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Benjamin Zephaniah, Poet of Social Justice Issues, Dies at 65

Benjamin Zephaniah, a pioneering author, professor and poet whose work, infused with strong social messages, helped inspire a generation of British poets to find their voices, died on Thursday. He was 65.

The cause was a brain tumor, which he learned he had eight weeks ago, his family said in a statement.

Over a four-decade career, Mr. Zephaniah wrote at least 30 books for adults, as well as for teenagers and children. He often wrote about racism and environmental issues; he was widely considered to be among the first poets to address the climate crisis. Mr. Zephaniah’s work was also taught in classrooms in England, making him a recognizable name.

“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 addresses 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 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. He was also a professor of creative writing at Brunel University near London.

Benjamin Zephaniah was born on April 15, 1958, in Birmingham, England. When he was 22, he moved to London, where a small publisher put out his first book, “Pen Rhythm,” in 1983.

Mr. Zephaniah was known for being unapologetically Black: He wore his hair in long locs, and his work contained elements of Jamaican music and poetry. He was credited with opening the door for future generations of poets of color to express themselves, 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.

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 policing methods.

“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 and his father attended 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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Nathan
Nathan

Nathan is an experienced journalist. He's covered a broad spectrum of topics, including politics, culture, and human interest stories, always aiming to engage and inform his audience. Nathan has a degree in Journalism and upholds the highest standards of integrity and accuracy in his work.

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