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Benjamin Zephaniah
Zephaniah in 2018
Zephaniah in 2018
Born Benjamin Obadiah Iqbal Zephaniah
(1958-04-15) 15 April 1958 (age 64)
Handsworth, Birmingham, England
  • Poet
  • playwright
  • author
Nationality British
Genre Poetry, teen fiction
Literary movement
Years active 1980–present
(m. 1990; div. 2001)

Benjamin Obadiah Iqbal Zephaniah (born 15 April 1958) is a British writer and dub poet. He was included in The Times list of Britain's top 50 post-war writers in 2008.

Early life and education

Zephaniah was born and raised in the Handsworth district of Birmingham, England, which he has 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. During his childhood he was given an old, manual typewriter which he says inspired him to become a writer. It is now in the collection of Birmingham Museums Trust.

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 eleven, and by the age of 15, his poetry was already known among Handsworth's Afro-Caribbean and Asian communities.

As a young man, he received a criminal record 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 22.

While living in London, Zephaniah was caught up in the 1980s race riots and experienced racism on a regular basis:

"They happened around me. Back then, racism was very in your face. There was the National Front against black and foreign people and the police were also very racist. I got stopped four times after I bought a BMW when I became successful with poetry. I kept getting stopped by the police so I sold it."

Written work and poetry

Zephaniah became actively involved in a workers' co-operative in Stratford, London, which led to the publication of his first book of poetry, Pen Rhythm (Page One Books, 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.

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.

Zephaniah's first book of poetry for children, called Talking Turkeys (1994), was reprinted after six weeks. In 1999, he wrote a novel for teenagers, Face, the first of four novels to date.

In May 2011, Zephaniah accepted a year-long position as poet-in-residence at Keats House in Hampstead, London, his first residency role for more than ten years. Accepting the role, he commented: "I don't do residencies, but Keats is different. He's a one-off, and he has always been one of my favourite poets."

In 2016, Zephaniah wrote the foreword to Angry White People: Coming face-to-face with the British far right by Hsiao-Hung Pai.

Acting and television

Zephaniah has made minor appearances in several TV programmes in the 1980s and 1990s, including The Bill (1994), The Comic Strip Presents... (1994) and Crucial Tales (1996).

In 1990, he appeared in the film Farendj, directed by Sabine Prenczina and starring Tim Roth.

Between 2013 and 2022, Zephaniah played the role of preacher Jeremiah "Jimmy" Jesus in BBC drama Peaky Blinders, appearing in 14 episodes across the 6 series.

In 2020, he appeared as a panellist on the BBC television show QI, on the episode "Roaming".


In 1982, Zephaniah released the album Rasta, which featured the Wailers' first recording since the death of Bob Marley as well as a tribute to the political prisoner (later to become South African president) Nelson Mandela. The album gained him international prestige and topped the Yugoslavian pop charts. It was because of this recording that he was introduced to Mandela, and in 1996, Mandela requested that Zephaniah host the president's Two Nations Concert at the Royal Albert Hall, London.


Animal rights and veganism

Zephaniah became a vegan at the age of 13 when he read poems about "shimmering fish floating in an underwater paradise, and birds flying free in the clear blue sky".

Zephaniah is an honorary patron of The Vegan Society, Viva! (Vegetarians' International Voice for Animals), and EVOLVE! Campaigns, and is an animal rights advocate. In 2004, he wrote the foreword to Keith Mann's book From Dusk 'til Dawn: An insider's view of the growth of the Animal Liberation Movement, a book about the Animal Liberation Front. In August 2007, he announced that he would be launching the Animal Liberation Project, alongside People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

In February 2001, Zephaniah published The Little Book of Vegan Poems.

Anti-racism activism

Zephaniah has spoken extensively about his personal experiences of anti-Black racism in Britain and has incorporated his experiences in much of his written work.

In 2012, Zephaniah has worked with anti-racism organisation Newham Monitoring Project, with whom he made a video, and Tower Hamlets Summer University about the impact of Olympic policing on black communities.

Other activism

In 2003, Zephaniah was offered appointment as an Officer of the Order of the British Empire, but publicly rejected the honour. In a subsequent article for The Guardian he elaborated upon his reaction to learning about being considered for the award and his reasons for rejecting it: "I get angry when I hear that word 'empire'; it reminds me of slavery, it reminds of thousands of years of brutality ... Benjamin Zephaniah OBE – no way Mr Blair, no way Mrs Queen. I am profoundly anti-empire."

Zephaniah has spoken in favour of a British Republic and the dis-establishment of the crown. In 2015 he called for Welsh and Cornish to be taught in English schools, saying: "Hindi, Chinese and French are taught [in schools], so why not Welsh? And why not Cornish? They're part of our culture."

In 2012, Zephaniah joined Amnesty International in speaking out against homophobia in Jamaica, saying: "For many years Jamaica was associated with freedom fighters and liberators, so it hurts when I see that the home of my parents is now associated with the persecution of people because of their sexual orientation."

In 2016, Zephaniah curated We Are All Human, an exhibition at the Southbank Centre presented by the Koestler Trust which exhibited art works by prisoners, detainees and ex-offenders.

Zephaniah is a supporter of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and has joined demonstrations calling for an end to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands, describing the activism as the "Anti Apartheid movement". He is also a supporter of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement.

Political views

Zephaniah self-identifies as an anarchist. He appeared in literature to support changing the British electoral system from first-past-the-post to alternative vote for electing members of parliament to the House of Commons in the Alternative Vote referendum in 2011. In a 2017 interview, commenting on the ongoing Brexit negotiations, Zephaniah stated that "For left-wing reasons, I think we should leave the EU but the way that we're leaving is completely wrong".

