British poet Benjamin Zephaniah dies at 65: family

  • Culture
  • Thursday, 07 Dec 2023

File photo of acclaimed British poet Benjamin Zephaniah, who was in town for the KL Literary Festival in 2012. Zephaniah died on Thursday at the age of 65. — Filepic/THE STAR

British poet Benjamin zephaniah, who famously rejected an honour from Queen Elizabeth II over Britain's empire and links to slavery, died on Thursday at the age of 65, his family said.

The poet and writer, whose work was greatly influenced by the music and poetry of Jamaica, also turned his hand to acting when he appeared in series six of the hit show Peaky Blinders as the character Jeremiah Jesus.

"It is with great sadness and regret that we announce the death of our beloved husband, son and brother in the early hours of this morning 7th December 2023," his family said in a statement on Instagram, adding that he had been diagnosed with a brain tumour eight weeks ago.

In 2003 he snubbed an Order of the British Empire (OBE) award from Queen Elizabeth for services to literature, which zephaniah said prime minister Tony Blair had recommended.

He said the award's name reminded him of his ancestors' "brutal" suffering at the hands of their white masters.

"I get angry when I hear that word 'empire'; it reminds me of slavery, it reminds (me) of thousands of years of brutality -- it reminds me of how my foremothers were raped and my forefathers brutalised," he said at the time.

Benjamin Zephaniah arrives for the British Book Awards at the Grosvenor House Hotel in London, on May 14, 2018. — Photo: APBenjamin Zephaniah arrives for the British Book Awards at the Grosvenor House Hotel in London, on May 14, 2018. — Photo: AP

Born in 1958 in the central English city of Birmingham, where "Peaky Blinders" is set, zephaniah was the son of a Barbadian postman and a Jamaican nurse.

He was dyslexic and left school at the age of 13, unable to read or write, and as a young man served a prison sentence for burglary.

Living in London in his early twenties, however, he began to establish himself as a poet and had his first book of poetry, "Pen Rhythm", published in 1980.

zephaniah's family said he had been 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," it said.

"Thank you for the love you have shown Professor Benjamin zephaniah," it added.

The Black Writers' Guild, which zephaniah helped to establish, paid tribute to "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," it said in a statement.— AFP

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