Tributes paid to Benjamin Zephaniah as Birmingham's creative community mourns the poet

  • ITV News Central spoke to fellow artists and friends about Benjamin Zephaniah and his legacy

Birmingham's creative community is paying tribute to poet, author, and campaigner Benjamin Zephaniah who died today at the age of 65.

In a statement released by his family, they said he'd been diagnosed with a brain tumour eight weeks previously.

His best-known acting role was even set in Birmingham - playing part of the much-loved criminal gang, the Peaky Blinders.

The dub-poet from Handsworth said himself that he was an example of a potential life of crime caught in time and he used his experience to help others, even taking part in a promotional video for the probation service.

One of the city's most prominent voices against racism and discrimination, for Benjamin campaigning was the essence of his work - from helping refugees to animal rights, he overcome dyslexia to make his words matter.

The poet unveiling an English Heritage blue plaque commemorating Bob Marley in 2019. Credit: Kirsty O'Connor/PA Images

Now, as the country reels from the news of the death of a cultural icon, many are reflecting on his impact on Britain's artistic scene.

Jasmine Gardosi is 2023's Birmingham Poet Laureate. They say being introduced to Mr Zephaniah's poetry in their Year 7 English class transformed their perceptions of what poetry can be.

"I first heard one of his poems in an English class in Year 7, 'Be Kind To Turkeys This Christmas'", she says, adding: "At the time i'd just entered high school and was hit full in the face with the English curriculum, which took the joy out of poetry.

"My English teacher read out this one poem by this dude 'Benjamin Zephaniah' - and it was like no other poem that I'd ever heard," they continued.

"It was this rhyming, rhythmic poem that was the first to really sound good when it was read out loud, it was stunning, it was witty, it was engaging.

"I was like, 'ok, poetry can be like this, and [this kind of poetry] can be recognised in a school setting."

She says Mr Zephaniah's work was highly influential on her own poetry, and that his "rhythmic performance elements" have "massively influenced" how she writes now, and notes how Benjamin championed social justice through his work, and not just in his poetry.

They added: "I was like - there's this invisible champion who just existed out there in the ether.

"Someone who came from the same city that I did, who was recognised on a national, international level."

Reflecting on how Benjamin Zephaniah will be remembered, Jasmine says: "It's only when someone passes that they're recognised with such great intensity the art that they've made.

"And I hope people can take that as inspiration as make as much art, express themselves as much as possible, use their own voices as much as possible, as we'll never know when our time is up.

"If he can leave that kind of legacy - and it's clear now how much he's changed lives and changed poetry - I just want that to inspire as many people as possible no matter where they are in their poetry journeys.

"Let his passing spur people on to add their own stories - who knows who will be the next Benjamin Zephaniah."

Last year's Poet Laureate, Casey Bailey, echoes Jasmine's words.

He said: "Professor Benjamin Zephaniah gave me something he probably never had.

"Which is someone who looks and feels like me, who can do the things that we do, and I think it's so much more powerful because I had Benjamin Zephaniah.

"I had someone I could look to who was from down the road from where I grew up, he grew up where my mother grew up, and he didn't have that."

Friend Pogus Caesar described Benjamin as "the embodiment of someone who had 100% of everything, and then added another 100%." Credit: ITV News Central

Pogus Caesar is a visual artist, and was a close friend of Benjamin.

He says: "I think once [Benjamin] realised, the power that he had, the power of words, the power of communicating with people the power of crossing all kinds of boundaries and also working on so many different platforms.

"So you could see him on TV talking about politics, and then he would write beautiful eloquent children's poems, so [he was] the embodiment of someone who had 100% of everything, and then added another 100%."

Those talents led to Benjamin receiving 16 honorary doctorates, and an OBE nomination in 2003 - which he turned down due to its association with the British Empire.

His family said that he was diagnosed with a brain tumour 8 weeks ago and died this morning - aged 65 - with his wife by his side.

They've paid tribute saying: "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.

"Thank you for the love you have shown Professor Benjamin Zephaniah."

Selina says Benjamin's death is a huge loss to both Birmingham and the world. Credit: ITV News Central

Those at the Midlands Art Centre in Birmingham agree. Selina Brown is the founder of the Black British Book Festival.

She says: "When I think of Benjamin Zephaniah I think of someone who is fearless who is, like I said before, living his truth and being himself in every single way.

"It's a great loss to the world and it's definitely a great loss to Birmingham."

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