Benjamin Obadiah Iqbal Zephaniah was born in Birmingham, England in 1958. He was raised in the Handsworth district of Birmingham, which is considered the “Jamaican district of Europe.” At the age of 13, Zephaniah stopped attending school because he felt it was neither inspiring nor beneficial to him as an aspiring poet. Zephaniah states that his poetry was heavily influenced by a brand of Jamaican music and poetry called “Street Politics.” He performed for the first time as a ten year old in him hometown Church. By the time he was fifteen he was a well-known teen poet in his hometown. He marveled many people because of his knowledge of local and international affairs, and his excellent ability to communicate his thoughts.
As Zephaniah’s reputation grew he began to gain a flowing within the African-Caribbean and Asian communities. He also began to grow frustrated speaking out about injustices against black people in Europe. He felt that his message would have a more powerful affect if he performed in front of larger more diverse audiences. Zephaniah moved to London at the age of twenty-two where he published his first book, Pen Rhythm. His book was published by Page One Books which was an East London based publishing company. Page One Books was in support of Zephaniah’s poetry and the new movement happening in London. The book was fairly successful and it helped Zephaniah to start a poetic revolution.
He is considered a “Dub Reggae Poet,” his style of poetry helped to revitalize the poetry scene in London, it also caught the attention of the mainstream media. It was a sweet victory for Zephaniah; many of the publishers who were seeking him out rejected his work in the past. When the youth of London swarmed the streets in the 1990’s protesting against inequality and injustice, Zephaniah’s influence was felt throughout the protest. The spirit of justice and freedom penetrated every aspect of the culture of London’s youth. Zephaniah became London’s most recognized poet, his ability to perform on stage and on the television made him a household name. His mission was to make poetry popular, popular enough that any youth who did not read, would develop a love for poetry and reading. Zephaniah was known for transforming his poetry into live events every time he performed.
Zephaniah became very important by using his platform to bring attention to the issues that affected his people. During the 1990’s Zephaniah’s popularity increased as he was constantly in the public’s eye. His books, music and television appearances increased and his demand grew. He believes that the oral tradition of Africa never dies in the artist. In 1991 he held a performance on every continent within a 22 day period. In 1982 Zephaniah was the first artist to perform with the Wailers after the death of Bob Marley. The song was a tribute to Nelson Mandela on Zephaniah’s Rasta LP. Mandela was able to hear the song while imprisoned, once released he requested a meeting with Zephaniah. The two build a relationship that allowed Zephaniah to teach the children of South Africa.
In 1996, Zephaniah also hosted Mandela’s Two Nation’s Concert held at Royal Albert Hall. His next step was to release a children’s book of poetry titled Talking Turkeys. The book was so popular that it needed an emergency reprint to meet the demands. Talking Turkeys topped the bestselling children’s book list for three weeks. In 1999 Zephaniah wrote a book for teen’s titled Face, which was the first of four novels in a series. He is an honorary patron of The Vegan Society and often advocates for the rights of animals. From 1998 to 2008 Zephaniah received honorary doctorate degrees from, The University of North London, The University of Central England, Staffordshire University, London South Bank University, The University of Exeter, The University of Westminster, and The University of Birmingham. He was considered number 48 on Time Magazine’s list of 50 Greatest Postwar writers. Dr. Benjamin Zephaniah, we proudly stand on your shoulders.
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