Berklee Honors Usher, Roberta Flack, and Sona Jobarteh at Commencement

The legendary artists received honorary doctorates for their immeasurable impact on music, activism, and popular culture.

May 13, 2023

More than 1,230 graduates from 62 countries and all 50 U.S. states came together to celebrate at the Agganis Arena in Boston for Berklee College of Music’s 2023 commencement ceremony. Berklee Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs David Bogen presented an honorary doctorate to recording artist and icon Usher at the ceremony, while Berklee Professor Gabrielle Goodman accepted Roberta Flack’s degree on behalf of the acclaimed singer-songwriter. Gambian kora master Sona Jobarteh received her honorary doctorate at the inauguration of President Erica Muhl in April and delivered her remarks to the graduating class in a video.

The annual commencement concert took place the previous evening at Agganis Arena and featured many of Berklee’s most talented graduating students paying tribute to the honorees by performing their music, including Usher’s smash hits “Yeah!,” “U Remind Me,” and “Burn,” among others. The artist joined students on stage at the conclusion of the concert to sing the final notes of “Without You.” Flack’s tribute included “Killing Me Softly,” “Feel Like Making Love,” and her iconic cover of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” Students performed a panoply of Jobarteh’s music, concluding with “Musolou,” where she joined performers on stage to sing and play the kora.

Usher with Berklee students

Usher joins students on stage at the commencement concert.

Global megastar and eight-time Grammy Award winner Usher was recognized for his tremendous artistry and profound influence on R&B music. He was also lauded for his role as a devout humanitarian, raising tens of millions of dollars for various causes and uplifting youth via his New Look Foundation, which has provided opportunities for young people in underserved communities since 1999.

“My goal as an artist has always been to inspire people to make a positive impact through my music, to make you feel something, and last night I felt proud…of the legacy that has been built and that we’re building together as artists,” said Usher reflecting on the tribute concert from the previous evening. He continued by urging the graduating class to “keep running past that finish line [of your goals], break the barriers, identify that spark in you that motivates you to keep going, and don’t expect everything to be perfect and run smoothly. …Take what you’ve learned here [at Berklee], go into the world, and make great things.”

Known for her timeless vocals and legendary songwriting abilities, Flack was hailed as one of the greatest songstresses of our time, unparalleled in her ability to tell a story through her music. She was honored for enriching the lives of others through her humanitarian outreach with the nonprofit Feed the Children and the Roberta Flack School of Music in the Bronx, and her role as author of The Green Piano: How Little Me Found Music, her debut children’s book with Tonya Bolden.

"Never stop learning. Never stop growing. Use what you have and share yourselves with the world."

— Roberta Flack

Goodman, who toured and performed with Flack and considers her a “musical mother,” read remarks from the artist at the ceremony. “I have always said that love is a song. Music crosses all boundaries, and in this time of great division and fear we need to reach for what connects us all, now more than ever,” she said.

Sona Jobarteh performs at the commencement concert.

Sona Jobarteh performs at the commencement concert.

In her remarks, Flack mentioned her deep love of education, from her time as a teacher to her role as a mentor for so many young artists. “To this day, I continue to be a student of music; it finds me everywhere—in the darkest of moments, in the times of fear, and the depths of doubt…it lifts me higher than the sky, warming my heart and opening my soul to love, to dream, and to try. Never stop learning. Never stop growing. Use what you have and share yourselves with the world.”

A musician and educator from the Gambia, Jobarteh was born into one of the five principal griot families in West Africa, a hereditary tradition that dates back over 700 years to the Mali Empire. She is the first woman within this ancient tradition to master the kora, a 21-string instrument from the Mandeng regions. Jobarteh delivered the keynote address at the inauguration of President Erica Muhl in April, where she was recognized for her boundary-breaking role in Gambian music as well as for her work as an educator and activist.

In video remarks to the graduating class, Jobarteh described the adversity she faced in her career as a musician in a male-dominated tradition and as a woman of color studying in the United Kingdom. “Always keep your eyes on the ultimate goals, and regard all stages of life as just another chapter to help you get closer to those goals,” she said. “I call on young people to always remind themselves that they have the power to effect real change on society, especially young people who have chosen to pursue music...Each of you have purpose in this life, just as your music also has a purpose.”

"With your music or talent, do something that makes life a little sweeter for someone you don’t know."

— Ron Mahdi, professor of ensembles

This year’s faculty speech was delivered by Ron Mahdi, professor of ensembles. A Berklee alumnus himself, Mahdi looked back on how artistic struggles made him a better person, which he imparted onto graduates in his remarks. “You all are winners because of your struggle,” he said. “With any struggle you have to give up something to gain something.” Madhi also reflected on the importance of music, saying, “With your music or talent, do something that makes life a little sweeter for someone you don’t know.”

Addressing his fellow classmates, student speaker Nick Kitsopoulos, a double major in songwriting and music production and engineering from Madison, New Jersey, spoke about how he stumbled across the Berklee motto, esse quam videri, meaning “to be, rather to seem” and deeply connected to how it has shaped his life before and during Berklee. “Music…shows us what the truth is, and where it lives—no matter how academic a field is and how technically sound our work is, a song will never really sing if it’s not made in the pursuit of finding the inner truth.”

Kitsopoulos concluded by saying, “I know the world that awaits us is hungry for something new and original, and so as long as we aspire to create beauty rather than glamour, I know it will work out just fine. In the end, we’re the ones who get to bring music into the world and help people feel seen and heard when they need it the most.”

This year’s honorary doctorate recipients were celebrated for cementing a place in popular culture as artistic innovators, unique creators, and community advocates who continue to connect and inspire global audiences everywhere. Past recipients from the college include Duke Ellington (the first, in 1971), Aretha Franklin, Dizzy Gillespie, Celine Dion, B.B. King, Quincy Jones ’51, esperanza spalding B.M. ’05, Justin Timberlake, Paul Simon, Billy Joel, Lionel Richie, Missy Elliot, Carole King, Willie Nelson, George Clinton, Plácido Domingo, Annie Lennox, Gloria Estefan, Lalah Hathaway ’90, Ringo Starr, Joni Mitchell, and Smokey Robinson.

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