Benjamin Zephaniah has died at the age of 65, his family announced today.
The Birmingham-born 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 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.
British poet and writer Benjamin Zephaniah has died at the age of 65, his family have announced
In a statement shared to his social media his family paid tribute to his legacy
Benjamin’s most famous role came when he was cast as Jimmy in the BBCs Peaky Blinders in 2013
‘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.’
The dyslexic son of a postman from Barbados and a Jamaican nurse, Benjamin Zephaniah, 63, was born in Birmingham in 1958 – which he referred to as the ‘Jamaican capital of Europe.’
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 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 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
Commenting on his refusal to be honoured at the time, he remarked: ‘My obsession is about the future and the political rights of all people.
‘Empire’ ‘reminds me of slavery, it reminds of thousands of years of brutality, it reminds me of how my foremothers were raped and my forefathers brutalised…
‘Benjamin Zephaniah OBE – no way, Mr Blair, no way Mrs Queen. I am profoundly anti-empire.’
He often served as the moral heart of Cillian Murphy’s (right) character Tommy Shelby’s lawless group
In 2003, the influential poet rejected a nomination for an OBE as he was anti-empire
Commenting on his refusal to be honoured at the time, he remarked: ”Benjamin Zephaniah OBE – no way, Mr Blair, no way Mrs Queen. I am profoundly anti-empire.’
By the 1990s, the performance poet had made several appearances on UK TV shows including The Bill but his most famous role would come when he was cast in the BBCs Peaky Blinders in 2013.
Playing the role of Jeremiah in Cillian Murphy’s street gang epic, Benjamin’s character often served as the moral heart of the lawless group and won him critical acclaim.
Since the news of his death was announced many former friends, colleagues and fans have paid tribute to his memory on social media.
Commenting on Benjamin’s death, Labour MP Diane Abbott said: ‘So sad to hear about the death of poet Benjamin Zephaniah. A great man and a trailblazer.’
Radio presenter Gemma Cairney shared her condolences, as she wrote: ‘What heartbreaking news. Deepest condolences to the family. Benjamin was one of our greatest.’
Fellow writer Nels Abbey wrote: Our learned and beloved elder, Benjamin Zephaniah is now an ancestor.
‘To call this crushing news is a massive understatement. He was far too young, far too brilliant and still had so much to offer. A loss we’ll never recover from.’
A spokesman for the Black British Book Festival, of which benjamin was closely associated with, said: ‘
‘We’re deeply saddened by the loss of Benjamin Zephaniah, a pioneering Dub Poet and Author whose energy, vibe, and unapologetic work paved the way for Black British Writers.
‘We’re forever grateful for his contributions and commitment. His legacy will live on forever.’
By the 1990s, the performance poet had made several appearances on UK TV shows
Since the news of his death was announced many former friends, colleagues and fans have paid tribute to his memory on social media
DJ and presenter Trevor Nelson said Benjamin Zephaniah was a ‘unique talent’ as he paid tribute to the poet and author.
In a post to X, formerly Twitter, the BBC radio host wrote: ‘So sad to hear about the passing of Benjamin Zephaniah. ‘Too young, too soon, he had a lot more to give. He was a unique talent R.I.P.’
‘Very sorry to hear this news. Benjamin Zephaniah was our radical poet laureate. Rest in power, my friend’, tweeted fellow musician Billy Bragg.