Benjamin Zephaniah takes final curtain
Benjamin Zephaniah, the uncompromising British poet who died in London on December 7, was one of many artistes of West Indian heritage whose work was inspired by racial intolerance in the United Kingdom.
Zephaniah, who was 65, was born in Handsworth, Birmingham, to a Barbadian father and Jamaican mother whose roots are in Treasure Beach, St Elizabeth.
He was known to have visited Jamaica several times to record songs.
Dub poet Yasus Afari knew of Zephaniah since the 1980s. They met for the first time in 2007 when the former was artiste/poet in residence at Birmingham City College.
“We developed a very good personal and professional friendship/relationship, which saw and witnessed us spending time brainstorming and networking. I also spent some time at his home in Spalding, an isolated village/town quite a bit outside of London. This was very special, as he is a bit of a reclusive warrior and a private person,” Yasus Afari told the Jamaica Observer.
Zephaniah wrote the introduction to Vocal Ink – The Mental Intercourse, Yasus Afari’s book, and collaborated with him on the song Who Put The Pressure Pon Society.
“Benjamin Zephaniah was a grass roots revolutionary, academic, and intellectual philosopher poet, who got his training and orientation in the trenches of the struggles and the streets. He then brought this unique revolutionary flavour and impulse to literature, books, the stage, boardrooms, film, TV, radio, and academia,” said Yasus Afari.
Pen Rhythm, Zephaniah’s first book, was published in 1980. Two years later came Rasta, his debut album.
The dreadlocked artiste was raised in an English society struggling with the influx of immigrants from the West Indies. That indifference resulted in race riots during the 1970s and early 1980s, which influenced his writings and music as well as that of fellow poet Linton Kwesi Johnson and roots-reggae band Steel Pulse.
In 2003, Zephaniah rejected an Order of the British Empire (OBE) from Queen Elizabeth II. He said accepting an award from the British Crown would validate its role in the transatlantic slave trade which enslaved hundreds of thousands of Africans.
Writing in The Guardian newspaper, Zephaniah addressed his defiant gesture.
“Me? I thought, OBE, me? … 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.”
His autobiography, The Life And Rhymes of Benjamin Zephaniah, was released in 2018.
Among his recent work is a castmate on British Brodcasting Corporation (BBC) drama Peaky Blinders in the role of preacher Jeremiah “Jimmy” Jesus, appearing in 14 episodes.