Last month Britain suffered the tragic loss of one of its greatest writers, the dub-poet Benjamin Zephaniah. Winning the BBC Radio 4 Young Playwrights Festival Award in 1998, Zephaniah would continue to create outstanding literary works that drew on his lived experiences of racism and his Jamaican heritage, such as his award-winning novel ‘Refugee Boy’. Through the mixing of his passions for poetry and music, Zephaniah would, and will continue, to speak to humanists in Britain and beyond, advocating human rights and equality in the face of increasing injustice.


Born in Birmingham in 1958 to a Barbadian postman and a Jamaican nurse, Zephaniah faced discrimination as a black poet and experienced racism on a regular basis. Caught up in the 1981 race riots which protested the controversial use of stop-and-search procedures against primarily black people, Zephaniah would say that he sold his BMW after he was “stopped four times” after buying it. Unfortunately, the prejudice that Zephaniah faced was not only race based, as aged 13 he was expelled from his school for being unable to read or write due to dyslexia, making his later success as a poet even more extraordinary.


One of Zephaniah’s poems that should speak for us all is ‘We Refugees’, which I studied during my GCSEs. Written in 2000, the poem depicts the ongoing struggles of refugees around the world. Zephaniah himself sadly faced significant discrimination as an “outsider” in academia, so he uses this poem to empathise with people such as refugees who may feel a similar way. However, the importance of the collective pronoun ‘We’ used throughout the poem cannot be understated, as it reminds us that we are all indeed descended from refugees, that ‘We all came here from somewhere’.


Sticking to these honourable principles of anti-racism, Zephaniah publicly rejected an appointment as an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in November 2003 after he had been recommended by then-PM Tony Blair. He would later state “Benjamin Zephaniah OBE – no way Mr Blair, no way Mrs Queen. I am profoundly anti-empire”. 


An incoming general election later this year means that a deeply unpopular government will likely attempt to make immigration a salient issue. This follows PM Rishi Sunak’s controversial Rwanda bill passing its first vote in Parliament last month, despite a previous version of the bill being ruled unanimously unlawful by the UK Supreme Court. At a time when refugees are being increasingly demonised by the government, Zephaniah’s memory must be kept alive, his literary works must be remembered, and his legacy must live on.