019). "Birmingham poet Benjamin Zephaniah backs national demonstration for Palestine". I Am Birmingham. Retrieved 14 July 2020.
  47. ^ Benjamin Zephaniah, Why I Am an Anarchist, Dog Section Press, June 2019
  48. ^ "Benjamin Zephaniah 'airbrushed from Yes to AV leaflets'". BBC News. 3 April 2011.
  49. ^ "Benjamin Zephaniah Q&A: 'My first racist attack was a brick in the back of the head'". New Statesman. 4 December 2017. Retrieved 9 December 2017.
  50. ^ "Letters | Vote for hope and a decent future". The Guardian. 3 December 2019. Retrieved 4 December 2019.
  51. ^ Proctor, Kate (3 December 2019). "Coogan and Klein lead cultural figures backing Corbyn and Labour". The Guardian. Retrieved 4 December 2019.
  52. ^ "Recipients of Honorary Awards". Staffordshire University. Archived from the original on 22 February 2013. Retrieved 16 April 2013.
  53. ^ Collins, Tony (2008) "University honour for Doug Eliis Archived 22 July 2012 at",Birmingham Mail, 11 July 2008
  54. ^ Perry, Kevin (7 March 2006). "Benjamin Zephaniah interview about Naked". London: The Beaver. Retrieved 29 September 2010.
  55. ^ "TalkAwhile UK Acoustic music forum". Retrieved 10 May 2011.
  56. ^ "Best Original Song". 3 August 2008. Retrieved 10 May 2011.
  57. ^ Barber, Lynn (18 January 2009). "The interview: Benjamin Zephaniah". The Observer.
  58. ^ "Benjamin Zephaniah on Learning Mandarin Chinese (Podcast)". 12 November 2021. Retrieved 5 March 2022.
  59. ^ Independent Arts and Books, 19 June 2009.
  60. ^ Rodger, James (2 May 2018). "Benjamin Zephaniah admits to hitting ex-girlfriend". BirminghamLive. Retrieved 28 April 2021.
  61. ^ Benjamin Zephaniah (7 August 2012). "Has Snoop Dogg seen the Rastafari light, or is this just a midlife crisis?". The Guardian.
  62. ^ "Benjamin Zephaniah: 'It is my duty to help and inspire'". New Internationalist. 4 February 2014. Retrieved 29 April 2021.
  63. ^ Benjamin Zephaniah: 'I don't want to grow old alone' The Guardian 6 May 2018
  64. ^ "A Poet Called Benjamin Zephaniah". Archived from the original on 7 August 2011. Retrieved 10 May 2011.
  65. ^ Zephaniah, Benjamin (2014). Terror Kid. Bloomsbury. ISBN 978-1471401770.
  66. ^ Zephaniah, Benjamin (7 April 2022). We Sang Across the Sea: The Empire Windrush and Me. Illustrated by Onyinye Iwu. Scholastic. ISBN 978-0702311161.
  67. ^ Lazell, Barry (1997) Indie Hits 1980–1989, Cherry Red Books, ISBN 0-9517206-9-4

External links