Poet, actor and activist Benjamin Zephaniah has died, aged 65

Poet, actor and political activist Benjamin Zephaniah has died. He was aged 65.

The news was announced via an update on his Instagram page, and confirmed that he died in the early hours of Wednesday morning (December 6). His death comes after he was diagnosed with a brain tumour just eight weeks ago.

“Benjamin’s wife was by his side throughout and was with him when he passed,” the post read. “We shared him with the world and we know many will be shocked and saddened by this news.

“Benjamin was a true pioneer and innovator, he gave the world so much,” it added. “Through an amazing career including a huge body of poems, literature, music, television and radio, Benjamin leaves us with a joyful and fantastic legacy”.

Born on April 15, 1958, Zephaniah was diagnosed with dyslexia at an early age and left school by age 13, unable to read or write. His inspiration to become a writer was sparked when he was given a typewriter as a gift during childhood. Currently, the manual typewriter is on display at the Museums Trust in his hometown of Birmingham.

Zephaniah rose to fame throughout the ‘80s – most famous for his poetry works which often touched upon topics such as race and the British legal system. By the ‘90s, he was considered one of the most influential voices in the UK.

His first book Pen Rhythm was published in 1980, and was inspired by his aim revive the reputation of poetry. This was later followed by 2001’s Too Black Too Strong, which detailed the struggles of Black Britain. His influences included the music and poetry of Jamaica as well as what he named “street politics”.

Arguably his most famous work was the children’s poetry book Talking Turkeys, which was released in 1994. It was this that led to him being named as one of the 50 Greatest Post-War Writers by The Times in 2008.

Famously, he turned down an OBE in 2003, writing: “Benjamin Zephaniah OBE – no way Mr Blair, no way Mrs Queen. I am profoundly anti-empire.” He also said he had begged Tony Blair to meet him to discuss crime in Britain and told the Queen to stop “going on about the empire”.

Benjamin Zephaniah attends the grand opening of new exhibition "Bob Marley: One Love Experience" at The Saatchi Gallery on February 2, 2022
Benjamin Zephaniah attends the grand opening of new exhibition “Bob Marley: One Love Experience” at The Saatchi Gallery on February 2, 2022. CREDIT: David M. Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images

In 2011, he was appointed as poet-in-residence at Keats House in Hampstead, London. He was also given the BBC Young Playwright award, and went on to receive 16 honorary doctorates from universities around the UK.

Born and raised in Birmingham which he often referred to as the “Jamaican capital of Europe”, the poet also went on to take on numerous acting roles. These included appearances on UK television shows including Eastenders and The Bill.

His most famous role, however, took place 10 years ago, when he took on a role in the hit BBC drama Peaky Blinders back in 2013. For this, he played a character called Jeremiah ‘Jimmy’ Jesus, and appeared in 14 episodes across the series.

As well as venturing into the acting world, he also had many ties to the music industry. His first writings used dub poetry, a Jamaican style of work that has evolved into the music genre of the same name. He also performed with the group The Benjamin Zephaniah Band.

He frequently collaborated with other artists too. This included working alongside the late Sinead O’Connor on Bomb The Bass’ 1995 song ‘Empire’, as well as acts including Natty, Toddla T and Joe Goddard.

Already, countless names from the entertainment world have gone on to pay tribute to the poet, including Billy Bragg, who described him as “our radical poet laureate”.

“Genuinely one of the nicest, kindest, and most thoughtful artists I ever worked with. And a certified genius, obviously,” wrote Mark Davyd of Music Venue Trust, who also worked with Zephaniah as a manager.  “Thanks Benjamin. What an incredible life and what a gift to the rest of us.”

Simone Butler of Primal Scream also paid tribute, describing the poet as “beautiful poetic soul on this earth”, while journalist John Robb added: “It was always a pleasure to interview the great #benjaminzephaniah so much wisdom and so much down to earth DIY enthusiasm – a brilliant mind and brilliant person.”

 

Mercury-nominated artist Loyle Carner also paid tribute to Zephaniah on his Instagram page, recalling how he knew the poet and regarded him as a source of inspiration. “The man that gave me my name. my hero,” he wrote, sharing a screenshot of the two together during an interview. “[I] promise to take your words forwards. Thank you for guiding the way.”

The image was taken from a 2017 Music Box interview with The Independent, which saw the two discuss their inspirations, respective careers and experiences of dyslexia during childhood.

The Black Writers’ guild, which Zephaniah helped establish, shared a statement online too, reading: “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.”

Author Nels Abbey took to X/Twitter to recall the news of his death as being “crushing”, while radio host and DJ Trevor Nelson praised him as “a unique talent”. Check out more tributes below.

This is a breaking news story, check back for more information.


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