The graduating classes of 2020 were robbed of their traditional commencement ceremonies: No marching up the the podium to collect their degrees while being cheered on by friends and families, no tossing of their caps into the air to mark the end of one life and the beginning of another.
But on Sunday, they got something that no college graduates before them have experienced: commencement addresses and appearances by Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, and Katy Perry, among other celebrities—most notably Barack and Michelle Obama, the former president and first lady—in a multi-hour digital event livestreamed on YouTube Originals.
The “Dear Class of 2020” event got off to a rousing start with Lizzo playing “Pomp and Circumstance” on a flute, first solo, then accompanied digitally by members of the New York Philharmonic.
Then it was on to the star-studded digital lineup.
Alicia Keys praised the younger generation for “inspiring the world to see our collective humanity” through protests, calling on everyone to “empathize with those who seem different on the surface.” Taylor Swift told the students, “I know this probably isn’t the kind of graduation you thought you were going to be having,” but added, “I’m so proud of you guys and I hope that you have a wonderful time and are really proud of yourselves.”
Justin Timberlake, BTS, Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel, and Shawn Mendes also joined the event, but perhaps the most compelling moments came from Lady Gaga, Beyoncé, and Barack and Michelle Obama.
Lady Gaga began her speech by noting it had been recorded two weeks ago, but that she had decided to rewrite it in the wake of the death of George Floyd and the protests that followed. Wearing a black leather vest with metal spikes, Gaga said there is “much to be sad about [but] there is much to be celebrated. You are watching what is a pivotal moment in this country’s evolution. You’re watching society change in a deeply important way.” The singer added, “This change will be slow, and we will have to be patient. But change will happen, and it will be for the better.”
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Here are eight of the other top moments from Sunday’s events and the pieces of advice offered by the celebrity speakers.
Take control of your career: “The entertainment business is still very sexist,” Beyoncé told the students. “It’s still very male dominated and as a woman, I did not see enough female role models given the opportunity to do what I knew I had to do: to run my label and management company, to direct my films and produce my tools. That meant ownership, owning my masters, owning my art, owning my future, and writing my own story.” She added, “Not enough Black women had a seat at the table. So I had to go and chop down that wood and build my own table. Then I had to invite the best there was to have a seat. That meant hiring women, outsiders, underdogs, people that were overlooked and waiting to be seen many of the best creatives in business.”
Embrace who you are: “To all those who feel different, if you’re a part of a group that’s called ‘other,’ a group that does not get the chance to be center stage, build your own stage and make them see you,” Beyoncé said. “Your queerness is beautiful. Your blackness is beautiful. Your compassion, your understanding, your fight for people who may be different from you is beautiful. I hope you continue to go into the world and show them that you will never stop being yourself. That it’s your time now. Make them see you.”
Find purpose in uncertainty: “Life will always be uncertain,” Michelle Obama said in her address. “This is a time in your life when it feels like everything is turned upside down, and perhaps you’re wishing that things could just go back to the way they were. Look, I’ve been there many times in my life. I felt it most profoundly when my father and my best friend died within a year of each other. I was in my late 20s, and it felt like my whole world was collapsing in on itself. I would have given anything—anything—to bring them back. But that experience gave me a kind of clarity. With everything in pieces around me, I had to forge a new path—a path fortunately more focused on meaning and service.”
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When they go low, you can go high: “In an uncertain world, time-tested values like honesty and integrity, empathy and compassion— that’s the only real currency in life,” the former first lady said, obliquely referring to perhaps her best-known statement. “Treating people right will never, ever fail you. Now, I’m not naive. I know that you can climb a long way up the ladder selling falsehoods and blaming others for your own shortcomings, shunning those with less privilege and advantage. But that is a heavy way to live. It deadens your spirit and it hardens your heart. It may seem like a winning strategy in the short run, but trust me, graduates, that kind of life catches up to you. You rob yourself of the things that matter most—deep and loving connections with others, honest work that leads to lasting contributions to your community, the vibrancy that comes from a diversity of ideas and perspectives, the chance to leave this world a little better than you found it. Don’t deprive yourselves of all that. There is no substitute for it.”
You have a voice. Use it: “There will always be those who want to keep you silent, to have you be seen but not heard, or maybe they don’t even want to see you at all,” Michelle Obama said. “But those people don’t know your story, and if you listen to them, then nothing will ever change. So, it’s up to you to speak up when you or someone you know isn’t being heard. It’s up to you to speak out against cruelty, dishonesty, bigotry—all of it. It’s up to you to march hand in hand with your allies, to stand peacefully—with dignity and purpose—on the front lines in the fight for justice.”
The torch is passing: Citing the deaths of George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, and the protests that followed, Barack Obama said the turmoil of recent weeks is due to a “decade’s worth of anguish and frustration over unequal treatment and a failure to reform police practices and the broader criminal justice system.” And he said it was up to this new generation to address those ills. “So as scary and uncertain as these times may be, they are also a wake-up call, and they are an incredible opportunity for your generation. Because you don’t have to accept what was considered normal before. You don’t have to accept the world as it is. You can make it into the world as it should be and could be. You can create a new normal, one that is fairer, and gives everyone opportunity, and treats everyone equally, and builds bridges between people instead of dividing them. Just as America overcame slavery and civil war, recessions and depression, Pearl Harbor and 9/11 and all kinds of social upheaval, we can emerge from our current circumstances stronger than before. Better than before.”
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Don’t believe every tweet you read: The former president acknowledged the massive and mostly positive changes that the internet has wrought, calling it “the new town square” that has “allowed movements of like-minded people to mobilize on behalf of worthy causes.” But he also added that “social media can also be a tool to spread conflict, division, and falsehoods—to bully people and promote hate. Too often it shut us off from each other instead of bringing us together—partly because it gives us the ability to select our own realities, independent of facts, or science, or logic, or common sense. We start reading only news and opinions that reinforce our own biases and start canceling everything else out; we let opinion masquerade as fact and treat even the wildest conspiracy theories as worthy of consideration. And the irony is that usually the people who are peddling falsehoods on the Internet or social media are doing so for their own purposes—either to sell you something or to distract you from the real issues that matter.”
Change actually begins at the ballot box: “In the midst of recent protests, I’ve noticed that there have been some debates among young people about how useful voting is compared to direct action and civil disobedience in ending discrimination in our society,” Obama said. “The fact is that we don’t have to choose; we need both. Peaceful protests and demonstrations are patriotic—they shine a light on injustice, they raise public awareness, and they make the folks in charge uncomfortable in a way that is healthy.” But he said that the most powerful weapon they had at their disposal was their right to vote: “Your aspirations have to be translated into specific laws and institutional practices—and that only happens when we elect good people, at every level, who are responsive to our demands—and that includes the local offices like the office of the mayor or the office of the district attorney that don’t get as much attention as a presidential race, but have the most direct impact on issues like how communities are policed.”