Benjamin Zephaniah, titan of British literature, has passed away

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Britain was shocked yesterday to learn of the death of the much loved literary giant, Benjamin Zephaniah. The renowned writer, poet, and Peaky Blinders actor, passed away at the age of 65.

Born and raised in Handsworth, Birmingham, Zephaniah's life journey was marked by resilience and creativity. Dyslexic and leaving school at the age of 13, he defied the odds by moving to London at 22, where he published his first book, Pen Rhythm. His early works, rooted in dub poetry, not only pioneered this Jamaican form of expression but also seamlessly evolved into the music genre of the same name.

Zephaniah's impact extended beyond the written word. He became a familiar face on television, credited with bringing dub poetry into British living rooms and schools. His versatility shone through as he ventured into acting, captivating audiences with his role as Jeremiah "Jimmy" Jesus in the popular BBC drama series Peaky Blinders from 2013 to 2022. His demise, resulting from a brain tumour diagnosis just eight weeks ago, has left a void that resonates across generations and genres.

Cillian Murphy, who recently starred in Oppenheimer and Zephaniah's co-star in Peaky Blinders, expressed his sorrow, acknowledging him as a "generational poet, writer, musician, and activist." He said, "Benjamin was a truly gifted and beautiful human being."

Zephaniah's rejection of an OBE in 2003 due to its association with the British Empire and its historical ties to slavery showcased his unwavering commitment to principles. He vocalised his stance against empire, slavery, and colonialism, aligning his actions with his lifelong advocacy.

He said:

"I've been writing to connect with people, not to impress governments and monarchy. Could I then accept an honour that puts the word Empire on to my name? That would be hypocritical."

A real social activist

Zephaniah's contributions were not confined to the literary world; he addressed societal issues, including racial abuse and education. His personal experiences, including a youthful encounter with the criminal justice system, fuelled his passion for justice and equality. In 1982, he released the album Rasta, featuring the Wailers' first recording post-Bob Marley and paying tribute to the then-political prisoner Nelson Mandela.

Benjamin Zephaniah during the Edinburgh International Book Festival 2019 Roberto Ricciuti

A poetic gift

In 2012, Zephaniah's influence extended to the airwaves as he guest-edited an edition of BBC Radio 4's Today program. His autobiographical work, The Life And Rhymes Of Benjamin Zephaniah, garnered nominations for autobiography of the year at the National Book Awards and the Costa Book Award in 2018.

Aston Villa Football Club, whom Zephaniah ardently supported, expressed deep sadness, remembering him not just as a literary figure but also as a lifelong fan and ambassador for the AVFC Foundation.

In the midst of a Covid-19 lockdown, Zephaniah shared his poetic gift with the world, reciting one of his poems in a video for the Hay Festival. As we reflect on his legacy, we remember Benjamin Zephaniah as more than a writer and actor – he was a force for change, a voice for the voiceless, and a symbol of unwavering integrity in the face of societal challenges.

Benjamin Zephaniah's death is yet another sad piece of news, following the recent death of Darren Kent who passed away aged just 39, and the loss of the mercurial singer of the Pogues, Shane MacGowan, who died aged just 65 following a long illness.

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© Michael Ward

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