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Benjamin Zephaniah, poet and writer, dies aged 65

His family announced the news on social media
The Birmingham-born writer appeared frequently on television, playingstreet preacher Jeremiah Jesus in the show Peaky Blinders - Peter Dazeley

Benjamin Zephaniah, the poet dubbed the “people’s laureate”, has died eight weeks after being diagnosed with a brain tumour.

His family announced the news on social media, saying they knew the world would be “shocked and saddened” by his death at the age of 65.

A statement, posted to the poet’s Instagram on Thursday, said: “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.”

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

He was married for 12 years to Amina Zephaniah, a theatre administrator, but the pair divorced in 2001.

The family said that the poet had been a “true pioneer and innovator” who “leaves us with a joyful and fantastic legacy”.

Tributes

Since his death in the early hours of Thursday morning, tributes from friends, colleagues and Zephaniah’s beloved Aston Villa, remember a “beautiful human being” and “generational” poet.

The Birmingham-born writer appeared frequently on television, winning a Bafta in 2021 for Sky Arts’ Life & Rhymes show and playing the street preacher Jeremiah Jesus in the show Peaky Blinders.

Cillian Murphy, who portrayed Tommy Shelby in the hit BBC series, said: “Benjamin was a truly gifted and beautiful human being - a generational poet, writer, musician and activist.

“A proud Brummie and a Peaky Blinder. I’m so saddened by this news. RIP.”

Zephaniah appeared in 14 episodes of the programme between 2013 and 2022.

Aston Villa FC said everyone at the club was “deeply saddened” to the death of the lifelong fan, who was an ambassador for the club’s foundation.

“He spoke so passionately about where he was born and raised and growing up in the shadows of the stadium,” a statement said. “He was such an inspiration to so many people for so many reasons and will be sorely missed.”

Benjamin Zephaniah
Benjamin Zephaniah, who has died at the age of 65 - Roberto Ricciuti

Comedian and actor Sir Lenny Henry, a friend of the poet, said: “I was saddened to learn of the passing of my friend Benjamin Zephaniah.

“His passion for poetry, his advocacy for education for all was tireless.”

Actress Adjoa Andoh paid tribute and said that we had “lost a titan”, describing him as an “advocate for love and humanity”.

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

The ‘people’s laureate’

Zephaniah left school aged 13 and, owing to his dyslexia, was unable to read or write.

But he nevertheless went on to become one of Britain’s most celebrated poets, credited with bringing dub poetry - a Jamaican style of performance poetry - to living rooms in the UK.

He published his first book at 22, after moving to London, and from there his profile continued to grow until he became a familiar face on television.

His first book for young readers, Talking Turkeys, was a success and he ended up writing five novels as well as poetry for children.

In 2003, he rejected an OBE over the honour’s association with the British Empire and its history of slavery.

He said he had been “fighting against empire all my life”, as well as against slavery and colonialism, and that accepting an honour that “puts the word Empire on to my name “would have been hypocritical”.

Zephaniah was named as one of Britain’s top 50 post-war writers in 2008. His celebration as the “people’s laureate” came as he said he would have “absolutely no interest” in the job of poet laureate.

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