Benjamin Zephaniah has died at the age of 65, weeks after being diagnosed with a brain tumour. But 20 years ago in his remarkable life, it was his decision to refuse an OBE that had the star in the headlines.
The writer – who was the son of a Barbadian postman and a Jamaican nurse – was due to be recognised in the New Year Honours with the accolade, an Order of the British Empire. However, Zephaniah courted attention when he explained why he had turned the honour down.
Writing in The Guardian that year, he said: “Me? I thought, OBE me? Up yours, I thought... Benjamin Zephaniah OBE - no way Mr Blair, no way Mrs Queen." Birmingham-born Zephaniah also opened up about his decision when he appeared on The Big Narstie Show back in 2020.
Benjamin Zephaniah on his refusal to accept an OBE.
'No way Mr Blair, no way Mrs Queen. I am profoundly anti-empire.'
Rest in power. pic.twitter.com/FgSsth8TaQ
— Taj Ali (@Taj_Ali1) December 7, 2023
In a clip from the programme, which has surfaced in the wake of the author’s death, he said he had been “fighting against Empire" and that it would be "hypocritical" to accept the honour from the Queen.
"The OBE means Order of the British Empire," he said. “MBE is member of the British Empire. I have been fighting against Empire all of my life. I have been fighting against slavery and colonialism all my life.”
Zephaniah went on: “I have been writing to connect with people. Not to impress governments and the monarchy. So how could I then go and accept an honour that puts the word ‘empire’ onto my name. That would be hypocritical.” His words received a sounding round of applause from the audience at the time.
Tributes for Benjamin Zephaniah
While he was best known for his writing, Zephaniah also played Jeremiah Jesus in Peaky Blinders. The writer’s death was announced on Instagram in a post which called him a “true pioneer and innovator” who “gave the world so much”.
The moving tribute also said that Zephaniah – who penned several volumes of poetry and novels during his career - left a “joyful and fantastic legacy”. “It is with great sadness and regret that we announce the death of our beloved husband, son and brother in the early hours of this morning the 7th December 2023," it said.
“Benjamin was diagnosed with a brain tumour eight weeks ago. Benjamin's wife was by his side throughout and was with him when he passed.”
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