Benjamin Zephaniah is an oral poet, novelist, playwright, children’s writer and reggae artist. Born in 1958 in Birmingham, he grew up in Handsworth, where he was sent to an approved school for being uncontrollable, rebellious and ‘a born failure’, ending up in jail for burglary and affray.
After prison he turned from crime to music and poetry. In 1989 he was nominated for Oxford Professor of Poetry, and has since received honorary doctorates from several English universities, but famously refused to accept a nomination for an OBE in 2003. He was voted Britain's third favourite poet of all time (after T.S. Eliot and John Donne) in a BBC poll in 2009. In 2011 he was poet-in-residence at Keats House in 2011, and then made a radical career change by taking up his first ever academic position as a chair in Creative Writing at Brunel University in West London.
He has appeared in a number of television programmes, including Peaky Blinders, Eastenders, The Bill, Live and Kicking, Blue Peter and Wise Up, and played Gower in a BBC Radio 3 production of Shakespeare’s Pericles in 2005.
Best known for his performance poetry with a political edge for adults – and his poetry with attitude for children – he has his own rap/reggae band. He has produced numerous recordings, including Dub Ranting (1982), Rasta (1983), Us and Dem (1990), Back to Roots (1995), Belly of de Beast (1996) and Naked (2004). He was the first person to record with the Wailers after the death of Bob Marley, in a musical tribute to Nelson Mandela, which Mandela heard while in prison on Robben Island. Their later meetings led to Zephaniah working with children in South African townships and hosting the President’s Two Nations Concert at the Royal Albert Hall in 1996.
His first book of poems, Pen Rhythm, was produced in 1980 by a small East London publishing cooperative, Page One Books. His second collection, The Dread Affair, was published by Hutchinson’s short-lived Arena imprint in 1985. He has since published three collections with Bloodaxe, City Psalms (1992), Propa Propaganda (1996) and Too Black, Too Strong (2001), the latter including poems written while working with Michael Mansfield QC and other Tooks barristers on the Stephen Lawrence case. His DVD-book To Do Wid Me: Benjamin Zephaniah live and direct (filmed by Pamela Robertson-Pearce) followed from Bloodaxe in 2013.
His other titles include his poetry books for children, Talking Turkeys (1994), Funky Chickens (1996) and Wicked World (2000), all from Puffin/Penguin; his novels for teenagers, Face (1999), Refugee Boy (2001), Gangsta Rap (2004) and Teacher’s Dead (2007), all from Bloomsbury; The Bloomsbury Book of Love Poems (1999); Schools Out: Poems Not for School (1997) and The Little Book of Vegan Poems (2001) from AK Press; and We Are Britain (Frances Lincoln, 2003). His latest book is his autobiography, The Life and Rhymes and Benjamin Zephaniah (Simon & Schuster, 2018).
Books by Benjamin Zephaniah