Tributes pour in for British poet Benjamin Zephaniah, who has died aged 65
Trailblazing British Dub poet Benjamin Zephaniah has died aged 65, and people across the British cultural landscape have paid homage to his legacy.
The news was announced on Zephaniah’s official Instagram page on Thursday (7 December), where the cause of death was noted as a brain tumour, with which the poet had been diagnosed eight weeks ago.
“Benjamin was a true pioneer and innovator,” the post read. “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.”
Originally from Handsworth, in Birmingham, Zephaniah moved to London in his twenties and published his first book, Pen Rhythm, in 1983. He is credited with bringing Dub poetry – a style originating in Jamaica – into the mainstream in the UK.
Throughout his career, Zephaniah, who was dyslexic, published five novels, poetry collections for both adults and children, and appeared in the hit BBC series Peaky Blinders, as Jeremiah Jesus, from 2013 to 2022. Much of his work and activism focused on anti-racism and anti-colonialism.
In 2003, Zaphaniah famously rejected being appointed OBE because of the Royal Family’s link to the British Empire and their colonial legacy. In 2008, he made The Times list of top-50 most-influential post-War British writers.
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During his career, Zephaniah also got involved in spreading HIV awareness and launched a campaign in 2015 encouraging heterosexual Afro-Caribbean people to get tested.
“As a community, we need to think that there is no shame in going and getting tested,” he said.
Since news of his death broke, tributes have poured in for the poet whose Sky Arts spoken-word poetry series, Life & Rhymes, won a BAFTA in 2021.
The Black Writers’ Guild, which he helped establish, released a statement saying: “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. His life was a testimony to the transformational power of reading and the importance of the craft.”
Best-selling novelist Bolu Babalola posted: “He used his words to guide and reach out and they were full of integrity. Was raw and truthful and integral to not just Black British literature but culture. A profound loss.”
And Booker-Prize-winning writer Bernardine Evaristo remembered him as a “trailblazing poet, force of nature”.
Meanwhile, Birmingham Ladywood MP Shabana Mahmood, said: “A son of Handsworth and the Windrush generation, Benjamin Zephaniah spoke in the voice of Birmingham’s migrant communities. He showed the country the best of our city and modern Britain. A true giant whose legacy will live on for generations to come.”
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