Benjamin Zephaniah died: “Peaky Blinders” and the artistic legacy of the British activist

In addition to acting, Zephaniah was a respected poet and writer who developed his art in many facets. (Credits: BBC)

The world of British literature and entertainment is in mourning with the death of Benjamin Zephaniah, renowned poet, writer and actor, at 65 years old. Zephaniah, who was recently diagnosed with a brain tumor, left an indelible legacy in the arts and television—with his notable participation in the series Peaky Blinders—, in addition to being a prominent voice in social and cultural activism.

The news was shared by his family on Thursday, December 7. His wife was by his side in the last minutes of his life. “We know that many will be surprised and saddened by his departure. Thank you for the love you showed him,” reads the statement that praises him as a pioneering and innovative poet, who leaves a broad legacy of commitment to social causes.

His presence on screen and on stage was always magnetic and deeply moving. (Credits: BBC Two)

Born on April 15, 1958 in Handsworth, Birmingham, Zephaniah faced significant challenges from a young age. The son of immigrants from Barbados and Jamaica, he experienced racism firsthand and struggled with dyslexia. These experiences shaped his view of the world and his art. At 13, he dropped out of school, unable to read or write properly, but this did not stop him from developing a deep passion for verse.

The man moved to London at the age of 22, where he published his first book, “Pen Rhythm.” His early work used dub poetry, a Jamaican style that fuses poetry and music, and he became a pioneer in bringing the genre into British homes through television. In addition, Zephaniah wrote five novels and poetry for children. His first title for young readers, “Talking Turkeys,” was a smash hit in 1994.

His legacy as an educator was also significant, serving as professor of poetry and creative writing at Brunel University. (Credits: EPA/YUI MOK/PA)

In the field of television, the acclaimed artist is perhaps best known for his role in the acclaimed series Peaky Blinders, where he played Jeremiah “Jimmy” Jesus. His performance in 14 episodes over six seasons left a significant mark on historical fiction. Cillian Murphy, star of the drama, paid tribute to his co-star, describing him as “a truly talented and beautiful human being.” The actor of Oppenheimer highlighted Zephaniah’s generational influence as a poet, writer, musician and activist, and his pride in being from Birmingham and a “Peaky Blinder.”

He was also known for his strong stance against imperialism and oppression, evidenced when he refused to receive an OBE in 2003 due to his association with the British Empire and its history of slavery. This act reflected his life of activism, in which he consistently advocated for social justice, animal rights, and education.

With 14 books of poetry and seven albums of dub poetry, Zephaniah leaves a testimony of resilience, creativity, and commitment to social justice. Peaky Blindershis most famous television project, is available for streaming on Netflix.

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