In December 2019, along with 42 other leading cultural figures, Zephaniah signed a letter endorsing the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn's leadership in the 2019 general election. The letter stated that "Labour's election manifesto under Jeremy Corbyn's leadership offers a transformative plan that prioritises the needs of people and the planet over private profit and the vested interests of a few."


Collecting the Hancock at Cambridge Folk Festival 2008, with Martin Carthy looking on.

Zephaniah won the BBC Young Playwright's Award. He has been awarded honorary doctorates by the University of North London (in 1998), the University of Central England (in 1999), Staffordshire University (in 2001), London South Bank University (in 2003), the University of Exeter and the University of Westminster (in 2006).

On 17 July 2008, Zephaniah received an honorary doctorate from the University of Birmingham. He was listed at 48 in The Times list of 50 greatest postwar writers.

He has released several albums of original music. He was awarded Best Original Song in the Hancocks 2008, Talkawhile Awards for Folk Music (as voted by members of for his version of Tam Lyn Retold recorded with The Imagined Village. He collected the Award live at The Cambridge Folk Festival on 2 August 2008 and described himself as a "Rasta Folkie".

Personal life

Zephaniah lived for many years in East London but in 2008 began dividing his time between a village near Spalding, Lincolnshire and Beijing in China. He is a keen language learner and has studied Mandarin Chinese for over a decade.

He was married for twelve years to Amina, a theatre administrator, whom he divorced in 2001.

Zephaniah is a supporter of Aston Villa F.C. and is the patron for an Aston Villa supporters' website.



  • Pen Rhythm (1980)
  • The Dread Affair: Collected Poems (1985), Arena
  • City Psalms (1992), Bloodaxe Books
  • Inna Liverpool (1992), AK Press
  • Talking Turkeys (1994), Puffin Books
  • Propa Propaganda (1996), Bloodaxe Books
  • Funky Chickens (1997), Puffin
  • School's Out: Poems Not for School (1997), AK Press
  • Funky Turkeys (Audiobook) (1999), AB hntj
  • White Comedy (Unknown)
  • Wicked World! (2000), Puffin
  • Too Black, Too Strong (2001), Bloodaxe Books
  • The Little Book of Vegan Poems (2001), AK Press
  • Reggae Head (Audiobook), 57 Productions


  • Face (1999), Bloomsbury (published in children's and adult editions)
  • Refugee Boy (2001), Bloomsbury
  • Gangsta Rap (2004), Bloomsbury
  • Teacher's Dead (2007), Bloomsbury
  • Terror Kid (2014), Bloomsbury


  • We Sang Across the Sea: The Empire Windrush and Me (2022), a biography of Mona Baptiste written by Zephaniah and illustrated by Onyinye Iwu.

Children's books

  • We are Britain (2002), Frances Lincoln Publishers
  • Primary Rhyming Dictionary (2004), Chambers Harrap
  • J is for Jamaica (2006), Frances Lincoln
  • My Story (2011), Collins
  • When I Grow Up (2011), Frances Lincoln


  • Kung Fu Trip (2011), Bloomsbury
  • The Life And Rhymes of Benjamin Zephaniah (2018), Simon & Schuster


  • Playing the Right Tune (1985)
  • Job Rocking (1987). Published in Black Plays: 2, ed. Yvonne Brewster, Methuen Drama, 1989.
  • Delirium (1987)
  • Streetwise (1990)
  • Mickey Tekka (1991)
  • Listen to Your Parents (included in Theatre Centre: Plays for Young People – Celebrating 50 Years of Theatre Centre (2003) Aurora Metro, also published by Longman, 2007)
  • Face: The Play (with Richard Conlon)

Acting roles

  • Didn't You Kill My Brother? (1987) – Rufus
  • Farendj (1989) – Moses
  • Dread Poets' Society (1992) – Andy Wilson
  • Truth or Dairy (1994) – The Vegan Society (UK)
  • Crucial Tales (1996) – Richard's father
  • Making the Connection (2010) – Environment Films / The Vegan Society (UK)
  • Peaky Blinders (2013–2022) – Jeremiah Jesus



  • Rasta (1982) Upright (reissued 1989) Workers Playtime (UK Indie #22)
  • Us An Dem (1990) Island
  • Back to Roots (1995) Acid Jazz
  • Belly of De Beast (1996) Ariwa
  • Naked (2005) One Little Indian
  • Naked & Mixed-Up (2006) One Little Indian (Benjamin Zephaniah Vs. Rodney-P)
  • Revolutionary Minds (2017) Fane Productions

Singles, EPs

  • Dub Ranting EP (1982) Radical Wallpaper
  • "Big Boys Don't Make Girls Cry" 12-inch single (1984) Upright
  • "Free South Africa" (1986)
  • "Crisis" 12-inch single (1992) Workers Playtime

Guest appearances

  • "Empire" (1995) Bomb the Bass with Zephaniah & Sinéad O'Connor
  • Heading for the Door by Back to Base (2000) MPR Records
  • Open Wide (2004) Dubioza kolektiv (C) & (P) Gramofon
  • Rebel by Toddla T (2009) 1965 Records
  • "Illegal" (2000) from "Himawari" by Swayzak
  • "Theatricks" (2000) by Kinobe

See also

  • List of animal rights advocates
Women's History Month on Kiddle
Women Scientists of Antiquity
Mary the Jewess
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