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Celebrating Impact: Benjamin Zephaniah

Black History Month special tribute

By Elaine SiheraPublished 9 months ago Updated 8 months ago 3 min read
Image credit: bloodaxebooks.com

I had heard of Benjamin in the 90s, having read his very clever and talented poetic creations that speaks life as it is, but I had never met him. Then, out of the blue, a BBC TV producer called me to ask if I would do an interview on a special topic relating to the British public honours system. He wanted two of us for the interview, me and this awesome poet called Benjamin Zephaniah. I didn't know it then, but it seemed we both shared an uncompromising principle - that of standing up for what we believe in. We had turned down nominations for a public award: Benjamin for an OBE, and I for a peerage to the House of Lords. Our reasons were also similar.

The British Commonwealth emerged from slavery, colonialism, oppression, disrespect and racism. The current awards, like the Order of the British Empire (OBE), still celebrate, and hark back to, an empire that no longer exists, yet which means two different things to White and Black citizens - one as the victors and the other as the oppressed. Like Benjamin, I refused to celebrate or associate with honours that still glorified such division, abuse, inequality and oppression.

As Sky News reported, "The poet turned down an OBE in 2003, writing: "Benjamin Zephaniah OBE - no way Mr Blair, no way Mrs Queen. I am profoundly anti-empire." He launched a scathing attack on the offer, saying he had begged Tony Blair to meet him to discuss crime in Britain and telling the Queen to stop "going on about the empire".

In fact, according to a Guardian interview, "When Zephaniah refused the OBE in 2003, several newspaper commentators took the line that he was ungrateful, refusing this crumb from the White man's table. He, of course, objected to the word "Empire" which he associated with slavery."

I was running a national magazine at the time, making a name for myself as a diversity inclusion pioneer, and creator of a national award. Friends in high places thought I should be rewarded for my work, but it made me feel uncomfortable because of my anti-Empire sentiment.

We met up that Saturday at the studios, spending over four hours being filmed for a 10 minute interview, with him being the main star getting the lion's share of attention! We had a great time chatting about tons of subjects and expanding on why we both felt that way. A wonderful, eloquent and inspirational person, his humorous and self-effacing personality meant that we got on like a house on fire, and I followed his progress closely after that. But let's not run ahead of myself.

Benjamin, like me, is a fearless and forthright Aries child (born 15 April 1958). A British writer and dub poet, he has been so singlehandedly successful, he was included in The Times list of Britain's top 50 post-war writers in 2008. Born in Handsworth, Birmingham, England, to Jamaican parents, he did not complete his education. Instead he left school at 14 years old and began performing his poetry on the city's streets, poetry that was influenced by the music and poetry of Jamaica, as well as by the Black Power movement.

Poetry by Benjamin Zephaniah

When he was 22 years old, Benjamin published his first collection of poetry, Pen Rhythm. This was followed by a series of successful collections, including Dreadlocks and Black Stockings (1984), Rasta Time, and Selected Poems (2002). Often political and social in nature, his poetry is usually about life in its most troublesome form, subjects like racism, poverty, and injustice. He is also a passionate advocate for peace and human rights.

In addition to his poetry, the popular multi-talented performer has toured extensively throughout the world, having also written novels, plays, and screenplays and released several albums of reggae and dub music. Not surprisingly, he has been a regular guest on television and radio.

Benjamin is a highly respected figure in British culture, being acknowledged as a powerful voice for the marginalised and oppressed. He does not see poetry "as a luxury", but "a vital necessity of the human spirit." Needless to say, his work has inspired and educated generations of readers and listeners across society.

Not too long ago I had an email from him urging me to join him in China where it was all happening, he said. "Come over here, " he chided. "There are so many opportunities. You can help me spread the message. You're good at that!"

Coming from a professor of poetry, and someone I respect and admire so much, that was some praise! But the time wasn't right for me to be so intrepid. I still treasure his signed book of poems since that meeting.

TRIBUTE #11

social commentaryperformance poetryinspirationalhumorart

About the Creator

Elaine Sihera

British Empowerment Coach/Public speaker/DEI Consultant. Author: The New Theory of Confidence and 7 Steps To Finding And Keeping 'The One'!. Graduate/Doctor of Open Univ; Postgrad Cambridge Univ. Keen on motivation, relationships and books.

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Comments (1)

  • Test9 months ago

    Zephaniah is a role model for many people and his work continues to inspire and challenge us all. He is a true champion of the people and his voice will continue to be heard for many years to come.

Elaine SiheraWritten by Elaine Sihera

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