By Suban Abdulla
LONDON (Reuters) -British poet, musician and actor Benjamin Zephaniah, known for fighting racism and social injustice, has died at the age of 65, after being diagnosed with a brain tumour, his family said on Thursday.
Zephaniah’s poetry, often backed by dub reggae music, was influenced by the culture of Jamaica and sought to make the art form accessible to all, while breaking down social barriers.
“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, the 7th December 2023,” a family statement posted on Zephaniah’s official Instagram said.
“We shared him with the world and we know many will be shocked and saddened by this news.”
Born in Birmingham, England, in 1958 to a Jamaican nurse and Barbadian postman, Zephaniah often spoke out about issues including racial abuse and educational inequality.
His achievements were the more remarkable because he was diagnosed with dyslexia and left school aged 13, unable to read properly.
But Zephaniah said the gift of a manual typewriter during his childhood, which he later donated to the Birmingham Museums Trust, inspired him to write.
His literary achievements in 2003 earned him the offer of an Order of the British Empire (OBE), which he turned down, citing the honour’s association with the British Empire and its history of slavery.
“Me? I thought, OBE me? Up yours, I thought. I get angry when I hear that word ‘empire’; it reminds me of slavery, it reminds of thousands of years of brutality, it reminds me of how my foremothers were raped and my forefathers brutalised,” he wrote in a column in the Guardian.
POETRY FOR THE PEOPLE
After moving to London at the age of 22, Zephaniah became caught up in the 1980s race protests.
He subsequently began a mission to change the perception of poetry and make it less elite.
His first poetry collection Pen Rhythm, was published by Page One Books in 1983.
He also wrote poetry for children, starting with the highly popular “Talking Turkeys” in 1994.
In addition to writing, he was also a musician and performed with the Benjamin Zephaniah Band.
In 1982, he released an album called “Rasta”, featuring the first recording of The Wailers since the death of Jamaican musician and songwriter Bob Marley. It included a tribute to then-political prisoner Nelson Mandela, who would later become president of South Africa.
His 2001 volume of poetry “Too Black, Too Strong” detailed the struggles of Black British people.
A year later he released “We Are Britain!”, a collection of poems celebrating the country’s cultural diversity.
As an actor, Zephaniah appeared in 14 episodes of the hugely successful British period television drama “Peaky Blinders”, which is set in Birmingham, between 2013 and 2022.
(Reporting by Suban Abdulla; Editing by William Schomberg, Kate Holton and Barbara Lewis)