FILE - Benjamin Zephaniah arrives for the British Book Awards at the Grosvenor House Hotel in London, on May 14, 2018. Zephaniah, the British dub poet and political activist who drew huge inspiration from his Caribbean roots, has died. He was 65. In a statement on Instagram, his family said Zephaniah died Thursday Dec. 7, 2023 after being diagnosed with a brain tumor eight weeks ago. (John Stillwell/PA via AP, File)
LONDON (AP) — Benjamin Zephaniah, a British poet, political activist and actor who drew huge inspiration from his Caribbean roots, has died. He was 65.
Zephaniah died Thursday after being diagnosed with a brain tumor eight weeks ago, his family said in a statement on Instagram.
“We shared him with the world and we know many will be shocked and saddened by this news,” the family said. “Benjamin’s wife was by his side throughout and was with him when he passed.”
Zephaniah, who was born in Birmingham in central England on April 15, 1958, was a sharp-witted and often provocative presence across British media as well as regularly performing at political gatherings and demonstrations.
Widely recognizable from his long dreadlocks and his local accent, Zephaniah was never shy in espousing his views on bigotry, racism, refugees, revolutions and healthy eating. Arguably, he was the most well-known poet in Britain of his time, equally at home performing in school classrooms or at big political rallies.
“I admired him, respected him, learnt from him, loved him,” British author and poet Michael Rosen said.
The son of a Barbadian postal worker and a Jamaican nurse, Zephaniah imagined himself as a poet from a very young age, but he struggled at school as a result of dyslexia. He was kicked out at age 13, unable to read or write, and learned to do both as an adult.
In his 20s, he traveled to London, where his first book “Pen Rhythm” was published. He would subsequently write collections focusing on particular issues, including the U.K. legal system and Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories.
His writing was often classified as dub poetry, which emerged in Jamaica in the 1970s combining reggae beats with a hard-hitting political message. He also was a prolific children’s poet and a founding member of The Black Writers’ Guild, which said it was in “mourning at the loss of a deeply valued friend and a titan of British literature.”
Since 2011, he had been chair of creative writing at Brunel University in northwest London, where he was a professor. Brunel described Zephaniah as a “national treasure” and praised the “immense contribution” he made to university life.
Zephaniah also held honorary degrees from multiple British universities.
He had an array of talents, which he displayed performing with the group “The Benjamin Zephaniah Band” and acting in recent years on the popular BBC television drama “Peaky Blinders.” His television show “Life and Rhymes” on Sky Arts, which showcased lyrical creativity, won a BAFTA, Britain’s equivalent of the Emmy awards, for entertainment program of the year in 2021.
In 2003, Zephaniah rejected the offer to become an Officer of the Order of the British Empire, or OBE, because of its association with the British empire and its history of slavery.
“I’ve been fighting against empire all my life, I’ve been fighting against slavery and colonialism all my life, I’ve been writing to connect with people not to impress governments and monarchy so how could I then go and accept an honor that puts the word empire onto my name,” he said. “That would be hypocritical.”
His 2018 autobiography, “The Life And Rhymes Of Benjamin Zephaniah,” chronicled his life from the sound systems of Birmingham to the global stage. It was nominated for autobiography of the year at Britain’s National Book Awards.
Speaking that year, Zephaniah said he believed in radical changes to society, including people policing themselves.
“I’m an anarchist. I believe this needs to be torn down. I believe we need to start again. I don’t believe that we need governments and the kind of models that we have,” he said. “But I’m also aware that we’re not going to achieve that now.”
During his music career, Zephaniah worked with the late Irish singer Sinead O’Connor on “Empire,” and with British musician Howard Jones and drummer Trevor Morais on his album “Naked.”
Zephaniah was also a passionate supporter and ambassador of Premier League soccer team Aston Villa, Birmingham’s most successful club.
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