Benjamin Zephaniah declines an OBE in protest against colonialism

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The Independent Online

Benjamin Zephaniah, the acclaimed poet, has refused his appointment as an OBE from the Queen, describing it as a legacy of colonialism.

The Rastafarian poet declined the award because of his opposition to the policies and principles of the Government and the monarchy.

In doing so, he joined the ranks of a select group, including the actress Helen Mirren and the film director Ken Loach.

But Mr Zephaniah chose to publicise his decision in a newspaper article, published in today's Guardian.

Describing his reaction to the unexpected arrival of a letter from the House of Commons earlier this month, he wrote: "Me? I thought, OBE me? Up yours, I thought. I get angry when I hear the word 'empire'; it reminds me of slavery, it reminds me of thousands of years of brutality, it reminds me of how my foremothers were raped and my forefathers brutalised."

He added: "My obsession is about the future and the political rights of all people. Benjamin Zephaniah OBE - no way Mr Blair, no way Mrs Queen. I am profoundly anti-Empire."

Mr Zephaniah highlighted the incongruity of his invitation by referring to his previous visits to Downing Street, which were been limited to protests on the doorstep of the Prime Minister.

He went on to challenge Mr Blair to meet him to discuss the death of his cousin Michael Powell at Thornhill Road police station in Birmingham. "All that my family can do is join with all the other families who have lost members while in custody because no one in power is listening to them. Come on Mr Blair, I'll meet you anytime. Let's talk 'bout your Home Office, let's talk about being tough on crime."

One significant reason behind the poet's decision to refuse the accolade was his opposition to government policies. He said: "You can't fool me, Mr Blair, You want to privatise us all; you want to send us to war; you stay silent when we need you to speak for us; preferring to be the voice of the USA."

However, Mr Zephaniah also criticised fellow artists who he claimed succumbed to their ego and subsequently compromised their artistic integrity by accepting the honours. "There are many black writers who love OBEs, it makes them feel like they have made it ... They are so easily seduced into the great house of Babylon known as the Palace." His words were echoed in a poem, "Bought and Sold", which accompanied his article, the first lines of which were: "Smart big awards and prize money/Is killing off black poetry."