Benjamin Zephaniah, Poet and Anti-Racism Campaigner, Dies Aged 65

‘Some of my best friends are white.’

by Simon Childs

7 December 2023

Benjamin Zephaniah, who has died aged 65. Photo: @BZephanaiah on X/Twitter
Benjamin Zephaniah, who has died aged 65. Photo: @BZephanaiah on X/Twitter

Benjamin Zephaniah, poet, writer and outspoken anti-racism campaigner, has died aged 65.

A statement on Zephaniah’s official social media accounts said, “Benjamin was diagnosed with a brain tumour eight weeks ago.

“Benjamin’s wife was by his side throughout and was with him when he passed. We shared him with the world and we know many will be shocked and saddened by this news.

“Benjamin was a true pioneer and innovator, he gave the world so much. Through an amazing career including a huge body of poems, literature, music, television and radio, Benjamin leaves us with a joyful and fantastic legacy.”

Zepheniah was born in 1958 in Handsworth, Birmingham. He became an accomplished poet and writer despite being diagnosed with dyslexia and being excluded from school aged 13. He cut his teeth by performing at demonstrations and outside police stations.

Growing up as the son of Jamaican and Barbadian parents in 1960s and 70s England he was confronted with the racism that was prevalent at the time. A young Rastifarian, when he moved to London in 1979 he became involved in the anti-racist struggle against the far-right.

“We wanted to be living examples of how people could live together, but we knew that if we did nothing we would be killed on the streets”, he later wrote.

“We knew that the National Front was a Nazi front, so our slogan became ‘Self-defence is no offence’, and we meant it. To defend ourselves in local communities up and down the country, black and Asian groups organised self-defence groups.

“I have always thought that these poor white people and these poor Black people should unite and confront the people who oversee all of our miseries. It is classic divide and rule,” he wrote.

Having confronted racist street gangs in his youth, he never became complacent. In 2016 he warned that, “Racism has evolved. We don’t really see gangs of racist thugs roaming the streets like they did back in the day. They now wear suits and ties. Some form political parties, some build websites, and some of them are academics.”

He consistently used his public platform to speak out against racism and other forms of social injustice.

In 2013 he appeared on BBC Question Time alongside Nigel Farage. He memorably called then UKIP leader and anti-migrant demagogue Nigel Farage a migrant, saying: “Nigel, you should go on a programme called ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’, because I’m sure that you will find that you’ve got migrants in your family.”

In 2003 he received a letter from the prime minister informing him that he was to be recommended for an OBE, but he turned it down. He later told the Big Narstie Show on Channel 4, “The OBE means Order of the British Empire… I’ve been fighting against Empire all my life.”

He approached the anti-racist struggle with lyricism and a wry sense of humour.

In his poem, “I am not de problem” he said: “Black is not the problem. Mother country, get it right. And just for the record, some of my best friends are white.”

Simon Childs is a commissioning editor and reporter for Novara Media.

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