It is with deep sadness we commemorate the passing of our friend in social justice, Benjamin Zephaniah.
As a long-term vegan and a fearless social justice advocate, Benjamin had been an inspiration to us long before Generation Vegan came into existence. We knew of his spoken-word talents, his honesty and straightforwardness when speaking truth to power, and his deep compassion for those less privileged, whether they be human or non-human. And he did not just feel that compassion, he used his voice and his position to advocate against systemic injustice.
In 2003, for example, he turned down an OBE, an honor bestowed on select individuals by the government. ‘OBE’ stands for Order of the British Empire. Benjamin explained his reasons in an exceptional Guardian article:
I woke up on the morning of November 13 wondering how the government could be overthrown and what could replace it, and then I noticed a letter from the prime minister’s office. It said: “The prime minister has asked me to inform you, in strict confidence, that he has in mind, on the occasion of the forthcoming list of New Year’s honours to submit your name to the Queen with a recommendation that Her Majesty may be graciously pleased to approve that you be appointed an officer of the Order of the British Empire.”
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. 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.
Last year, he explained why he would no longer say “I don’t eat meat,” and start saying “I don’t eat animals”. His honesty in a world of deception, political spin, and marketing, was radical.
Such principles, and his thoughtful expression of them, is why we admired him so very much. We were beyond delighted when he agreed to support our very first campaign, challenging Pope Francis to go vegan for Lent. To do so, Benjamin traveled from his home on a cold New Year’s Day so he could film with us and Genesis Butler at an animal sanctuary. He always went the extra mile for the campaigns he supported. And he supported many.
Benjamin was a poet, a writer, a musician, a husband, a campaigner, a professor, a martial artist, and a vegan. He was also our friend, and it was our deep privilege to know him and to work with him.