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Martin Guttridge-Hewitt
7 December 2023, 12:50

Benjamin Zephaniah, dub poet and writer, dies aged 65

"Too young, too soon, he had a lot more to give"

Benjamin Zephaniah death
Carmen Valino

Legendary dub poet, writer, actor, and political campaigner Benjamin Zephaniah has died aged 65. 

The news was shared on his Instagram account in the early hours of this morning, Thursday 7th December, with a statement from his wife. "We shared him with the world and we know many will be shocked and saddened by this news," the post read, confirming she was "with him throughout and was by his side when he passed." 

Zephaniah, who was born and raised in Handsworth, Birmingham to a Barbadian postman and his Jamaican spouse, then a nurse, was diagnosed with a brain tumour eight weeks ago. He is widely regarded as one of Britain's most important and influential post-war literary names, and a vital spokesperson for Caribbean and Black culture, race and minority rights in the UK. 

Moving to London at the age of 22, his first book, 'Pen & Rhythm', employed the dub poetry style popularised in Jamaica, from which the eponymous music genre evolved. Zephaniah's contributions to adult and children's writing saw his status grow rapidly during the late-1980s and 1990s, bringing that format into the mainstream conscious with prose tackling corruption in the British legal system ('The Dread Affair'), and the occupation of Palestine ('Rasta Time in Palestine'), among other issues.

By 2003 he had made it onto the annual British Empire honours list, but famously rejected the offer of an OBE due to the country's legacy of slavery and colonialism, and refusal to seriously consider reparations. In addition to writing, Zephaniah also garnered global acclaim for his music, performing with The Benjamin Zephaniah band.

Releasing a debut album, 'Rasta', in 1982, the LP featured the first recording of the Wailers since the death of Bob Marley and a tribute song to then-political prisoner Nelson Mandela. He would go on to release several solo records, and collaborate with a wide range of artists. From 2013 to 2022, he enjoyed success as an actor in the Birmingham-set period gangster series, 'Peaky Blinders'. 

"I've been fighting against empire all my life, fighting against slavery and colonialism all my life. I've been writing to connect with people, not to impress governments and monarchy. So could I then accept an honour that puts the word empire on my name? That would be hypocritical," he told 'The Big Narstie Show' in 2020. Two years earlier, his autobiography, 'The Life & Rhymes of Benjamin Zephaniah', was nominated at the National Book Awards. 

"So sad to hear the passing of Benjamin Zephaniah. Too young, too soon, he had a lot more to give. He was a very unique talent," said broadcaster Trevor Nelson in response to this morning's news. Meanwhile, singer-songwriter and musician Billy Bragg pointed to Zephaniah as "our radical poet laureate." Other tributes have poured in from across the literary, music, culture, and political worlds, in addition to Aston Villa football club, where he was a lifelong supporter.