He was born in Handsworth, Birmingham, England in 1958. Inspired by the music and lyricists of Jamaica, he wrote poetry at an early age. In 1968 he gave his first performance in a church, and by 1973 he was well known in his hometown for his art.
He published his first book of poems, Pen Rhythm, in 1980, which was so well received three editions were published. His album Rasta, which featured The Wailers' first recording since the death of Bob Marley as well as a tribute to Nelson Mandela, gained him international prestige and topped the Yugoslavian pop charts. It was because of this recording that he was introduced to the political prisoner and soon to be South African president, and in 1996, Mandela requested that Zephaniah host the president's Two Nations Concert at London's Royal Albert Hall.
In November 2003, Zephaniah wrote in The Guardian that he was turning down the invitation to accept an OBE (Officer of the Order of British Empire) award from Queen Elizabeth II since it reminded him of "thousands of years of brutality, it reminds me of how my foremothers were raped and my forefathers brutalized.". He continued to say "Stick it, Mr. Blair and Mrs. Queen, stop going on about empire." It was unusual to do so publically since the convention for rejecting the award is to do so privately. He conceded that he had nothing against the Queen personally, and that "She's a bit stiff but a nice old lady,".
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