Gboyega Odubanjo, poet acclaimed for his ‘brutal honesty’ and ‘side-splitting humour’ – obituary

Gboyega Odubanjo
Gboyega Odubanjo - Northamptonshire Police/PA

Gboyega Odubanjo, who has died aged 27, built a reputation as one of the most promising British poets of his generation, until his sudden death at a music festival where he had been due to perform.

A proud East Londoner, he wrote about his home city in formally adventurous free verse that drew on everything from folk tales to George Orwell, from pirate radio to local newspaper headlines, always with “brutal honesty, side-splitting humour, total irreverence and pure heart,” as the poet Victoria Adukwei Bulley put it. He was a resident artist at London’s Roundhouse and a fellow of the Barbican Young Poets scheme.

At the time of his death, he was editing his first full-length collection of poetry, Adam, published by Faber next year; it revisits the unsolved murder of an unidentified black boy whose body was discovered in the Thames in 2001, and racial bias in the way the police and media respond to the deaths of young black men, a theme present in his work since “OBIT” (2019): “on the news / i will be smiling. i will be as handsome / as i have ever been”.

“What first inspired me to write poetry was the realisation I didn’t have what it took to be a football player or a rapper,” he once joked. Asked to name the artists who had shaped him, he gave a list that began with the Afrobeat musician Fela Kuti and ended with Thierry Henry. Once, after reading to a full house at London’s Southbank Centre, he learnt that Arsenal had just lost, and declared: “It WAS the best day of my life, and now it’s ruined.”

Olugboyega “Gboyega” Abayomi-Odubanjo was born in Homerton, east London, on January 30 1996, to parents who had moved to England from Nigeria in the 1980s. His large, lively family was extended by a host of honorary “uncles” and “aunties”, exchanging stories and recipes at the kind of gatherings he described in his poem “There Is Joy Breaking Here” (from his multi-award-winning 2021 pamphlet Aunty Uncle Poems), in which “uncle grills burgers in knock-off birkenstocks”.

Aged five, he declared he wanted to write a book. He studied English literature and philosophy at the University of East Anglia, before joining its creative writing MA programme; at the time of his death, he was working towards a PhD at the University of Hertfordshire.

'The poems in While I Yet Live beat to a luxurious musicality, exploring themes such as race, mortality and the fallibility of faith with an enviable lightness of touch,' said the Poetry Society
'The poems in While I Yet Live beat to a luxurious musicality, exploring themes such as race, mortality and the fallibility of faith with an enviable lightness of touch,' said the Poetry Society

In a poetry scene afflicted by petty rivalries and inflated egos, Odubanjo had the modesty that is a hallmark of real talent. He dressed with idiosyncratic style, often wearing two shirts at once. Greeting friends and strangers alike with a warm “Bonjour!”, he had a gift for instant connection, whether in a sticky-floored boozer or at a starchy literary ceremony. Working with him, said Faber’s poetry editor Matthew Hollis, was like “working under sunlight”.

This year, he sparred with the poet Don Paterson in a long “mutual agitation” published in The Poetry Review – a funny, occasionally barbed correspondence described by one critic as “beautifully and majestically Not Twitter. It’s the kind of thing the BBC would like to do but never seem to get right.”

Happiest when debating life and literature over a pint of Guinness, he wrote a charming 2021 essay on pubs, connecting the Simon Pegg film The World’s End to Orwell’s ideal pub, “The Moon Under Water” (a name, he noted, that Wetherspoons has co-opted for no fewer than 13 branches).

In it, he described his perfect pub: “The jukebox always a notch too loud, someone always holding onto the shadow of a melody just gone … a single stack of books by the door that have never been touched. Someone has left their lamb leg in the pub again. Say hello to the nice man, he swears he and your father threw bottles together in the eighties. A pack of cigarettes for a fiver? Why, of course. Fancy a bet on the game? Oh, go on then; I shouldn’t. In all the pubs the world is ending, the moon is under water. Still, the doors are always open. There is no place like home.”

Odubanjo was to recite his work at the 2023 Shambala festival in Northamptonshire, but disappeared from the festival site the day before his performance. His body was found but no cause of death has been reported.

In the weeks that followed, his family and his publisher Bad Betty Press voiced their distress at the police’s handling of his disappearance. A crowdfunding page for his family has raised more than £75,000, mostly in small donations; the family intend to start a foundation in his honour to help low-income black writers.

Gboyega Odubanjo, born January 30 1996, death reported August 31 2023