BEFORE THERE WAS “YAS QUEEN,” THERE WAS ZEPHANIAH
By Awa Gueye
November 8, 2018
Benjamin Zephaniah has been saying “No” to the Queen since 2003.
In a world where everything we say is permanent, risky and monitored it can be difficult to speak up. It’s very easy to undermine our morals in fear of what the public may think. Zephaniah is certainly not a victim of this. He makes me question my hesitation to say no.
In May of 2019 Dame Carol Ann Duffy’s tenure as Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom will come to an end, and Benjamin Zephaniah had been one of the five candidates mentioned to take over this esteemed position. To some this would be an obvious joy; an honor. Zephaniah’s response?
“I won’t work for them, they upset me, and they are not worthy. I write to connect with people and have never felt the need to go via the church, the state, or the monarchy to reach my people. No money. Freedom or death.”
The role of the Poet Laureate is to write poetry for royal events and monumental national occasions. They are appointed by the Queen with advice from the Government. The role is recognized as an honorary position, not often questioned unless challenged by great minds like Zephaniah. This is not Benjamin’s first time turning down an “honor” from the Queen. In 2003, Zephaniah was to be given an OBE. The OBE (Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) is given to an individual for a major local role in any activity such as business, charity of the public sector. Upon refusing this honor, Zephaniah told The Guardian,
“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.”
I want to be like Benjamin Zephaniah.
I’m not British, I’m not vegan, and I am definitely not an internationally renowned poet, but I still think it’s possible. All I need to do is value my integrity and know my worth.
Zephaniah’s refusal to shrink himself for what is considered an honor by a world he is not a part of is admirable. His clarity and confidence is rare. It’s the exact thing that makes him so great and wanted, but Zephaniah is not yours. He is free. Considering his unwavering talent, Zephaniah certainly would’ve made a splash as Poet Laureate. However, his simple denial of the position has made a bigger, more permanent statement that will benefit his community forever.
Thanks for your consistency Benjamin.