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Remembering Benjamin Zephaniah

Pictured at the ceremony for his Honorary Doctorate, Benjamin Zephaniah, the late Baroness Boothroyd (a former OU Chancellor) and Professor Walder.

Upon the death of writer, poet and actor Benjamin Zephaniah, FASS Emeritus Professor of Literature Dennis Walder recalls a “lovely, warm personality, and a radical poet”.

Professor Walder worked with him in the early 1990s at the OU, creating recordings about performing poetry.

“The main point as I recall was that his was not so much written down as performed poetry, and he was brilliant at that.”

Professor Walder presented Benjamin with his Honorary Doctorate at a ceremony in Birmingham in 2004 for Services to Arts and Sciences. In his presentation speech, he’d said that: “Benjamin Zephaniah was a Rasta, a rapper and a poet, who showed what’s possible for those ground down by upbringing, environment, or ethnicity. Combining outrage with eloquence, self-awareness with self-discipline, his work has been enjoyed from Birmingham to Soweto, from Tower Hamlets to Jamaica.”

He recalled that “publishers in the 1970s weren’t interested in Black, Dub or Rastafarian poetry. They didn’t hear the language behind it or the rhythm in it and couldn’t understand it. But in 1980 Page One Books published Pen Rhythm, his first book, and an instant success”.

“His words are best listened to rather than read – for instance on the 1990 recording Us and Dem. His verse is alternately hard-hitting, comic, and moving.”

As well as his recordings with Professor Walder, including English is Wicked and Poetry and Performance, Benjamin produced The Z Files exploring the lives, aspirations and careers to date of acclaimed Black scientists, innovators and engineers, and was an advocate of the work of the OU, writing a celebratory poem to mark the University’s 50th Anniversary.

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