About Benjamin Zephaniah

Benjamin Zephaniah was born in Birmingham, and grew up in Jamaica and in Handsworth, where he was sent to an approved school. He left school at 13 unable to read or write, ending up in prison for burglary. His anger stays with him, channelled into protest, music and performance.

He moved to London in 1979, the year Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister; in the early 80’s Punks and Rastas were on the streets protesting against SUS laws, unemployment, homelessness, the National Front and the policies of the Thatcher government. Zephaniah’s poetry could be heard on the demonstrations, at youth gatherings, outside police stations, and on the dance floor. His mission was to take poetry everywhere.

‘Reggae Head’, in this recording, gives a taste of his unique sound, his comic exuberance, and his rage.

Touring and performing is at the heart of his focus on keeping the oral tradition alive; over a 22 day period in 1991 he performed on every continent. He recorded a tribute to Nelson Mandela with the Wailers; soon after release from prison, Mandela requested a meeting and this 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.

Zephaniah’s first book of poetry for children, Talking Turkeys, was a startling success; children respond to his delight in words and sounds, and his realism. He is a vegan: turkeys, he says in the title poem, have mums. In this recording of ‘Library Ology’ he develops an idea originally used in a famous BT advert: you got an Ology! The voice of the poem is dark and playful.

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He has fun with words and sounds, but the fun is only a means to an end. This recording of 'City River Blues' gives an illustration of his unwavering purpose: to express simply and starkly the pain some citizens feel in living in modern Britain. The river runs through our lives, dat bloody smell: listen to the fury in the voice, the urgent rhythm, the despair moderated by defiance, the refusal to compromise the truth of what he sees and feels.

Featured in the Archive

Selected Bibliography

J is for Jamaica (World Alphabet), Frances Lincoln Children's Books, 2011

Listen to Your Parents Playscript, Longman, 2007

Teacher's Dead, Bloomsbury, 2007

Chambers Primary Rhyming Dictionary, Chambers , 2004

Gangsta Rap, Bloomsbury, 2004

We Are Britain! (with photographs by Prodeepta Das), Frances Lincoln Children's Books, 2003

Too Black, Too Strong, Bloodaxe, 2001

Face: The Play, Heinemann Educational Publishers, 2001


1988 BBC Young Playwrights Festival Award Hurricane Dub

2001 Commission for Racial Equality Race in the Media Radio Drama Award Listen to Your Parents

2002 Portsmouth Book Award (Longer Novel category) Refugee Boy

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