I Neva Shot de Sheriff

IssueFebruary - March 2024
Feature by Benjamin Zephaniah

’Twaz broad daylight,
Kool breeze waz
East, north, south
Me mind waz fine
Relatively speaking,
Me body waz
An Natty Dread me deputy waz
As always

It happened quick,
Professionally done
We knew exactly wot hit us.

De sheriff shot I an me
An den he shot me deputy.

For a moment we forgot dat we
Sum criminal statistics
Bout black male violence,
Black male sexuality
Black male lack of finance

Word on TV is,
’Twaz a precautionary measure,
A softly, softly tactic,
Word on de street is,
De city wazn’t big enough
Fe all of us.

’Twaz two black males
Gainst four white cops
Wid six work guns
An two cop coconuts.
Blacks wid badges
Blacks wid something to prove
Black wid white dreams
Blacks who fear blacks
Blacks who
Nightmare black,
Payrolled blacks
Who want to
Work it from de inside,
See no future on de outside,
Black who want to

Represent what?
When me, I, and me deputy
Lay on de metropolitan pavement
Didn’t hear no black cop saying
I represent yu brother
I feel fe yu brother,
All I heard waz,
‘I’m doing ma job
I’m doing ma job.’
When I waz
De coon under suspicion,
De coon under foot,
Didn’t hear no black cop saying,
‘Dats ma coon brother
I’m a coon too.’
Didn’t hear yu crying when

De sheriff shot I an me
An den he shot me deputy

When I am wounded
I do crazy tings.

As I lay on de metropolitan pavement
I shouted,
Me deputy waz searching for
His driving licence
An talking to Malcolm X.
I’m looking at the stone in front of me
If dis be me gravestone,
I had dat ded feeling in me mouth
And dat legless feeling
In me arms.
I saw me red freedom
Gushing out of me.
The universe meant nothing to me then
The church means nothing to me now.
All those joint ventures
Community liaison party
An all those expensive publicity stunts
Mean bitter nothing.

De sheriff shot I an me
An den he shot me deputy.

I had
A burst of angry words
I flashed lyrical fire.
I have
Too many ded sisters
Too many ded brothers
Me children dem nervous
An I have too many dying ideals.
I have too many video recordings
Of official apologies
Official denials
An straightforward lies,
I hav too many poems
About not enough truth
An now I hav a bullet.

We don’t want to die like dis.

I, me, an me deputy waz
Looking forwards to
We want to grow up...
We just wanted to grow up,
But maybe we asked for too much.
My mother took me be the scruff of me neck
To a notice painted on our side of town dat reads,
‘The authorities are not here
to love you sucker,’
Den she cried a black mother cry.

Times have changed
Robert Marley shot the sheriff.

De sheriff shot I an me
An den he shot me deputy.

An we are still waiting
For our public enquiry.


It is hard to believe that Benjamin Zephaniah is really gone. His dates are 15 April 1958 – 7 December 2023, but he seems to tower above us and above time, writes Milan Rai. Poet, novelist, playwright, lyricist, actor, musician, teacher and martial artist, Benjamin Zephaniah was also an activist on many fronts, including veganism, animal rights, anti-racism and Palestine solidarity.

Rather than try to sum up Benjamin Zephaniah’s extraordinary life in an obituary, we are printing something he wrote about his political beliefs (see here) and, above, a poem he wrote in 2000.

‘I Neva Shot de Sheriff’ relates both to Bob Marley’s classic 1973 song (‘I Shot The Sheriff’, written and recorded in Jamaica) and to the deaths of black people in the UK, at the hands of British police officers.

The poem was written three years before the death of Benjamin Zephaniah’s cousin, Mikey Powell, at the hands of Birmingham police officers. An inquest jury later found that Mikey died as a result of police actions (including being pinned to the ground by up to eight officers for at least 16 minutes) which led to his death by suffocation in a police van. No police officer has so far been convicted of, or even disciplined for, any wrongdoing for Mikey’s death: www.mikeypowell-campaign.org.uk

‘I Neva Shot de Sheriff’ came out of a year-long poetry residence (organised by the Poetry Society) with a firm of barristers in London, Tooks Chambers, the home at the time of campaigning lawyer Michael Mansfield. Dr Zephaniah (he was awarded 16 honorary doctorates) personally gave us permission to print this poem back in 2021.

Topics: obituary