- Written by Stephen McIntosh
- Entertainment reporter
Writer and poet Benjamin Zephaniah is remembered as ‘one of the giants of British literature’ after his death at the age of 65.
A statement on his Instagram account said that he died early Thursday with his wife by his side after he was diagnosed with a brain tumor eight weeks ago.
She added: “We have shared it with the world and know that many will be shocked and saddened by this news.”
Tributes poured in for the “beautiful human being” and “proud Brummie” who “had so much to offer”.
Zephaniah was born and raised in Handsworth, Birmingham, the son of a Barbadian postman and a Jamaican nurse. He was dyslexic and left school at 13, unable to read or write.
He moved to London at the age of 22 and published his first book, The Rhythm of the Pen.
His early work used dub poetry, a Jamaican working style that evolved into the musical genre of the same name, and he also performed with Benjamin Zephaniah’s band group.
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 young readers, Talking Turkeys, was a huge success when it was published in 1994.
The statement announcing his death said: “Benjamin was a true pioneer and innovator. He gave the world so much.”
“With an astonishing career that includes a vast body of poetry, literature, music, television and radio, Benjamin leaves us with a joyful and wonderful legacy.”
On top of his writing work, Zephaniah has been an actor and appeared in the BBC drama series Peaky Blinders between 2013 and 2022.
He played Jeremiah “Jimmy” Jesus, and appeared in 14 episodes across the six series.
Peaky Blinders actor Cillian Murphy said in a statement: “Benjamin was a truly talented and beautiful human being.
“Poet, writer, musician and generational activist. A proud Brummie and a Peaky Blinder. I am deeply saddened by this news.”
Zephaniah famously declined an OBE in 2003 because of the honor’s association with the British Empire and its history of slavery.
“I was writing to communicate with people, not to persuade governments and monarchies. Could I then accept the honor of putting the word Empire after my name? That would be hypocritical.”
He often spoke about issues such as racial abuse and education.
When Zephaniah was younger, he served prison time for burglary and received a criminal record.
In 1982, Zephaniah released an album titled Rasta, which featured the Wailers’ first recording since Bob Marley’s death.
It also included a tribute to then-political prisoner Nelson Mandela, who later became president of South Africa.
He recalls: “I once asked a friend of mine: What do you do when your father hits your mother?” He said: No.
“Oh, you come from one of those feminist homes,” I said. So, what do you do when your mother hits your father?
Statement issued by the Black Writers Association, “Our writers’ family is mourning the loss of a dear friend and giant of British literature. Benjamin was a man of integrity and an example of how to live your values,” said Zephaniah, who Zephaniah helped found.
Others pay tribute The author included Michael Rosen, who said: “I am devastated. I admired him, respected him, learned from him and loved him. Love and condolences to his family and to everyone who loved him as well.”
Actress Adjoa Andoh posted: “We lost a giant today. Benjamin Zephaniah. Beautiful poet, professor, advocate for love and humanity in all things. Heartbroken. Rest in strength – our brother.”
Broadcaster Trevor Nelson said: “Very sad to hear of the passing of Benjamin Zephaniah. He was so young, so young, and had so much to offer. He was a unique talent.”
Singer, songwriter and musician Billy Bragg added: “So sorry to hear this news. Benjamin Zephaniah was our radical poet. Rest in power my friend.”
Comedian, actor and writer Lenny Henry said: “I was saddened to learn of the passing of my friend Benjamin Zephaniah. His passion for poetry and his call for education for all were tireless.”
Writer Niels Abbe said: “To call this news shocking is a gross understatement. He was so young, so wonderful, and still has so much to give. A loss from which we will never recover.”
“Named one of Britain’s 50 best post-war writers in 2008, Benjamin was a lifelong Aston Villa fan and served as an ambassador for the AVFC Foundation. Our thoughts are with his family and friends at this time.”
In 2012, Zephaniah was chosen to guest edit an edition of BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
He was nominated for Biography of the Year at the National Book Awards for his work, The Life and Songs of Benjamin Zephaniah, which was also nominated for the Costa Book Award in 2018.
“Wannabe web expert. Twitter fanatic. Writer. Passionate coffee enthusiast. Freelance reader.”