Benjamin Zephaniah has died, aged 65

Benjamin Zephaniah has died, aged 65

We are deeply shocked and saddened by the news that Benjamin Zephaniah has died, aged 65. He was diagnosed with a brain tumour eight weeks ago.

The news was posted online on 7 December 2023 by his family: ‘Benjamin’s wife was by his side throughout and was with him when he passed. We shared him with the world and we know many will be shocked and saddened by this news. Benjamin was 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.’  Details of some of the press, radio and television tributes are posted below.

Benjamin Zephaniah was a writer and performer of extraordinary range: an oral poet, novelist, playwright, children’s writer, reggae artist, actor, television personality and political activist. Born in Birmingham in 1958, he grew up in Handsworth, where he was sent to an approved school for being uncontrollable, rebellious and ‘a born failure’, ending up in jail for burglary and affray.

After prison he turned from crime to music and poetry. In 1989 he was nominated for Oxford Professor of Poetry, and has since received honorary doctorates from several English universities, but famously refused to accept a nomination for an OBE in 2003. He was voted Britain's third favourite poet of all time (after T.S. Eliot and John Donne) in a BBC poll in 2009. In 2011 he was poet-in-residence at Keats House in 2011, and then made a radical career change by taking up his first ever academic position as a chair in Creative Writing at Brunel University in West London.

He appeared in a number of television programmes, including Peaky BlindersEastEnders, The Bill, Live and Kicking, Blue Peter and Wise Up, and played Gower in a BBC Radio 3 production of Shakespeare’s Pericles in 2005.

Best known for his performance poetry with a political edge for adults – and his poetry with attitude for children – he had his own rap/reggae band. He produced numerous recordings, including Dub Ranting (1982), Rasta (1983), Us and Dem (1990), Back to Roots (1995), Belly of de Beast (1996) and Naked (2004). He was the first person to record with the Wailers after the death of Bob Marley, in a musical tribute to Nelson Mandela, which Mandela heard while in prison on Robben Island. Their later meetings led to Zephaniah working with children in South African townships and hosting the President’s Two Nations Concert at the Royal Albert Hall in 1996.

His first book of poems, Pen Rhythm, was produced in 1980 by a small East London publishing cooperative, Page One Books. His second collection, The Dread Affair, was published by Hutchinson’s short-lived Arena imprint in 1985. He published three collections with Bloodaxe, City Psalms (1992), Propa Propaganda (1996) and Too Black, Too Strong (2001), the latter including poems written while working with Michael Mansfield QC and other Tooks barristers on the Stephen Lawrence case. His DVD-book To Do Wid Me: Benjamin Zephaniah live and direct (filmed by Pamela Robertson-Pearce) followed from Bloodaxe in 2013, including poems drawn from all his collections.

His other titles include his poetry books for children, Talking Turkeys (1994), Funky Chickens (1996) and Wicked World (2000), all from Puffin/Penguin; his novels for teenagers, Face (1999), Refugee Boy (2001), Gangsta Rap (2004) and Teacher’s Dead (2007), all from Bloomsbury; The Bloomsbury Book of Love Poems (1999); Schools Out: Poems Not for School (1997) and The Little Book of Vegan Poems (2001) from AK Press; and We Are Britain (Frances Lincoln, 2003). He published his autobiography, The Life and Rhymes and Benjamin Zephaniah, with Simon & Schuster in 2018.

Benjamin Obadiah Iqbal Zephaniah, poet and author, born 15 April 1958; died 7 December 2023.


Tributes on TV, Radio, in print and online


Last Word, BBC Radio 4, Friday 15 December 2023, 4pm (repeated Sunday 17 December, 8.30pm)

Benjamin Zephaniah's wife Qian and his publisher of over thirty years, Neil Astley of Bloodaxe, spoke to Matthew Bannister about the life and work of the much-loved poet, performer and writer.

The programme will remain available on BBC Sounds. First item.

Pick of the Week, BBC Radio 4, Sunday 10 December 2023, 6.15pm

Julie Hesmondhalgh included two recent tributes to Benjamin Zephaniah in her pick of the week’s radio highlights.  She introduced these with her own tribute:

‘This man’s words have been part of my life for decades.  The outpouring of love and respect across media and social media is testament to his reach. A working-class black man from Birmingham who dedicated his life to words and to the notion that language is for everyone.’ – Julie Hesmondhalgh, speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Pick of the Week

The clips Julie chose were from poet Lemn Sissay’s tribute to his friend Benjamin on BBC Radio 4’s World at One on 7 December, and one taken from Friday night’s rebroadcast of The Verb: Benjamin Zephaniah in which Benjamin read his poem ‘Dis Poetry’ (from his first Bloodaxe collection City Psalms).

