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Empire - Bomb the Bass featuring Benjamin Zephaniah and Sinéad O'Connor

In 2003, poet, novelist and dramatist, political activist, actor and animal rights campaigner Benjamin Zephaniah received a letter from the Prime Minister's office offering him an OBE for "services to literature". He turned it down, later explaining why in an article published in the Guardian in which he stated:

"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. It is because of this concept of empire that my British education led me to believe that the history of black people started with slavery and that we were born slaves, and should therefore be grateful that we were given freedom by our caring white masters. It is because of this idea of empire that black people like myself don't even know our true names or our true historical culture. I am not one of those who are obsessed with their roots, and I'm certainly not suffering from a crisis of identity; 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."

As Zephaniah pointed out elsewhere, it showed him that those who decided to offer him an OBE

"haven't really read my work, they don't really know what I stand for and have no idea of why I write."

They should have done, as these views are reflected not only in his poetry, but in his and Sinéad O'Connor's lyrics for the track "Empire" on the Bomb the Bass album "Clear" of 1995, eight year's. In the song, the words "empire" and "vampire" are transmuted into one another so that they become the same thing, a metaphor for the economic and social rapacity of empire.

"Vampire, you feed on the life of a pure heart,

vampire you suck the life of goodness

From now on I'll call you England..."

Diagnosed with a brain tumour last October, Benjamin Zephaniah died on December 7th. Primarily a dub poet who often performed with a band, Zephaniah was a true troubadour who believed that poetry was not an elitist art form but rather something that reflected the souls of ordinary people, about their lives, beliefs and issues. Except that he said that ordinary people weren't "ordinary", that everyone was special.

In this respect he had the "uncommon" touch, and in a recent BBC poll was voted the nation's third favourite poet, behind T.S. Eliot and John Donne and just ahead of Wilfred Owen and Phillip Larkin. He was also the only living poet to make the top ten. Often his words were humorous, often provocative, but he always told what he thought was the truth, was always urgent and relevant. See his rendering of his poem "Money" as an example. Read along:

"Money make a rich man feel like a big man

It make a poor man feel like a hooligan

A one parent family feels like a ruffian

An those who have it won’t give you anything

Money makes your friend become your enemy

You start seeing things very superficially

Your life is lived very artificially

Unlike those who live in poverty

Money affects your ego

But money brings you down

Money causes problems anywhere money is found

Food is what we need

Food is necessary

Let me grow my food

An make dem eat dem money

Money makes a singer sing a load of crap

Money keeps horses running round the track

Money makes marriages and money makes divorce

And money makes a student think about the course

Money makes commercials and commercials make money

And if you don't have money then you watch more tv

Money can save us

But yet we feel doomed

Plenty money burns in a nuclear mushroom

Money can make you happy

Money can help you when you die

An those who have it continually live a lie

Children are dying

Spies are spying

Refugees are fleeing

An webs are spun

An no one keeps the third world on the run

An the brother feels better than the brother next door

Cause the brother's got money but this brother's got more

And the brother thinks the brother’s not a brother cause he’s poor

When a brother kills the other that is economic war

Economic war, economic war

It may not be the east and west anymore

But the north and south third world fall out

Sugar an isle

That is what it’s about

Economic war

Economic war

Shots fired from the stock market floor

So we work for a livin’

We try an we try

With so little time for chillin’

Like we livin a lie

Money makes a dream like reality

Money makes real life like a fantasy

Money has a habit of going to the head

I have some for the rainy day underneath me bed

Money problems make it hard to relax

Money makes you worship vanity and lies

Money is a drug with legal highs

Money make me go out an rob

Denigrate me for lookin for a job

Money made the nurse and doctor emigrate

Money buys friends who love to hate

Money makes slavery seem alright

Money bought the bible and the bible shone the light

Victory to the penniless at grass root sources

We've come to mash down market forces

We've come to mash down market forces."

I met Benjamin Zephaniah when we were both working on the London Youth Poetry Festival way back in 1992 in Islington. I haven't got any anecdotes other than that he seemed to be nice guy, easy to get along with. The festival was produced in partnership with the Apples and Snakes spoken word organisation and centred around selected poets doing a month's workshops in half a dozen schools culminating in performances by the students and a grand jamboree show by the poets. At the end I thought the classes he was working with did the best work of any students in the festival, and remarked on this to an A&S worker. She told me that the feedback from teachers in the schools from more deprived areas with more "challenging" students was that Benjamin seldom had behavioural problems from the children as opposed to many other poets who ran into difficulties. Apparently he always had them eating out of his hand. They loved him.

Yet you wonder, in these dark days, whether now he'd be allowed anywhere near an academised school. Or for that matter would Eliot or Donne.


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