Poet and activist Benjamin Zephaniah dies age 65
December 7, 2023 9:59 AM   Subscribe

One of the important voices of modern Britain, Benjamin Zephaniah was not much like other poets teenagers get introduced to.

Born in Handsworth, Birmingham and spending most of his adult life in London, from the 1980s Zephaniah popularised performance poetry. He was a committed activist and actor whose works appeared in school exam syllabuses and declined an MBE in 2003. If you want to get a taste for his work then The British is my personal favourite, others may prefer his Ode to Aston Villa, but you can find a wide selection on his website. His family announced his death on twitter, following a brain tumour diagnosis 8 weeks ago.
posted by plonkee (31 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Really sad news. He made many new friends in Wales after his visit to the National Eisteddfod in 2015 (bilingual article, scroll down for English), and his subsequent comments about teaching Welsh to English schoolkids, at least in the borderlands.
posted by ceiriog at 10:10 AM on December 7, 2023 [2 favorites]

Two months between diagnosis and death, only in his 60's. Truly, fuck cancer.

posted by fight or flight at 10:10 AM on December 7, 2023

posted by biffa at 10:21 AM on December 7, 2023

posted by LobsterMitten at 10:34 AM on December 7, 2023

posted by epj at 10:44 AM on December 7, 2023

posted by rolandroland at 11:01 AM on December 7, 2023

Don't be scared.
posted by rhamphorhynchus at 11:02 AM on December 7, 2023

Aww dang, I was just introduced to Zephaniah literally the other day, through an episode of QI I watched Tuesday. He was a fascinating panelist.

posted by tavella at 11:03 AM on December 7, 2023

Adam Buxton had him on his podcast a few years ago; a good listen.
posted by rory at 11:06 AM on December 7, 2023 [2 favorites]

posted by tomsk at 11:07 AM on December 7, 2023

Plus his musical career: link
posted by saintjoe at 11:10 AM on December 7, 2023 [2 favorites]

posted by Hermione Dies at 11:28 AM on December 7, 2023

I was lucky enough to study his poetry at school.
posted by In Your Shell Like at 11:38 AM on December 7, 2023

Rest in Power
posted by Webbster at 11:43 AM on December 7, 2023 [2 favorites]

Ages ago I stumbled upon his black cab session. Turns out it's still really powerful.

posted by Alex404 at 12:04 PM on December 7, 2023 [4 favorites]

posted by wicked_sassy at 12:27 PM on December 7, 2023

Take some Picts, Celts and Silures
And let them settle,
Then overrun them with Roman conquerors.

Remove the Romans after approximately 400 years
Add lots of Norman French to some
Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Vikings, then stir vigorously.

Mix some hot Chileans, cool Jamaicans, Dominicans,
Trinidadians and Bajans with some Ethiopians, Chinese,
Vietnamese and Sudanese.

Then take a blend of Somalians, Sri Lankans, Nigerians
And Pakistanis,
Combine with some Guyanese
And turn up the heat.

Sprinkle some fresh Indians, Malaysians, Bosnians,
Iraqis and Bangladeshis together with some
Afghans, Spanish, Turkish, Kurdish, Japanese
And Palestinians
Then add to the melting pot.

Leave the ingredients to simmer.

As they mix and blend allow their languages to flourish
Binding them together with English.

Allow time to be cool.

Add some unity, understanding, and respect for the future,
Serve with justice
And enjoy.

Note: All the ingredients are equally important. Treating one ingredient better than
another will leave a bitter unpleasant taste.

Warning: An unequal spread of justice will damage the people and cause pain. Give
justice and equality to all.

Benjamin Zephaniah

He was the best of us.

posted by HandfulOfDust at 1:12 PM on December 7, 2023 [16 favorites]

posted by clavdivs at 1:17 PM on December 7, 2023


His Desert Island Discs episode is worth listening to. "Luxury: Law of the land (so he could break it)." He was on I've Never Seen Star Wars, too (builder's tea and Bond films).
posted by paduasoy at 2:01 PM on December 7, 2023 [1 favorite]

posted by scruss at 3:35 PM on December 7, 2023

I was so sad to hear about his death this morning, one of my favourite poets. I have to admit I love his children's poems - I go around quoting Talking Turkey's a little too often this time of year. There is so much joy and delight in his performance of it!

