Writer and poet Benjamin Zephaniah has been remembered as a “titan of British literature” after his death aged 65.
He died early on Thursday with his wife by his side after being diagnosed with a brain tumour eight weeks ago, a statement on his Instagram said.
“We shared him with the world and we know many will be shocked and saddened by this news,” it added.
Tributes poured in for the “beautiful human being” and “proud Brummie” who “had a lot more to give”.
Zephaniah was born and raised in Handsworth, Birmingham, the son of a Barbadian postman and a Jamaican nurse. He was dyslexic and left school aged 13, unable to read or write.
He moved to London aged 22 and published his first book, Pen Rhythm.
His early work used dub poetry, a Jamaican style of work that has evolved into the music genre of the same name, and he would also perform with the group The Benjamin Zephaniah Band.
As Zephaniah’s profile grew, he became a familiar face on television and was credited with bringing dub poetry into British living rooms.
He also wrote five novels as well as poetry for children, and his first book for younger readers, Talking Turkeys, was a huge success upon its publication in 1994.
“Benjamin was a true pioneer and innovator. He gave the world so much,” the statement announcing his death said.
“Through an amazing career including a huge body of poems, literature, music, television and radio, Benjamin leaves us with a joyful and fantastic legacy.”
On top of his writing work, Zephaniah was an actor and appeared in the BBC drama series Peaky Blinders between 2013 and 2022.
He played Jeremiah “Jimmy” Jesus, appearing in 14 episodes across the six series.
Peaky Blinders actor Cillian Murphy said in a statement: “Benjamin was a truly gifted and beautiful human being.
“A generational poet, writer, musician and activist. A proud Brummie and a Peaky Blinder. I’m so saddened by this news.”
Zephaniah famously rejected an OBE in 2003 due to the association of such an honour with the British Empire and its history of slavery.
“I’ve been fighting against empire all my life, fighting against slavery and colonialism all my life,” he told The Big Narstie Show in 2020.
“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.
He often spoke out about issues such as racial abuse and education.
When he was younger, Zephaniah served a prison sentence for burglary and received a criminal record.
In 1982, Zephaniah released an album called Rasta, which featured the Wailers’ first recording since the death of Bob Marley.
It also included a tribute to the then-political prisoner Nelson Mandela, who would later become South African president.
In an interview in 2005, Zephaniah said growing up in a violent household led to him assuming that was the norm.
He recalled: “I once asked a friend of mine, ‘What do you do when your dad beats your mum?’ And he went: ‘He doesn’t.’
“I said, ‘Ah, you come from one of those, like, feminist houses. So, what do you do when your mum beats your dad?'”
A statement from the Black Writers’ guild, which Zephaniah helped establish, said: “Our family of writers is in mourning at the loss of 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.”
Others paying tribute included author Michael Rosen, who said: “I’m devastated. I admired him, respected him, learnt from him, loved him. Love and condolences to the family and to all who loved him too.”
Actress Adjoa Andoh posted: “We have lost a Titan today. Benjamin Zephaniah. Beautiful Poet, Professor, Advocate for love and humanity in all things. Heartbroken. Rest In Your Power – our brother.”
Broadcaster Trevor Nelson said: “So sad to hear about the passing of Benjamin Zephaniah. Too young, too soon, he had a lot more to give. He was a unique talent.”
Singer-songwriter and musician Billy Bragg added: “Very sorry to hear this news. Benjamin Zephaniah was our radical poet laureate. Rest in power, my friend.”
Comedian, actor and writer Sir Lenny Henry said: “I was saddened to learn of the passing of my friend Benjamin Zephaniah. His passion for poetry, his advocacy for education for all was tireless.”
Writer Nels Abbey said: “To call this crushing news is a massive understatement. He was far too young, far too brilliant and still had so much to offer. A loss we’ll never recover from.”
The X/Twitter account for Premier League football club Aston Villa, whom Zephaniah supported said everyone at the club was “deeply saddened” by the news.
“Named as one of Britain’s top 50 post-war writers in 2008, Benjamin was a lifelong Aston Villa fan and had served as an ambassador for the AVFCFoundation. Our thoughts are with his family and friends at this time.”
In 2012, Zephaniah was chosen to guest edit an edition of BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
He was nominated for autobiography of the year at the National Book Awards for his work, The Life And Rhymes Of Benjamin Zephaniah, which was also shortlisted for the Costa Book Award in 2018.
During a Covid-19 lockdown, Zephaniah recited one of his poems in a video for the Hay Festival.