Pick of the Week will remain available on BBC Sounds.  Tribute from 39:03.

The Verb: Benjamin Zephaniah, BBC Radio 3, first broadcast Friday 14 October 2022, 10pm, rebroadcast Friday 8 December 2023, 10pm

In tribute to Benjamin Zephaniah, The Verb re-broadcast an in-depth interview with him which first aired in October 2022.  This special edition of the programme was recorded in front of an audience at the BBC Contains Strong Language Festival in Birmingham. Benjamin was in conversation with host Ian McMillan. Benjamin read his poems ‘Overstanding’ and ‘Dis Poetry’ from City Psalms, and his poem for children ‘Drivosaurus Rex’, which is included in Benjamin Zephaniah: To Do Wid Me. He also read ‘Having a Word’ and talked about his poem ‘Appeal Dismissed’, both from Too Black, Too Strong, the collection which includes the poems written during his residency with Tooks barristers’ chambers in London.

‘This week in tribute to the poet, performer, playwright and activist Benjamin Zephaniah who has died aged 65, Ian McMillan presents another chance to hear a special extended interview with him. Benjamin began publishing and performing his work for adults and children in the early 1980s, and had recently committed his life to print in his autobiography The Life and Rhymes of Benjamin Zephaniah. The programme was recorded last year in front of a live audience at the BBC's Contains Strong Language Festival in Benjamin's home city of Birmingham.'

Opens with ‘Overstanding’. ‘Dis Poetry’ is read at 16:33, ‘Drivosaurus Rex’ at 30:30. ‘Appeal Dismissed’ and Tooks residency discussed at 33:32 and ‘Having a Word’ at 39:00.

Breakfast, The Friday Poem, BBC Radio 3, Friday 8 December 2023, 6.30-9am

Presenter Petroc Trelawny remembered Benjamin Zephaniah on BBC Radio 3’s Breakfast on 8 December. He quoted from Lisa Allardice’s tribute in The Guardian of 8 December. A recording of Benjamin reading his poem ‘Luv Song’ from Talking Turkeys (Puffin Poetry) was featured as The Friday Poem.  The recording was taken from BBC Radio 4’s Poetry Please of 26 November on which Benjamin was guest poet.
From 1:24:20. Available on BBC Sounds until 7 January 2024.

Newsnight, BBC Two, Thursday 7 December 2023, 10.30pm
BBC Two’s Newsnight paid tribute to Benjamin Zephaniah on 7 December with an extended piece including many film clips of Benjamin performing his poetry, and one from a film Benjamin wrote and presented for Newsnight in 2015 on the 50th anniversary of the Race Relations Act. Then singer songwriter Joan Armatrading joined the programme virtually to pay tribute to her friend Benjamin Zephaniah.

‘He's left us with his charm, his poetry, his revolutionary ways, his caring for people, his inclusiveness...’ – Joan Armatrading, remembering Benjamin Zephaniah on BBC Two’s Newsnight

The interview with Joan Armatrading was shared by Newsnight as a clip on Twitter/X:
The full tribute features from 33:56. Available for a year via BBC iPlayer.

News at 10, BBC One, Thursday 7 December 2023, 10pm
A tribute to Benjamin Zephaniah ran on BBC One’s News at 10 with Sophie Raworth.  Video clips of Benjamin performing extracts from his poems ‘I Love Me Mudder’ and ‘No Problem’ were played.  Poet Michael Rosen paid tribute.
No longer available on BBC iPlayer.

Front Row, BBC Radio 4, Thursday 7 December 2023, 7.15pm
A tribute to Benjamin Zephaniah ran on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row. The piece began with a clip from Benjamin’s Front Row special with Samira Ahmed broadcast in 2020, including Benjamin reading his poem ‘People Need People’.  Then presenter Tom Sutcliffe was joined down the line from LA by poet Fred D'Aguiar, who spoke about the life and poetry of Benjamin Zephaniah.

First item.
Available as a separate clip:

World at One, BBC Radio 4, Thursday 7 December 2023, 1pm

Lemn Sissay paid tribute to his friend and fellow poet Benjamin Zephaniah on Radio 4’s World at One.  (from 31:41. Available until 6 January 2023 via BBC Sounds.) 

BBC News: Culture, online Thursday 7 December 2023
Tribute on the BBC News website. This piece links to Benjamin Zephaniah’s interview on Desert Island Discs in 1997.



The Observer, online 16 December, in print 17 December 2023

Poet Raymond Antrobus pays tribute.

'I think he’ll be remembered as a poet of justice, of peace, of people power – as someone who was profoundly principled and lovable and full of soulful integrity. For me, Benjamin has been a sounding board, a model, a shrine, a cultural touchpoint throughout my entire life. If I had a poetry father, it really was him.' – Raymond Antrobus, The Observer


The New European, online 7 December, in print 14 December 2023

Bonnie Greer remembers Benjamin Zephaniah.


The Guardian, online Thursday 7 December 2023, in print 8 December
Lisa Allardice remembers Benjamin Zephaniah.

The Guardian, obituary, online Thursday 7 December 2023, in print 8 December 2023
Peter Mason has written an obituary for The Guardian.
‘Poet, performer and actor hailed as one of Britain’s most outspoken and original literary voices’

The Times, obituary, online Thursday 7 December 2023, in print 8 December (available online by subscription).

The Telegraph, obituary, online Thursday 7 December 2023, in print 8 December (available online by subscription).

The Bookseller, online Thursday 7 December 2023

The Bookseller interviewed Benjamin’s publishers, including Bloodaxe’s editor Neil Astley, who was pictured together with Benjamin.

"I knew and loved working with Benjamin for over 30 years, publishing four books of his poetry at Bloodaxe, from City Psalms in 1992 to To Do Wid Me in 2013. He was a writer and performer of extraordinary range: an oral poet, novelist, playwright, children’s writer, reggae artist, actor, television personality and political activist. But what shone through most in all his work was his humanity, decency and ability to connect with everyone, both onstage and offstage.” – Neil Astley, The Bookseller

The Sunday Times, Sunday 10 December 2023
Christina Patterson pays tribute to Benjamin Zephaniah.

The i Paper, online Friday 8 December 2023
Poet Jackie Kay remembers her friend Benjamin Zephaniah.

Obituaries have also appeared in many national papers of 8 December 2023, as well as in many regional newspapers across the UK.  Many pieces appeared online on 7 December.

The Guardian, online Thursday 7 December 2023
Benjamin Zephaniah: A life in pictures.

The Guardian, online Thursday 7 December 2023
Benjamin remembered by Michael Rosen, Colin Grant, Kae Tempest, Diane Abbott, Carol Ann Duffy, Joseph Coelho and Abdul Malik Al Nasir.

Evening Standard, online Thursday 7 December 2023
Cillian Murphy leads tributes to Peaky Blinders co-star following poet's death at 65

The Voice, online Thursday 7 December 2023
Voice journalist Richard Sudan pays tribute to his close personal friend and mentor.



Poetry Please, BBC Radio 4, Sunday 26 November 2023, 4.30pm (repeated Sunday 3 December at 12.15am)

Benjamin Zephaniah was Roger McGough’s guest on BBC Radio 4’s Poetry Please on 26 November.  He chose poems from listener requests, and spoke to Roger about the selected poems as well as about his own life and work. This programme, so full of joy, was recorded just a few weeks ago.  It was broadcast on 26 November, shortly before his death was announced on 7 December.

The programme will be available on BBC Sounds until 1 January 2024.

A separate clip of Benjamin reading a poem will remain available on BBC Sounds.


Benjamin Zephaniah: To Do Wid Me (trailer)

Trailer for Pamela Robertson-Pearce's feature-length film Benjamin Zephaniah: To Do Wid Me which can be seen complete on the DVD included in the DVD-book To Do Wid Me along with five music videos by Zephaniah with the Beta Brothers.


Dis Poetry

Benjamin Zephaniah performs 'Dis Poetry' at Newcastle's Live Theatre in 2009: a clip from Benjamin Zephaniah: To Do Wid Me


Benjamin Zephaniah: To Do Wid Me (complete film)

Pamela Robertson-Pearce's feature-length film Benjamin Zephaniah: To Do Wid Me, which is included on the DVD for To Do Wid Me along with five music videos by Zephaniah with the Beta Brothers.

[07 December 2023]

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