Professor Benjamin Zephaniah remembered: Poet, actor and great champion of causes
Writer Professor Benjamin Zephaniah leaves a huge cultural hole after dying at the age of 65.
The Birmingham-based dub poet was known for his works about refugees and healthy eating, appeared in hit BBC show Peaky Blinders as Jeremiah Jesus and championed good causes in the West Midlands.
Zephaniah 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. His 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.”
The poet, born in Birmingham and brought up in Handsworth, 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.
But he remained proud to be a West Midlander and supported many good causes in our region, including being an active member in the successful fight to save the Acorns Hospice centre in Walsall.
He was a proud Aston Villa fan and played the role of Jeremiah Jesus in Peaky Blinders, the hugely successful BBC drama about early gangs in Birmingham and the Black Country.
Zephaniah’s 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”.
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.
He always loved being on stage and spoke to the Star during a 2017 tour taking in Birmingham and Shrewsbury.
He said: “I always look forward to being back on the road and to see friendly faces from the West Midlands.
“Those places will always be important to me.
“I live in a different part of the country now but I’m regularly back in Birmingham. Peaky Blinders is centred on the city and my mother still lives there too.
“And Shrewsbury brings back very fond memories. I’ve played Theatre Severn before and always been given a very warm welcome.”
PEN Pinter Prize winner and children’s author Michael Rosen – 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.
Zephaniah was a patron of Acorns Hospice and supported its successful campaign to save its centre in Walsall after a financial crisis.
The charity said: “Benjamin was a beloved friend to Acorns and we have many wonderful memories of his visits to our hospices, which were always filled with smiles and laughter.”
“Everyone at Acorns will miss him deeply and our thoughts are with all his friends and family at this time.”
Acorns staff member Melanie Hinds remembered Benjamin’s visit to Selly Oak fondly.
She said: “ I had the absolute pleasure of working with him and the children when he visited our Selly Oak centre.
“He was so gentle in his manner and captivating with his voice, speaking to the children about stories, storytelling and how to write your own, a huge talent and big loss.”
Noel Cramer, Acorns director of supporter engagement, praised the support Benjamin gave Acorns after the September fundraiser.
He said: “We are so grateful to this titan of modern culture for taking the time to share his wonderful stories and insights at this unique event.
“As a charity, we rely on the goodwill and support of our local community, so the ongoing support of Steven and Benjamin, and their work helping to raise awareness of our cause, cannot be underestimated.
“It was a great privilege to hear directly from these two creative collaborators and a real treat for the valued friends and supporters of Acorns in the audience – without whom we simply wouldn’t be able to provide the vital care we do to local children and their families.”
Acorns provide support for 700 children with life limiting illnesses in the West Midlands and Gloucestershire.
In an X post, Aston Villa paid tribute to the poet, who was an ambassador of the AVFC Foundation, as a “legendary writer and poet”.
DJ 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.”
The official X feed for Peaky Blinders added a tribute to Zephaniah, saying: “We are so shocked and devastated at the news of the death of our friend.
“He was a much-loved, instrumental and influential part of the Peaky Blinders family from the very start, as well as to the create community at large. All our love and thoughts are with his family.”
West Midlands Mayor Andy Street described him as a “poet, author, actor, musician and icon”.
He added: “Benjamin was a pioneer – from his beautiful poems and music, to his acting prowess & fearless campaigning.
“One of Birmingham’s greatest sons, he leaves a legacy that’ll be remembered across the UK for generations.”