Benjamin Zephaniah being made an honorary graduate at Hull University. Benjamin Zephaniah being made an honorary graduate at Hull University. Source: David Morris - Flickr / cropped from original / shared under license CC BY-SA 2.0

Madeline Heneghan pays a moving tribute to her friend the revolutionary artist who died this week

Benjamin Zephaniah was a revolutionary in his art and his politics. He was a pioneer of dub poetry, a genre heavily influenced by reggae music and the politics of the street. Emerging on the poetry scene in the late 70s and early 80s, poems such as ‘This policeman keeps on kicking me to death’ encapsulated the sense of oppression and anger felt by black youth at that time.

I met Benjamin in the mid-1980s, when, after being bowled over by a play that he’d written about youth unemployment called Job Rocking, I invited him to open a hostel for young men leaving prison. As someone who had been incarcerated at an early age, he campaigned for the welfare of prisoners. He performed at the hostel opening and later became a patron of the organisation. Soon after he was invited to be a writer in residence for a Liverpool Housing Association and we became friends.

Ujama Housing offered him the residency following a campaign of racist hatred by the S*n ‘newspaper’. Outraged that a black Rastafarian dub poet with a criminal record might be offered the role of visiting professor at Cambridge, it published a photograph of him under the headline ‘Would you let your daughter near this man?’. His nominations for roles at both Oxford and Cambridge were subsequently unsuccessful but in the years that followed Benjamin received a raft of honorary doctorates and became Professor of Creative Writing at Brunel University.

Genius

This academic achievement and huge literary contribution is no mean feat for someone who left school at 13 unable to read and write. As a dyslexic black child, he was failed by the education system but could recite from memory whole chapters of the bible at his mother’s church, much to her pride.

Benjamin’s poetic genius was indisputable and despite his dyslexia, he produced an incredible body of work, not only poetry in the oral dub tradition but also novels and plays. His popularity rose, his work was included in the national curriculum and ironically, he was offered an OBE. Like many others I felt so much pride when he very publicly turned it down, using the opportunity to speak about the violence of empire, police brutality, and the war in Iraq. He laughed about the offer saying those who compile the list must have never read his work.

Benjamin brought poetry down from the ivory towers, making it accessible to all. He became a household name, appearing on talk shows and political programmes, making his own TV programmes, and playing a preacher in the Peaky Blinders series. Popularity did not compromise his principles and he continued to speak truth to power, calling for social justice whether it be for Palestine, victims of racism, or the future of the planet.

In my role as Festival Director, I had the pleasure of working with Benjamin on numerous occasions. The last time was when he brought his band, The Revolutionary Minds to Liverpool. Turned 60 then, and his energy on stage was incredible, dancing for the entire performance. This is how I will choose to remember him. Benjamin approached life with wonder, dedication, and a passion for social justice. His loss is immeasurable but so is the incredible legacy that he leaves us.

Before you go

If you liked this article, please consider getting involved. Counterfire is a revolutionary socialist organisation working to build the movements of resistance and socialist ideas. Please join us and help make change happen.

Tagged under: