More than 1,000 graduates from 67 countries and 47 U.S. states received degrees today at Berklee College of Music’s 2019 commencement. At the ceremony, Berklee President Roger H. Brown presented honorary doctorates to music icons Missy Elliott, Alex Lacamoire, and Justin Timberlake. Lacamoire, a 1995 graduate of the college, delivered the commencement address to the graduating class and an estimated audience of nearly 7,000 guests at Agganis Arena.
The annual commencement concert, held the previous evening at Agganis, featured some of the college’s most accomplished students paying tribute to the honorees by performing their music, including Elliott’s “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)” and “Get Ur Freak On,” songs from Hamilton and Dear Evan Hansen originally arranged by Lacamoire, and Timberlake’s “Cry Me a River” and “Rock Your Body.” Timberlake sang on “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” and all three honorees joined the students on stage during the concert’s finale.
Alex Lacamoire, acclaimed composer, producer, orchestrator, musical director, and four-time Grammy Award–winner, was cited for his incredible musicianship, creativity, and vital contributions to American musical theater. “To be bestowed this distinguished title for simply doing what I love, what I believe I was born to do, it fills me with a level of pride that I can’t compare to anything else I’ve felt until today,” said Lacamoire in accepting the doctorate.
In his address to the graduates, Lacamoire told of struggling as a boy to find his place in a new school. A defining moment came when he gave a well-received impromptu piano performance. “And in that moment, something in me realized: ‘They want to hear what I have to say.’ I can’t overstate how seminal that moment was,” said Lacamoire. “The applause that followed instilled a newfound confidence in me. It made me feel like I had a superpower…It makes me aware of the power of music. It unites us, it unifies us.”
”By creating music, we say ‘I have a contribution to make.’ We say ‘yes, I will add my voice to this collective,’” he continued. “Because we acknowledge music’s might, how it can make a sea of people sway in alignment, how it can cause us to tear up and lose our inhibitions, how it can make a 9-year-old kid feel like he has a place and a purpose.”
Rapper, singer, songwriter, and producer Missy Elliott, a five-time Grammy Award–winner whose U.S. sales have surpassed 30 million, was praised in President Brown’s introduction for bending genres, breaking stereotypes, and pushing musical, visual, and stylistic boundaries. Elliott is the first hip-hop artist to receive Berklee’s honorary doctorate.
“There will be ups and downs—prepare for that,” said Elliott in her remarks to the graduating class. After describing her own ups and downs, such as losing awards, being dropped from a label, and becoming ill, she encouraged graduates to be patient through the struggle, but to never give up on themselves. “As long as you are breathing, it is never too late. Don’t forget that. You have come too far to quit.”
Justin Timberlake, a decorated singer, songwriter, and actor with 10 Grammys, four Emmys, seven American Music Awards, three Brit Awards, nine Billboard Music Awards, and 32 million albums sold, was honored for his influence on pop music, his versatility, and for being an inspiration to others. “This is surreal. That was a crazy list of awards, but they really, seriously, pale in comparison to this honor today. Berklee, thank you so much,” said Timberlake. “I gotta say to the students, last night was fantastic. The performance, the band, everybody, the production—I was really blown away.”
“You’re defined by what you define failure as. It’s not a thing if it leads you to your success. It’s all part of the journey,” said Timberlake. He concluded his acceptance with a challenge that brought cheers from the audience. “I hope that in the years to come, two things will happen: one, I will represent you in the way that you most hope for. And two, I look around and see this graduating class. Meet me at the studio. I want to see y’all!”
Greetings from the faculty were delivered by Jennifer Beauregard, associate professor in the Liberal Arts Department. Beauregard, a volcanologist whose classes include Environmental Science and Oceanography, used the acronym ROCK—resilience, opportunity, community, knowledge—as the theme of her speech. “You are ready to go out there and make a difference. You have the resilience, you will find opportunities, you are building a community, and you will keep gaining knowledge. Resilience, opportunity, community, knowledge: the things that connect us together.”
The student speaker was Caroline Vermillion, a music business/management major from Greenville, South Carolina. “As each of us enters the next chapter of our lives, we must strive to identify and embody our purpose before we can hope to follow in the footsteps of these musical and creative legends,” she said. “We must hold each other accountable to perform, and create, and teach, and innovate, and heal authentically and with purpose.”
This year’s honorary doctorate recipients were recognized for their achievements in contemporary music, for their enduring contributions to popular culture, and for the influence their careers and music have had on Berklee’s international student body. Past recipients include Duke Ellington (the first, in 1971), George Clinton, Plácido Domingo, Aretha Franklin, Dizzy Gillespie, Juan Luis Guerra, Julio Iglesias, Quincy Jones, Carole King, Alison Krauss, Annie Lennox, Paco de Lucia, Loretta Lynn, Rita Moreno, Milton Nascimento, Willie Nelson, A. R. Rahman, Lionel Richie, Smokey Robinson, Esperanza Spalding, Steven Tyler, Lucinda Williams, and Wang Leehom.
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