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Benjamin Zephaniah.

How Benjamin Zephaniah became the face of British Rastafari

The sudden and untimely passing of Benjamin Zephaniah at age 65 has rightly brought reflection on his legacy as a poet and as a writer, the two fields in which he made monumental contributions.

Zephaniah’s warmth, his accessibility –- and his lyrical genius – made him a household name and a national treasure. Hear him, in 2018, on BBC Radio 3, waxing lyrical about his favourite Shakespearean moments. “In Caribbean and African folklore,” he says, “there’s a character called Anansi who’s a spider and a bit of trickster, and it’s very much like Puck.”

See him on a Channel 4 chat show sofa, two years later, as MC Big Narstie asks why he turned down an OBE. “I’ve been fighting against empire all my life,” Zephaniah replies. “How could I then go and accept an honour which puts empire on to my name?”

These same attributes made Zephaniah the most prominent face of the UK Rastafari movement, in which he found his spiritual home. I had the privilege of getting to know him over the course of my research into Rastafari spirituality.

If the evergreen popularity of reggae music has resulted in public recognition of the Rastafari movement in name, in its beliefs, it remains misunderstood and mischaracterised. In the UK, Zephaniah became its standard bearer. His public adherence represented a full frontal challenge to the pervasive criminal stereotypes with which racist politicians and police forces have long tagged Rastafari.

Persecution of Rastafari

Zephaniah was born and raised in the Handsworth area of Birmingham in 1958. He came of age in the late 1970s, as the UK fell head first into Thatcherism and the far-right National Front achieved its biggest ever vote tally.

A tribute on the facade of a cinema.
A tribute to Benjamin Zephaniah by Brixton’s Ritzy cinema on Windrush Square, in London. Anna Watson|Alamy

Black Rastafari of the era invariably faced daily racist persecution. Faith-based persecution, endorsed by the establishment, was soon to follow.

Sociologists point to a 1977 report commissioned by the West Midlands Police and titled Shades of Grey as having been instrumental in creating, as journalist Derek Bishton notes, “the popular sentiment that Black people were much more predisposed to criminality, and that it was their culture which produced this behaviour”.

The report insidiously associated “hardcore Dreadlocks” with “a criminalised sub-culture”. It asserted this community posed a constant threat to “the peace of individual citizens”.

There was of course crime and violence in the area, as in any other. Indeed, Zephaniah himself has spoken about possessing a gun at one point and also serving time in prison for burglary.

What Brown’s report served to do, however, was to designate this criminality as wholly tied to specific cultural norms. It hinged on a thinly defined and spurious characterisation of Rastafari as a criminal enterprise, rather than the spiritual movement it is.

Criminologists highlight how this false association of “deviance” with Black communities and Black culture persists in British society, with horrendous consequences.

Challenging oppression

Zephaniah rose to fame in the 1980s and 1990s through published poetry and subsequent musical and TV appearances. Through his titanic output, he showed Rastafari to be a vibrant and assertive movement, which rejected violence and hatred, and challenged oppression wherever it resided.

A signed frontispiece in a book.
Eternal optimism: Benjamin Zephaniah’s dedication for the author’s nephew, Henry. Joseph Powell, CC BY-NC-ND

Zephaniah had seemingly eternal optimism. This never limited his ability to confront. When he appeared on Desert Island Discs in 1997, presenter Sue Lawley asked, what it means to be Rastafari “beyond all the things we know, the dreadlocks and so on?”

Zephaniah inhaled, ever so slightly wearily. Then he replied: “Well, if you can imagine being in a non-Christian country and someone asking ‘Tell us what does it mean to be a Christian’ very quickly, it’s a very difficult thing to do.” He went on to list what he saw as three common uniting threads of Rastafari thinking: veneration of former Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie as divine and Jamaican pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey as a prophet, as well as a spiritual orientation toward Africa.

When I first reached out to Zephaniah about Rastafari dietary practice, he welcomed me into his office at Brunel University. He explained his view that human intelligence lets us know that killing animals is wrong when there’s an alternative available.

Benjamin Zephaniah on stage.
On stage at the 2017 Latitude festival in Suffolk. Roger Garfield|Alamy

The last time we spoke was in February 2020. He was typically generous with his time, turning what was officially a one-hour slot into a two-hour discussion ranging widely between Extinction Rebellion, the Trump presidency, environmental tokenism and the need for Rastafari to attempt to amplify its voice in ecological debates.

I still now recall his powerful and vivid descriptions of communing with nature and the Almighty in parallel. He said:

For me when I meditate I don’t feel there’s a question about if there’s a God or not, I feel God. And at the same time I’m feeling God I feel my relationship to the tree, I feel my relationship to the grass, I feel my relationship to the animals. There’s a thing I feel more than anything, more than my hand more than my foot, more than my brain. That feels like spirit.

Many of the people I’ve interviewed recognise Zephaniah as a figure of authentic and artistic Rastafari spirituality. In a system which still “downpresses” the movement, his mere presence served to demystify and to normalise it. As he once put it:

The seed of Abraham grows, it will not stop.

And those who see it know, Rastafari is on top.

Great schools and churches have been built to hide us from the real.

But those that built burn in their guilt, as prophecies reveal.

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