'A joyful and fantastic legacy': Benjamin Zephaniah dies of brain tumour aged 65
Poet, actor, musician, writer, campaigner, TV presenter Benjamin Zephaniah has died after a short illness. A post on his Instagram account reads: "Professor Benjamin Zephaniah, 15th April 1958 – 7th December, 2023. It is with great sadness and regret that we announce the death of our beloved husband, son and brother in the early hours of this morning."
The announcement goes on to say that he was diagnosed with a brain tumour just eight weeks ago, and that his wife was with him when he passed away. “Through an amazing career including a huge body of poems, literature, music, television and radio, Benjamin leaves us with a joyful and fantastic legacy.”
Comments on his Instagram page describe him as a cultural icon, man of the people for all people, truth sayer and a cultural icon for Black British arts.
A Guardian page is devoted to comments from his friends, cultural icons themselves: Michael Rosen ("He nudged people into seeing the world through the eyes of the oppressed"), Kae Tempest ("The way he carved has become a path for us who follow him") and Carol Ann Duffy ("his work changed British poetry profoundly and for the good").
Zephaniah's work, which appeared on the national curriculum, was heavily influenced by Jamaican music and poetry, and he was often classified as a dub poet. He also played the role of Jeremiah ‘Jimmy’ Jesus in Peaky Blinders, appearing in 14 episodes.
He was born in 1958 in Handsworth, Birmingham, which he described as a “cold suburb of Kingston, Jamaica”. He began performing poetry locally in his early teenage years. He had dyslexia, and he left formal education in his mid-teens, after expulsions had resulted in a spell at an approved school. He was later sent to borstal. He became involved in crime in Birmingham before death threats and pursuit by police persuaded him to change his life, move to London, and become a poet.
In 2003, he rejected an OBE. “Me? I thought, OBE me? Up yours, I thought,” he wrote in the Guardian. “I get angry when I hear that word ‘empire’; it 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.”
Zephaniah was also an animal rights activist and an ambassador for the Vegan Society. When he was nine, he decided to stop eating animals. “I experienced racism in and out of the classroom, so in the playground I would often find myself sitting in a corner talking to the local cats,” he wrote in the Guardian last year. “When the cats were away, I’d talk to the birds and the bees. Amazingly, I never met a racist animal.” Veganism also appeared as a theme in his poetry: Talking Turkeys, from his first book of children’s poetry, has the opening line “Be nice to your turkeys this Christmas”, and in 2001 he published The Little Book of Vegan Poems.
He wrote several novels including Refugee Boy, about political asylum, and Face, about a boy who suffers facial injuries after an accident. His autobiography, The Life and Rhymes of Benjamin Zephaniah, was published to coincide with his 60th birthday.
In 2020 Zephaniah reimagined Martin Luther King’s famous ‘I have a dream’ speech, in a poem broadcast on BBC Radio’s The World at One. As Americans assembled at Washington’s Lincoln Memorial to mark the anniversary of Dr King’s speech on 28 August 1963, and against the backdrop of the continuing Black Lives Matter protests, Zephaniah delivered his powerful version, with its British context.
Its opening words included these lines: “I dream of a time when we will no longer feel forced to demand the right to roam the country of our birth without the fear of being dragged from our cars, searched on our streets, and humiliated in front of our children … I dream of a time when every white police officer in our land will be taught at school that black civilisations were as good – and as bad – as white civilisations.”
PHOTOGRAPH: DAVID ANDREW / WRITE OUT LOUD