Berklee Celebrates Class of 2020 as Commencement Goes Virtual

Boston Conservatory at Berklee honored Mikhail Baryshnikov and André De Shields, and Berklee College of Music honored Sheila E., John Legend, and Cassandra Wilson in a pair of virtual events on May 9.

May 9, 2020

In two virtual commencement celebrations earlier today, Berklee President Roger H. Brown presented honorary doctorates to music icons Sheila E., John Legend, and Cassandra Wilson, and Boston Conservatory at Berklee Executive Director Cathy Young presented honorary doctorates to dance legend Mikhail Baryshnikov and prolific theater artist André De Shields. All honorary degree recipients addressed the respective classes of 2020 in prerecorded videos. Berklee College of Music’s class of 2020 consists of 1,188 students, representing 66 countries and 44 U.S. states, while Boston Conservatory at Berklee’s class of 2020 consists of 257 students, representing 21 countries and 36 U.S. states.

Berklee’s annual commencement concert, which was broadcast on YouTube the previous evening, featured some of Berklee College of Music’s and Boston Conservatory at Berklee’s most accomplished students paying tribute to this year’s honorees by performing their music. Pieces performed included “Wait for Me” from De Shields’s Tony-winning role in Hadestown, and a dance medley of Baryshnikov’s most memorable pieces, such as La Bayadère, The Turning Point, and Don Quixote, among others. In a tribute to Sheila E., the artist joined students to perform “All Around” and “The Glamorous Life.” Wilson also performed lead vocals for her song “Never Broken,” backed by student performers as part of her tribute portion of the concert. Legend joined the students on renditions of “If You’re Out There,” “Ordinary People," and “Everyday People."

Our art, and our ability to transcend language and create emotion through music, is critical in defining how we choose to rebuild our world.

John Legend, Berklee College of Music honoree

In Legend’s address to Berklee College of Music graduates, the Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony winner spoke about being apart from one another, saying “I hope…that we remember not the moments we lost, but the way we rose up, together, to imagine a better future in which we defined ourselves by love, hope, resilience, and a spirit of community.” Legend discussed falling in love with music at a young age, and how he kept pursuing his dream even after being rejected by executives at every major record label. After meeting and working with Kanye West, he signed his first record deal in 2004, emphasizing that the most defining moments of his life came from things that did not go according to plan. “Our art, and our ability to transcend language and create emotion through music, is critical in defining how we choose to rebuild our world,” he said, calling on the class of 2020 to unite in creativity and love.

Watch Berklee College of Music's tribute to John Legend:

Speaking from her home while standing in front of a drum kit, legendary performer Sheila E. applauded the class of 2020 and offered words of encouragement. “Each of you are amazing, wonderful, talented, beautiful, confident, strong, and brilliantly gifted,” she said. “As you pursue your goals, I encourage you to take this entire experience with you—the successes, the mistakes, the hardships, and the joys,” she continued. In closing, she discussed the power of music and its impact, saying, “Music is healing; it can save someone’s life. It saved mine.”

Grammy Award–winning jazz musician, vocalist, songwriter, and producer Cassandra Wilson opened her remarks by comparing the current state of the world to jazz, stating, “We are constantly making adjustments, but the music goes on.” She told graduates how her love of music, developed at a young age, kept her going throughout the years, and how the hills and valleys of life help shape artists. Wilson closed her remarks by sharing her personal philosophy on music with the class of 2020, saying, “You make one step towards music and it will make three steps towards you.”

I bow to you and wish you every opportunity in the world to do what you choose to do. I know it’s a labor of love but please, keep at it. We need you. The world needs you.

Mikhail Baryshnikov, Boston Conservatory at Berklee honoree

In Boston Conservatory at Berklee’s ceremony, celebrated dancer, actor, and choreographer Baryshnikov noted this uncertain period in history and the importance of the arts as he addressed graduates. “This is a strange new world, but one that needs the arts now more than ever,” he said. Baryshnikov remarked that some of the greatest art ever came from horrendous circumstances. “I bow to you and wish you every opportunity in the world to do what you choose to do,” he said. “I know it’s a labor of love but please, keep at it. We need you. The world needs you.”

Watch Boston Conservatory at Berklee's tribute to Mikhail Baryshnikov:

De Shields, the acclaimed performer, director, and Emmy, Grammy, and Tony winner who has graced stages around the world for more than 50 years, also addressed the uncertainty of the moment in his message to the graduating class. He emphasized the need for artists and creativity at this moment. “As artists, you understand that, first and foremost, we must serve. This is what humanity needs: service.” He imparted words of wisdom by telling graduates, “I believe if you know something, share something.” De Shields, who began performing during the summer of love in a production of Hair, encouraged the students to build a new world of love and prosperity together, illustrating his message with lyrics from the musical. He closed his remarks with an a cappella rendition of “Believe in Yourself (Dorothy),” originally performed by Diana Ross in the 1978 musical The Wiz.

Greetings from Berklee College of Music faculty members in the college ceremony were delivered by Chelsey Green, associate professor in the String Department. Green, a violinist, violist, and vocalist, told students that from their education, “You have the tools to navigate and richly contribute to the very fabric of our world—seize the opportunity!” Green went on to discuss the resurgence of art and music on social media during COVD-19, telling graduates to “log on and find the largest music festival, the world’s biggest venue; honestly, this is the largest captive audience.”

Watch Berklee College of Music's tribute to Sheila E.:

The student speaker for the Berklee College of Music ceremony was Nico Ruggieri, a music business/management major from Youngstown, Ohio. “Our purpose has transcended the product of music that we create,” he said. “Sometimes, it might seem like the world is playing in multiple keys, at multiple tempos. Life is going to get challenging. But remember, as Berklee musicians, we have the unique power to transform life’s noise into music.”

The student speaker for Boston Conservatory at Berklee’s ceremony was Amy Onyonyi, a voice performance major from Nairobi, Kenya. “Our journeys to Boston Conservatory at Berklee were all complex and unique, but one thing we shared was the unchangeable desire to refine our artistic giftings amongst the best of the best,” she said. “This is the network that will support us as we go forth and create, share, secure the bag, affect positive change, and continue to not only make a difference about something other than ourselves, but in someone other than ourselves.”

Watch Boston Conservatory at Berklee's tribute to André De Shields:

Watch Berklee College of Music's tribute to Cassandra Wilson: