Benjamin Obadiah Iqbal Zephaniah is a British Jamaican Rastafarian writer and dub poet. He is a well-known figure in contemporary English literature, and was included in The Times list of Britain’s top 50 post-war writers in 2008.
Zephaniah was born and raised in the Handsworth district of Birmingham, which he called the “Jamaican capital of Europe”. He is the son of a Barbadian postman and a Jamaican nurse. A dyslexic, he attended an approved school but left aged 13 unable to read or write.
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 ten, and by the age of fifteen, his poetry was already known among Handsworth’s Afro-Caribbean and Asian communities. He received a criminal record with the police as a young man and served a prison sentence for burglary. 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 twenty-two.
He became actively involved in a workers co-operative in Stratford, London, which led to the publication of his first book of poetry, called Pen Rhythm, published by Page One Books in 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.
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.
His album Rasta, which featured The Wailers’ first recording since the death of Bob Marley as well as a tribute to Nelson Mandela, gained him international prestige and topped the Yugoslavian pop charts. It was because of this recording that he was introduced to the political prisoner and soon-to-be South African president Nelson Mandela, and in 1996, Mandela requested that Zephaniah host the president’s Two Nations Concert at the Royal Albert Hall, London.
Zephaniah was poet in residence at the chambers of Michael Mansfield QC, and sat in on the inquiry into Bloody Sunday and other cases, these experiences leading to his Too Black, Too Strong poetry collection (2001).
We Are Britain! (2002) is a collection of poems celebrating cultural diversity in Britain. He became a very successful children’s poet with his first book of poetry for children called Talking Turkeys which had to go into an emergency reprint after just six weeks. In 1999 he wrote an immensely successful novel for teenagers, Face, the first of four novels to date.
Zephaniah lived for many years in East London but since 2008 has divided his time between Beijing and a village near Spalding, Lincolnshire. He also lived in Indonesia for 5 years. He was married for twelve years to Amina, a theatre administrator, who left him in 2001.
In November 2003, Zephaniah wrote in The Guardian that he had turned down an OBE from the Queen because it reminded him of “how my foremothers were raped and my forefathers brutalised.”