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Poet in royal honor protest

By CNN's Graham Jones

Zephaniah says he was protesting against British government policies.

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Was UK poet Benjamin Zephaniah right to reject an honor from the queen on the grounds it was a legacy of colonialism?
David Beckham

LONDON, England (CNN) -- On the day that England soccer captain David Beckham receives a leading honor, the OBE, from the queen, Britain's most famous Rastafarian poet has publicly rejected the same honor.

Benjamin Zephaniah called the honor -- Officer of the Order of the British Empire -- a legacy of colonialism and said he was turning it down in protest at British government policies, including the decision to go to war in Iraq.

Breaking the convention that those who reject honors should do so privately, Zephaniah wrote in The Guardian newspaper that the very title "Order of the British Empire" reminded him of "thousands of years of brutality -- it reminds me of how my foremothers were raped and my forefathers brutalized."

Ranks in the order are Knight or Dame Grand Cross (GBE), Knight or Dame Commander (KBE or DBE), Commander (CBE), Officer (OBE -- the honor offered to Zephaniah and conferred on Beckham) and Member (MBE).

The order allows recipients to use the requisite letters, for example OBE, after their name. It is represented by a medal in the shape of a cross carrying a golden image of Britannia and the motto "For God and the Empire." There are more than 100,000 living members of the various ranks of the order.

Zephaniah said that when he received a letter from the UK prime minister's office saying Tony Blair intended to recommend his name to the queen in the New Year's honors list, he thought: "OBE, me? Up yours."

He added: "Stick it, Mr. Blair and Mrs. Queen, stop going on about empire."

Zephaniah was perhaps a risky choice to be nominated for an OBE: one of his poems, Bought and Sold, criticizes contemporaries who compromise their work by accepting honors.

In the Guardian article, the poet, brought up in Britain and Jamaica, condemns those who permit ego to win out over artistic integrity.

Giving popular figures with honors is "what cool Britannia is all about," he writes.

"It gives OBEs to cool rock stars, successful businesswomen and blacks who would be militant in order to give the impression that it is inclusive." His view is that such people with OBEs after their names have "been had."

The Order of the British Empire was created during World War I in 1917 by George V.

"The King recognized the necessity for a new award of honor which could be more widely awarded, in recognition of the large numbers of people in the British Isles and other parts of the Empire who were helping the war effort both as combatants and as civilians on the home front," says the royal family's Web site.

Rowling OBE
A recent literary OBE who accepted the honor was J.K. Rowling.

"For the first time, women were included in an order of chivalry, and it was decided that the order should also include foreigners who had helped the British war effort."

From 1918 onwards there were military and civil divisions, and the honor came to be awarded for "distinguished services to the state" including the arts and sciences, public service and charity work.

The OBE is now "the order of chivalry of the British democracy," the royal Web site says.

"Valuable service is the only criterion for the award, and the order is now used to reward service in a wide range of useful activities. Citizens from other countries may also receive an honorary award, for services rendered to the United Kingdom and its people."

In his Guardian article, Zephaniah also challenged the Blair to clarify "suspicious circumstances" surrounding the death of his cousin Michael Powell in Birmingham's Thornhill police station in September.

An inquest has been opened and adjourned but no cause of death has yet been given.

Hundreds marched through Birmingham city earlier this month to demand justice for Powell.

In further swipes at the British PM, Zephaniah writes: "Come on Mr. Blair, I'll meet you anytime. Let's talk about your Home Office, let's talk about being tough on crime.

"And hey, if Her Majesty may be graciously pleased to lay all that empire stuff on me, why can't she write to me herself. Let's cut out the middleman -- she knows me."

The first two verses of Zephaniah's poem "Bought and Sold" read:

Smart big awards and prize money

Is killing off black poetry

It's not censors or dictators that are cutting up our art.

The lure of meeting royalty

And touching high society

Is damping creativity and eating at our heart.

The ancestors would turn in graves

Those poor black folk that once were slaves would wonder

How our souls were sold

And check our strategies,

The empire strikes back and waves

Tamed warriors bow on parades

When they have done what they've been told

They get their OBEs.

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