Zephaniah and Rosen - a tale of two poets at London Met's Graduation Ceremony

A special moment between two iconic poets at the University’s 1998 graduation ceremony is remembered following Dr Zephaniah's death on 7 December 2023.

Date: 13 December 2023

On Monday 4 December 2023, the main auditorium of the Barbican was full of graduands waiting to have their hard work recognised at London Met’s Winter graduation ceremony. The day was full of joy and celebration. 

Twenty-four years earlier, 41 year old Benjamin Zephaniah stood on that same stage to receive an honorary Doctorate from the University of North London, a predecessor to London Met, in recognition of his work in the fight against racial discrimination and for social injustice – this was his first honorary award, he would go on to be given 15 more. 

Among the audience that day was celebrated children's author, poet, presenter, political columnist, broadcaster and activist Michael Rosen who was receiving a PhD award for his thesis on creative writing. The presence of the two great men of British poetry led to a remarkable moment. 

As Rosen ascended the stage to receive his PhD, Zephaniah, moved by a spirit of kinship and shared purpose, sprang from his seat to embrace him. This spontaneous act, transcending the usual formalities, captured the essence of unity and mutual respect between two voices of change. 

"The entire platform stood in ovation. It was an embrace that transcended mere congratulations, symbolising a bond over shared ideals and the power of words to instigate change," recalls Alistair Ross, Professor of Politics and English at London Met.  

A powerful symbol 

Benjamin Zephaniah's story truly echoes the University’s mission. His fight for fairness and equality is especially meaningful for our diverse community, showing them the strength that comes from overcoming challenges and the importance of sharing their own stories and perspectives. 

Zephaniah's words, a blend of defiance and hope, remain a guiding light. His was a unique empathetic and powerful voice, as these lines from his work "We Refugees," show: 

We can all be refugees
Sometimes it only takes a day,
Sometimes it only takes a handshake
Or a paper that is signed.
We all came from refugees
Nobody simply just appeared,
Nobody's here without a struggle,
And why should we live in fear
Of the weather or the troubles?
We all came here from somewhere.

In these lines, Zephaniah captures the essence of the refugee experience, a theme especially relevant today. His voice, echoing through the halls of the Barbican, past and present, serves as a reminder of the power of poetry in the relentless pursuit of a just and compassionate world. 

In memory of Dr Benjamin Zephaniah - 15 April 1958 to 7 December 2023 

Pictures from London Met's Special Collections curated by Peter Fisher

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