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07 December 2023

Benjamin Zephaniah, Poet, Writer & Activist, Dies Aged 65

Benjamin Zephaniah Writer Poet Dies 65
Photo: S. Swenson/Alamy Stock Photo
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Acclaimed writer and poet Benjamin Zephaniah has died aged 65, after being diagnosed with a brain tumour eight weeks ago.

A statement posted on his Instagram account confirmed he died in the early hours of Thursday. The statement said Zephaniah’s wife “was with him throughout and was by his side when he passed”.

“We shared him with the world and we know many will be shocked and saddened by this news,” it added.

Benjamin Zephaniah was born April 1958 in Handsworth, Birmingham, which he thought of as a “cold suburb of Kingston, Jamaica”. He began performing poetry locally in his early teenage years. He had dyslexia, and he left school aged 14.

In 1979, he moved to London, and his first collection, Pen Rhythm, was published. He began performing at demonstrations, youth gatherings and outside police stations. “I was a big protester, not just against racism but also apartheid. We are a multicultural society but the institutions have to catch up with us,” he said in 2019.

His early work used dub poetry, a Jamaican style of work that has evolved into the music genre of the same name, and he would also perform with the group The Benjamin Zephaniah Band.

He also released a number of albums, and was the first person to record with the Wailers after the death of Bob Marley in a tribute to Nelson Mandela. Mandela heard the tribute while in prison, and later asked to meet Zephaniah. When a concert honouring Mandela was held at the Royal Albert Hall in 1996, Mandela asked Zephaniah to host it.

As Zephaniah’s profile grew, he became a familiar face on television and was credited with bringing dub poetry into British living rooms. He also wrote five novels as well as poetry for children, and his first book for younger readers, Talking Turkeys, was a huge success upon its publication in 1994.

Zephaniah famously rejected an OBE in 2003 due to the association of such an honour with the British Empire and its history of slavery.

“I’ve been fighting against empire all my life, fighting against slavery and colonialism all my life,” he told The Big Narstie Show in 2020. “I’ve been writing to connect with people, not to impress governments and monarchy. Could I then accept an honour that puts the word Empire on to my name? That would be hypocritical.

Zephaniah was nominated for autobiography of the year at the National Book Awards for his work, The Life And Rhymes Of Benjamin Zephaniah, which was also shortlisted for the Costa Book Award in 2018.

A statement from the Black Writers’ guild, which Zephaniah helped establish, said: “Our family of writers is in mourning at the loss of a deeply valued friend and a titan of British literature. Benjamin was a man of integrity and an example of how to live your values.”

In addition to his writing work, Zephaniah was an actor and appeared in the BBC drama series Peaky Blinders between 2013 and 2022. He played Jeremiah “Jimmy” Jesus, appearing in 14 episodes across the six series.

Peaky Blinders actor Cillian Murphy said in a statement: “Benjamin was a truly gifted and beautiful human being. A generational poet, writer, musician and activist. A proud Brummie and a Peaky Blinder. I’m so saddened by this news.”

Singer-songwriter Billy Bragg added on social media: “Very sorry to hear this news. Benjamin Zephaniah was our radical poet laureate. Rest in power, my friend.”

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