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Poet and author Benjamin Zephaniah dies aged 65

Poet and author Benjamin Zephaniah dies aged 65

Writer Professor Benjamin Zephaniah has died at the age of 65, his family have announced.

The dub poet, known for his works about refugees and healthy eating and who also appeared in hit BBC show Peaky Blinders as Jeremiah Jesus, had been diagnosed with a brain tumour shortly before his death.

His agent confirmed his death to the PA news agency.

Zephaniah’s family said in a statement: “It is with great sadness and regret that we announced the death of our beloved husband, son and brother in the early hours of this morning 7th December 2023.

“Benjamin was diagnosed with a brain tumour eight weeks ago.

“Benjamin’s wife was by his side throughout and was with him when he passed.

“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. Through an amazing career including a huge body of poems, literature, music, television, and radio, Benjamin leaves us with a joyful and fantastic legacy.

“Thank you for the love you have shown Professor Benjamin Zephaniah.”

Benjamin Zephaniah
Benjamin Zephaniah used his writings to highlight the plight of refugees (PA)

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

He was kicked out of school at the age of 13, unable to read or write and had dyslexia.

In his 20s he travelled to London where his first book Pen Rhythm was published by Page One Book.

His first writings used dub poetry, a Jamaica 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.

Zephaniah, who rejected an OBE in 2003 due to the association of such an honour with the British Empire and its history of slavery, was often outspoken on racial abuse and education.

The Black Writers’ Guild, of which Zephaniah was a founding member, said it is in “mourning at the loss of a deeply valued friend and a titan of British literature”.

In a statement on X, formerly Twitter, the group also wrote: “Benjamin was a man of integrity and an example of how to live your values.

“His life was a testimony to the transformational power of reading and the importance of craft.”

During his music career, Zephaniah worked with Irish singer Sinead O’Connor on Empire and British musician Howard Jones and drummer Trevor Morais on his album Naked.

As a children’s poet, he wrote Talking Turkeys, We Sang Across The Sea: The Empire Windrush And Me and Nature Trail.

Author Michael Rosen, who was the children’s laureate from 2007 to 2009, called Zephaniah’s death “tragic terrible news”.

Writing on X, he said: “I’m devastated. I admired him, respected him, learnt from him, loved him. Love and condolences to the family and to all who loved him too.”

Also among the tributes was musician and activist Billy Bragg, Premier League football club Aston Villa and DJ and presenter Trevor Nelson.

In an X post, Aston Villa paid tribute to the ambassador of the AVFC Foundation as a “legendary writer and poet”.

Nelson wrote on the same social media site: “Too young, too soon, he had a lot more to give. He was a unique talent R.I.P.”

Brunel University London, where Zephaniah was a professor of creative writing, said on X it is “greatly saddened” by his death.

It added: “Our thoughts are with his family and all who are close to him.”