British writer and poet Benjamin Zephaniah dies aged 65
PA, The Independent
Legendary poet and writer Benjamin Zephaniah, has died at the age of 65 after a diagnosis with a brain tumour eight weeks ago.
A son of Birmingham, but a gift to the world, Zephaniah spoke to millions with his words - carefully crafted to sneak into audiences where he, at the time, felt he might not be welcomed. He wanted to bring his struggles to the world. That included children, women and people of all races.
His works were underlined by a very real anger, but one that was usually curbed with a sassy wit, to-the-point logic, and care. His words became the perfect vehicle for his rage at injustices from inequality to a lack of animal rights.
It was children, like myself at the time, who Zephaniah would teach about animals and their welfare in the meat industry, and one of my earliest memories is trying to tangle with the meaning of his poem 'Talking Turkeys':
"Be nice to yu turkeys dis christmas
Cos' turkeys just wanna hav fun
Turkeys are cool, turkeys are wicked
An every turkey has a Mum.
Be nice to yu turkeys dis christmas,
Don't eat it, keep it alive,
It could be yu mate, an not on your plate
Say, Yo! Turkey I'm on your side.
I got lots of friends who are turkeys
An all of dem fear christmas time,
Dey wanna enjoy it, dey say humans destroyed it
An humans are out of dere mind,
Yeah, I got lots of friends who are turkeys
Dey all hav a right to a life,
Not to be caged up an genetically made up
By any farmer an his wife."
On the one hand, it's a poem for children, and fairly childish (which should never detract from its brilliance) in its nature. On the other, it's about animal rights, and the voice of a silent other.
I understand why my mom, as a vegetarian, read it so much to me. Silly poems with serious meaning, that's radical. It unlocks critical thought. It enables questioning. It asks for rebellion against norms and to right wrongs. Talking Turkeys suggest that your actions have consequences, and there are feelings out there besides your own.
He could do that, Zephaniah. Speak to everyone, and for everyone in the name of justice. For animal rights, for equality, against homophobia, in solidarity with Palestine. He wanted people, everyone, to get together around his table - no matter who they were.
It wasn't just talking the talk (although he was very adept with that), Zephaniah turned down honours from royalty, in the name of sticking to his guns.
Growing up in Birmingham, Zephaniah was everywhere. He visited schools, he followed Aston Villa, he spoke at universities and lectured in our libraries (he was even in Peaky Blinders). We read 'Face' at school, and we dissected his poems in college. He was a quiet constant here, and if he had the time, he'd have sat down and spoken with every single person passing him.
I spent a good amount of time growing up in Handsworth, an area of Birmingham with a history of racial tensions that was once visited by Malcolm X, and visits to his local library on Soho Road were common - and newcomers would get pushed onto Zephaniah works by eager community workers there. They lived by the words of their local legend and wanted to share it with a world larger than the one passing by each day.
I think you can see Zephaniah in a generation of Brummies (and beyond) who were taught to question adults by his books. You can see him in people who watch the news and ponder 'is this right?'
More people like Zephaniah would heal the world. Fewer like him allow toxicity to seep into the seams. That is the gravity of his passing.
But, is it really a loss, though - in the true sense of the word? Zephaniah can no longer continue to contribute to the great pantheon of artistry he has held up, for so long, with a number of other greats. But neither can James Baldwin nor Maya Angelou. Neither can JRR Tolkien nor T.S Eliot. People pass away, and the same is true for the great artists, but their works last forever, and they continue to inspire and influence.
Zephaniah's works will live forever, and from the 5 year-old reading about silly turkeys, to the Villa fan listening back on the words of the poet, to the people protesting on the street fighting for equality - he had lessons for us all, and more people like Zephaniah will come forth from that.