Jamaica’s Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze dies at 65: ‘We have just lost one of our greatest poets’

The writer and theatre director's work was published in London Underground carriages

Pioneering poet Jean "Binta" Breeze had died in her native Jamaica, aged 65.

According to her representatives, Renaissance One Writers & Events, the writer died on Wednesday.

While no cause of death has been revealed, it has been reported Breeze was suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease in her later years.

“Jean was an especially important part of our literary community in the UK and the Caribbean and her body of writing and orality, and the warmth and connection she generated through her art, touched the hearts and minds of audiences around the world,” read the agency's announcement on Twitter.

“We are in a state of shock and we will be mourning her loss for some time.”

UK poets, writers and literary academics also took to social media to pay tribute to a pioneer of dub poetry, a form of spoken word poetry tracing its roots to the West Indies in the 1970s and brought to the UK by Caribbean migrants.

"Her poetry, dub or not, and exuberant, inimitable performance of it reached audiences way beyond the literati," said Booker Prize winner Bernardine Evaristo on Twitter.

"Jean 'Binta' Breeze (1956-2021) was adored & drew massive crowds for decades in Britain. Alive forevermore through her poetry and recordings."

British Barbadian poet and author Safiya Kinshasa expressed her devastation at the loss of Breeze.

"We have just lost one of our greatest poets, Jean 'Binta' Breeze, a Jamaican poet, storyteller, choreographer, actor and teacher," she said.

"What she achieved in her career many of us could only dream of accomplishing. She influenced thousands, including me. I'm crying right now."

In an interview with The Guardian newspaper, poet Michael Rosen recalled performing alongside Breeze at a UK literary festival.

"She took hold of the whole performance place, invoking scenes and people from her life in poem and song. It was as if she summoned her mother into the room and became her," he said.

“Her poetry and performance was an announcement about womanhood, ethnicity, colour, nationhood and in particular Jamaica. I was riveted."

Who is Jean 'Binta' Breeze?

Born and raised in rural Jamaica by her grandparents, Breeze caught the poetry bug as a child from her grandmother reciting poems before going to bed.

After studying at the Jamaican School of Drama in 1978, she immersed herself into the national poetry scene and by 1981 was regarded as Jamaica’s first female dub poet.

Breeze spent most of her career travelling between Jamaica and the UK, where she performed in literary festivals as well as teaching theatre at Brixton College.

As an author, she made her debut with the 1988 poetry collection Riddym ravings and other poems.

Exploring her roots and her struggle with mental illness, the penetrating work has been acclaimed by critics as a classic of contemporary Caribbean poetry.

Breeze also wrote the screenplay for British television drama Hallelujah Anyhow.

Starring American actor Keith David, the film examines how the lives of a British-Caribbean family is upended when a distant relative unexpectedly visits from the West Indies.

In 2018, Breeze was one of six poets chosen to have their works printed on the London Tube's carriages as part of Poems from the Underground, a public arts project run by the UK’s The Poetry Society.

One of her poems used is the stirring rising. Its ending sums up a vibrant career that inspired a generation of poets at home and abroad: "Having released the roots of pain into content, I now stir the skies."

Updated: August 7th 2021, 12:28 PM
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