Despite the occasionally visceral and often rebellious nature of his poetry, Benjamin Zephaniah, who has died aged 65 of a brain tumour, had such wide appeal in the UK that he became something close to a national treasure, attracting devotion among all classes and types of people, young as well as old.
With a down-to-earth mission to take poetry wherever he could – and especially to those who would not normally read it – his reach also extended to other parts of the world, where he was respected as a writer and performer who could be relied upon to speak his mind with forthrightness, honesty and self-effacing humour.
From an unpromising start to life in Birmingham, Zephaniah hauled himself into the public eye during the early 1980s by hitching himself to a post-punk caravan of streetwise performance poets such as John Cooper Clarke, Attila the Stockbroker and, at a slightly greater remove, Linton Kwesi Johnson – all of whom eschewed the abstract in favour of writing with a fierce political edge about everyday life.
Focusing initially on the debilitating effects of racism, including through his breakthrough poem Dis Policeman Keeps on Kicking Me to Death, Zephaniah later branched out to consider other topics that were close his heart, including unemployment, homelessness and, as a vegan from the age of 13, animal rights.
In addition to writing novels for adults, he also harnessed his talent for simple language to become a bestselling author for teenagers, with books such as Talking Turkeys (1994) and Windrush Child (2020) that became standard school reading material in multicultural Britain.
Zephaniah was born Benjamin Springer in the Hockley area of Birmingham to Oswald Springer, a post office worker, and Leneve (nee Wright), a nurse, who had emigrated to Britain from Barbados and Jamaica respectively. He had a twin sister, Velda, and six other siblings. Experiencing racism as a child on an almost daily basis, he also felt unhappiness at home, where his father was a distant and violent figure, especially to his mother. When he was 10, after Leneve had received an especially savage beating, she and Benjamin went on the run together.
Living a hand-to-mouth existence, the pair never returned, leaving the other children of the family in estrangement. The dislocation that followed had its effect on Zephaniah: at 13 he was expelled from Broadway school, later spending time in borstal, while in his late teens he was imprisoned for various offences, including affray and burglary.
Poetry, Rastafarianism and an iron will were his salvation. Realising that he was going to face further longer spells in jail or even an early death through gang-related violence, at the age of 22 he left Birmingham and headed for London to be a poet.
One of his first memories of composing poetry had come as a small boy while walking to the corner shop, and, though dyslexic, he had inherited from his mother a great lyrical facility. By the age of 15 he had a reputation as a wordsmith, and when the elders of his mother’s church, feeling he had a prophet-like quality with language, dubbed him Zephaniah (“treasured by God”), the name stuck.
In London he became part of the punk, reggae and alternative comedy scenes, reading his poems during breaks at gigs. His first collection of poetry, Pen Rhythm, was published in 1980 by a co-operative, after which, like Johnson, he began to turn to dub poetry, adding reggae music to his words with a debut album, Rasta (1982).
Soon in demand for radio, TV and film work, Zephaniah played Moses in the film Farendj in 1990 and had a TV play, Dread Poets Society, screened by the BBC the following year. His first novel, Face, about a young man whose life is dramatically changed by facial injuries he receives while joyriding, was published in 1999, but in the preceding years he had continued to produce a steady stream of poetry collections, including The Dread Affair (1985), Inna Liverpool (1988), City Psalms (1992) and Propa Propaganda (1996).
In addition to his 14 poetry books and seven dub poetry albums, over the years he produced further novels and children’s books, as well as seven plays. Among his more high-profile acting roles was a stint as the street preacher Jeremiah Jesus in the TV drama series Peaky Blinders.
In later life he moved from London to Lincolnshire, where he lived quietly, notwithstanding the energy he threw into countless projects. Although committed to widening access and undermining elites, Zephaniah saw this as compatible with academic work, and in 2011 accepted the post of professor of poetry and creative writing at Brunel University, where he was a regular, friendly presence in the staffroom and a committed, hardworking lecturer.
More recently he had been spending three months of the year in China, where he practised tai chi, but, despite his largely peaceable nature, he remained an angry man with a punk sensibility, identifying, he said, most easily with anarchism and observing that “when I see what people have to put up with from their governments, I’m surprised they don’t rise up more often”.
Consistently radical to the end, he refused the offer of an OBE in 2003, and 15 years later scotched any idea that he might become the poet laureate in succession to Carol Ann Duffy by explaining in poetic form: “Don’t take my word, go check the verse / Cause every laureate gets worse”.
His 1990 marriage to Amina, a theatre administrator, ended in divorce in 2001.
• Benjamin Obadiah Iqbal Zephaniah, poet and author, born 15 April 1958; died 7 December 2023