Benjamin Zephaniah, British Poet and Author Who ‘Overturned Ideas of Who a Poet Could Be,’ Dies at 65

Benjamin Zephaniah, a pioneering author, professor and poet whose work helped to inspire today’s generation of British poets and who did not shy away from topics such as racism and social justice throughout a more than four-decades-long career, died on Thursday. He was 65.

Mr. Zephaniah died from a brain tumor, which was diagnosed eight weeks ago, his family said in a statement.

He was born in Birmingham, England, on April 15, 1958. When he was 22, he moved to London where a small publisher put out his first book, “Pen Rhythm,” in 1983. Mr. Zephaniah went on to write at least 30 books, for adults as well as for teenagers and children.

His poetry was defined by humor mixed with a strong social message, as well as his personal style and rhythm. He did not shy away from heavy topics, such as racism or environmental issues, and he mentioned the climate crisis in his poetry well before many others did. Mr. Zephaniah’s work was also taught in classrooms in England, making him a recognizable name for children and adults alike.

“His poems packed a punch for social justice,” said Judith Palmer, the director of the Poetry Society, a British arts organization. She described them as gentle and humorous at the same time.

One such poem is “Talking Turkeys,” published in 1994, in which Mr. Zephaniah mixes his kindness toward animals (he became a vegan at 13) with humor and rhythm:

Be nice to yu turkeys dis christmas
Cos’ turkeys just wanna hav fun
Turkeys are cool, turkeys are wicked
An every turkey has a Mum.

He also recorded multiple albums of music and poetry, performed in venues of all sizes and, between 2013 and 2022, had a recurring role as the character Jeremiah Jesus in the hit show “Peaky Blinders,” which was set in his hometown, Birmingham.

Mr. Zephaniah was known for being unapologetically Black and for opening the door to future generations of poets of color to use their own voices. He had a significant influence on younger generations in Britain’s poetry community, Ms. Palmer said.

“He overturned ideas of who a poet could be,” she said.

Mr. Zephaniah was also known for making the “British establishment somewhat uncomfortable,” said Nels Abbey, an author and co-founder of the Black Writers Guild, an organization that represents professional and emerging British writers of Black African and Black African Caribbean heritage.

In 2003, Mr. Zephaniah rejected the Order of the British Empire, which is awarded to people for achievements in various fields, as a form of protest against British imperialism. “Stick it, Mr. Blair and Mrs. Queen,” he said at the time. “Stop going on about the empire.”

“I get angry when I hear that word ‘empire’; it reminds me of slavery, it reminds of thousands of years of brutality,” Mr. Zephaniah wrote in an essay in The Guardian in 2003.

Throughout his life, he embraced his identity as a Black Brit, wearing his hair in long locs. His work was influenced by Jamaican music and poetry, and he always focused on social justice. He was also a professor of creative writing at Brunel University near London.

Mr. Zephaniah was open about the racism he encountered in Britain and was known to point out injustices when he saw them. In 2014, as the patron of the Newham Monitoring Project, a community-based antiracism organization in London, he created the campaign “Stop and Search on Trial,” which sought government accountability for the way the police stopped and searched people.

“We want to make sure they are doing the right thing,” Mr. Zephaniah said at the time. “We want to get young people to talk about their experiences when they get stopped, to report things, and we want to make young people aware of their rights.”

He was also among the most instantly recognizable poets in Britain. “Any street he walked down,” Ms. Palmer said, “there’d be people crossing the road to greet him.”

After his death, Raymond Antrobus, a London-based poet, remembered him as “someone who was never silent.”

“He spoke up bravely with fierce integrity and clarity,” said Mr. Antrobus, who first experienced Mr. Zephaniah’s charisma and stage presence as a young child when he attended, together with his father, an anti-apartheid demonstration in Parliament Square in London during the early 1990s.

“That is such a powerful memory of mine,” Mr. Antrobus said, “because it has informed and instilled my entire career.”

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