Mr. Zephaniah reached across genres and artforms, but his greatest contribution was often cited as helping expand the boundaries of poetry in Britain. Mr. Zephaniah first gained notice with work peppered with a street patois and, at times, an anarchist anger. He later found his voice in other issues including the environment and animal rights.
“I think poetry should be alive,” he said. “You should be able to dance to it.”
He first developed his style in the 1980s echoing his Afro-Caribbean roots and the traditions of dub poetry, a performance motif that emerged in Jamaica combining reggae beats with verse emphasizing social messages and activism. His early verse gave hints, too, of his own struggles, including years of street crime that led to an 18-month prison stint for burglary.
His poem “Dis Policeman Keeps on Kicking Me to Death” — first read in the early 1980s in London clubs and then part of his 1982 album “Rasta” — was inspired by clashes with authorities in Mr. Zephaniah’s native Birmingham and became a protest anthem over alleged police abuses in Britain and elsewhere.
dis regime is racist we know
dis regime is like a worthless penny dat’s unspent.
Mr. Zephaniah was sometimes described as Britain’s “people’s laureate.” For decades, he found ways to keep the image alive — such as publicly rejecting the ceremonial position of officer of the Order of the British Empire in 2003. “I get angry when I hear that word ‘empire,’” he wrote in an essay in the Guardian. “It reminds me of slavery, it reminds of thousands of years of brutality.”
But he also became a familiar figure in the British cultural mainstream. He was on the BBC Radio 4 show “Desert Island Discs” in 1997 discussing his admiration for the works of the 19th century British romanticist Percy Bysshe Shelley. Mr. Zephaniah gave inspirational talks on how he overcame dyslexia, and he taught creative writing at Brunel University in London.
He even did programs for the British Council, which promotes British culture worldwide, even as he wrote poetry and song lyrics that denounced the system. “I pay tax, they force me to pay for my oppression,” he wrote in the 2001 poem “Naked.”
He became known to wider audiences as the character Jeremiah Jesus, a streetwise minister with ankle-long dreadlocks, in 14 episodes of the popular streaming series “Peaky Blinders” (2013-2022) about an underworld family’s rise and fall in early 20th century Birmingham.
Mr. Zephaniah’s writing also moved into new territory over more than 30 books and anthologies. He took on stories aimed at young adults, explored environmental issues and animal rights as a vegan since he was 13.
His 1994 poem “Talking Turkeys” was one of his best known — a playful appeal on behalf of turkeys during the holiday season.
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.
In other ways, Mr. Zephaniah used the public forum as a confessional. In interviews, he addressed episodes of past violence that included physical abuse against former girlfriends. He told BBC Radio 5 in 2018 that his behavior “burned my conscience so badly” and asserted that his attitudes toward women changed as he became more politically active.
“I remember I was on a march and I was saying ‘Freedom! International freedom!’, and I thought, ‘I just left my girlfriend at home and told her not to leave the house — I’m a hypocrite. I’m an oppressor and a hypocrite,’” he said, “and at that moment, I just stopped.”
In an October 2020 commentary in the Guardian, Mr. Zephaniah took stock of how darkness and brilliance coexist everywhere. “Black history is not perfect,” he wrote. “We have had our dictators, our massacres, our warmongers and our evildoers, and we should not shy away from that. But we have also had our pioneers, our universities, our inventors, great writers, great poets, scientists, cartographers, teachers and philosophers.”
“The police who beat me up,” he continued, “didn’t know that.”
Benjamin Obadiah Iqbal Springer was born April 15, 1958, in Birmingham (along with twin sister Velda) to parents with ties to the Caribbean. His father, originally from Barbados, was a postal worker, and his Jamaica-born mother was a nurse.
As the boy, Benjamin began doing readings of his poetry in a church and was called by the church elders Zephaniah, an Old Testament prophet, for his oratory. He later adopted the name Benjamin Zephaniah.
He struggled in school with undiagnosed dyslexia but flourished as a storyteller with the ability to put words to music, skills he attributed to his mother and how she passed “recipes on to my sister in rhyme.”
As a teen, he was increasingly involved in law breaking — “nicking things from cars and people’s houses, fighting with the police” — and spent time in a juvenile detention center. He later was sentenced to jail for burglary.
“I remember being in prison, thinking, ‘I want to change the world, and now I’m sitting in a cell. What am I doing?’” he said.
His inspiration to become a writer, and overcome dyslexia, was sparked by a typewriter he received as a gift during childhood. When he was 22, he moved to London seeking to establish himself on the literary scene, joining up with street poets. Mr. Zephaniah’s first book of poetry, “Pen Rhythm,” was published in 1980, followed by “The Dread Affair: Collected Poems” in 1985.
Mr. Zephaniah’s first novel, “Face” (1999), the story of a man who must readjust to society after horrific facial injuries, was marketed for young-adult readers.
Mr. Zephaniah’s acting roles included the 1990 literary drama “Farendj” and in the BBC production of the “Dread Poets Society” (1992). His television show on the Sky Arts channel, “Life and Rhymes,” showcased storytelling and oral poetry and won a BAFTA award for an entertainment program in 2021.
In 2018, the BBC broadcast Mr. Zephaniah reading excerpts from his autobiography, “The Life and Rhymes of Benjamin Zephaniah.”
“I’m still as angry as I was in my twenties,” he read.
Mr. Zephaniah’s marriage to Amina Zephaniah ended in divorce. Mr. Zephaniah publicly discussed his issues with infertility and obstacles to adopt a child because of his criminal record. Full information on survivors was not immediately available.
Mr. Zephaniah once described himself as a British version of a “griot,” a name for traveling poets and performers in West Africa.
“Maybe they’ll tell a story in one village, sing in the next and perform a poem in another,” he said. “Sometimes they aim just to entertain, but sometimes their aim is to get people … ready to storm the government.”