Jean Breeze MBE?
Breeze is Jamaica’s first female dub poet, reciting her verse against a reggae beat. She arrived in London in 1985 and became a big name in the world of performance poetry. But after falling ill, she returned to Jamaica last year, where she learned about the honour. “I was in a little fishing village called Sandy Bay, and there’s a post office where we have to go to collect our mail because there’s no addresses and street names and stuff,” she said. “And I couldn’t believe it, I said: ‘The Palace, why are they writing to me?’ - so it was very special.”
Surely her colleagues rushed to congratulate her?
Not so. Speaking after the investiture ceremony hosted by the Prince of Wales at Buckingham Palace, she said: “I’ve had a lot of criticism for accepting an award from the British Empire - some of my political friends are not too keen on that - but I am delighted, despite the history of empire.” Benjamin Zephaniah, who despite being born in Birmingham is heavily influenced by Jamaican music and poetry, famously refused the OBE in 2003. He said at the time: “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.”
How does Breeze feel about Britain?
Her reasons for moving here were “purely economic”, though she told the 57 Productions performance poetry organisation that in Brixton, South London, West Indian people can enjoy a “sense of community and belonging”. For years, she said, she has been caught in the “Atlantic Trap” – all her family and friends are in Jamaica, but it’s impossible to make a living there. “These are small islands with little resources and the last thing that gets supported is the arts,” she said.