When thinking about Benjamin Zephaniah the words ‘Brilliant’ and ‘Bold’ come to mind and you might ask, why? Brianna Cyrus, Routes2Success Programme Director, reflects on the power and legacy of Professor Benjamin Zephaniah, who touched countless lives with his poetry and activism.
Benjamin Zephaniah was brilliant in his craft, engaging those who had no interest in literature or education. Having his own challenges in education being diagnosed with dyslexia at an early age, he often shared his personal journey to inspire others who came from similar backgrounds. He believed that his dyslexia was the catalyst for his creativity. Zephaniah’s poetry was often performed as spoken word and captured his Caribbean culture and political views.
His brilliance was honored over the decades with him receiving sixteen honorary doctorates by several universities as well as winning the BBC Young Playwright’s Award.
He was also bold sharing his views about racism, police brutality and the empire despite knowing that this could affect his career and popularity in Britain. Zephaniah released his dub poem Dis policeman keeps on keeping me to death at a time when Black people in Britain were suffering at the hands of the police following the Brixton Riots in 1981.
I can’t stay silent. I live in two places, Britain and the world, and it is my duty to question and explore the state of justice in both of them. “Benjamin Zephaniah, from Zephaniah Speaks
Zephaniah, himself, was very open about his criminality during his younger years which resulted in him being brutally beaten by the police. He became the voice who would speak out for the injustices of Black Brits. He is probably most notorious for rejecting the Queen’s honor for Order of the British Empire in 2003. Where others might be proud to accept the honor, Zephaniah stayed true to his anti- empire beliefs stating ‘Me? I thought, OBE me? Up yours, I thought. I get angry when I hear that word “empire”; it reminds me of slavery, it reminds of thousands of years of brutality’.
As a qualified English teacher working in a London school, I remember my challenges engaging some of the Black boys with literature particularly as the texts were unrelatable. Finally, our head of department introduced two of Benjamin Zephaniah’s books – Gangsta Rap and Refugee Boy and this was a game changer! What was a disengaged Year 8 class of predominantly Black boys turned into an excited, enthused, and motivated group who would rush into the classroom ready to read and explore the themes and characters in the books.
This was due to the themes and characters being relatable and the language accessible. This gave me the confidence and excitement to inform other parents, friends and family who were finding it a challenge to get their sons to read. Zephaniah became a role model for many of those boys in my class who gained confidence in whole class reading and began to have a ‘can-do’ attitude in the English lessons.
Today, I am saddened that we have lost such a pioneer, legend and talented literary figure but I am elated that we had the pleasure of being exposed to his brilliance and boldness. I will always remember Zephaniah in his fight for justice and equality in a world that is still fighting for this.
His poem ‘The British’ was a true reflection of the world we live in: ‘All the ingredients are equally important. Treating one ingredient better than another will leave a bitter unpleasant taste.’
R.I.P Benjamin Obadiah Iqbal Zephaniah.
Author: Brianna Cyrus, Programme Manager, Routes2Success
Routes2Success is Action for Race Equality’s long-running ethnic minority role model and mentoring programme, supported by the National Lottery Community Fund, the Mayor of London and Blackbaud, for the benefit of children and young people aged between 10 – 24 who live in London. We are committed to ensuring young people from all backgrounds can reach their potential.