But I took down my copy of Too Black Too Strong today, a collection of poems from 2003, and noticed how relevant so many of his (adult) work still is 20 years later. I guess I'd got used to thinking about him more as the fun kids poet, rather than the unflinching conscience that speaks truth to power poet. Several in that collection are about institutional racism in the UK, including What Stephan Lawrence Has Taught Us which begins:

We know who the killers are,
We have watched them strut before us
As proud as sick Mussolinis.

(Some background on who Stephen Lawrence was here if you're not from the UK.) What If, which includes the lines below, makes me wonder if the so-called cost of living crisis is really all that new.

If you can make one heap of all your savings
And risk buying a small house and a plot,
Then sit back and watch the economy inflating
Then have to deal with the negative equity you’ve got;
If you can force your mind and body to continue
When all the social services have gone,
If you struggle on when there is nothing in you,
Except the knowledge that justice cannot be wrong.

You can read all the poems from this collection here. Others are about the invasion of Iraq and the demonization of refugees and the fact that they seem like he could have written them last week is enough to make you cry. Like this one, for instance, which I've copied out in full.

Christmas Has Been Shot

Christmas has been shot away this year,
There are too many choppers chopping up the sky
Too many bullets in the air for good tidings,
There will be no Christ and no mass
And darkness has fallen upon the land.
No one shall make a joyful noise unto the Lord
Or serve the Lord with gladness,
No one shall come before his presence with singing,
And Palestinian Christians who want to declare
The name of the Lord in Jerusalem
Or glorify the boy in Bethlehem
Have been told to piss off to Jordan,
Syria or Iraq.

All the saints have been told
To wait for the resumption of peace talks
And the angels of the Lord have been told
To wait until the Americans are ready
Because Zion means something else now,
And yes it was written that the truth shall flow
From the mouths of babe and suckling,
But babes and sucklings beware
The soldiers have orders to kill,
And the spirit of King Herod is alive.
They’re not doing Christmas this year,
It has been shot away
‘And anyway
Christ is no messiah,’ said the soldier
‘This is our Promised Land.’

What we see over Bethlehem this year
Is a spineless, skeleton of a Christmas,
A Christmas that has been occupied, strangled
And driven to tears, crying tear gas and burning,
It’s a Christmas that has no songs or sermons
Except the song of the bomber;
As loud as dying
As quiet as death.
Welcome to the birthplace of his holiness
Welcome to the humiliation of the natives,
Here even flowers are shot down
If they fly the local flag,
You will not hear the bells of Christmas
And you will not hear the women sing.
‘And let me tell you something else,’ said the soldier
‘No virgin gave birth here – we wouldn’t allow it.’

Sorry gentiles
It looks like it’s gonna be a cold Christmas,
Ain’t no spirit of the Lord moving over the manger
Just a nuclear power
Flying in from Tel Aviv via Washington DC.
The power of the almighty has come for sure
To suck Christmas dry
And to blow Christmas away.
There will be no mercy
And no rejoicing
And no worshipping any little Black Palestinian boy,
And no crosses
And no three wise women or men
And no Arab shepherds,
Because Christmas has been done in
Christmas is coughing and choking
Christmas has been hit by bullets from the west,
So if you want to do Christmas this year
Take a bible,
Sit indoors,
And do your own thing,
Just don’t do it in Bethlehem.
posted by EllaEm at 4:05 PM on December 7, 2023 [8 favorites]

posted by Faintdreams at 5:56 PM on December 7, 2023

posted by AnyUsernameWillDo at 7:11 PM on December 7, 2023

posted by Samarium at 1:42 AM on December 8, 2023

I read his autobiography not long ago which is a great read. This is a terrible loss to us.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 1:49 AM on December 8, 2023 [2 favorites]

posted by crocomancer at 2:37 AM on December 8, 2023

I guess I'd got used to thinking about him more as the fun kids poet, rather than the unflinching conscience that speaks truth to power poet.

His poetry is both approachable and unflinching. Lots of it is great for introducing teenagers to the power of poetry - and linking it to other styles they're more familiar with. He did children's stuff as well, but most of his stuff just says it like it really is in language that's clear. And how Britain really is, is not how it should be.
posted by plonkee at 4:15 AM on December 8, 2023 [2 favorites]

rest in power Z

posted by Ten Cold Hot Dogs at 9:49 AM on December 8, 2023

posted by my-username at 10:34 AM on December 8, 2023

posted by inpHilltr8r at 12:23 AM on December 9, 2023

f_ck cancer / rest in power

posted by k3ninho at 5:28 AM on December 9, 2023

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