Usher and Roberta Flack to Receive Honorary Doctorates at Berklee 2023 Commencement
Berklee College of Music will present honorary Doctor of Music degrees to eight-time Grammy Award winner Usher and four-time Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Roberta Flack at its 2023 commencement ceremony on Saturday, May 13, at 10:00 a.m. at Boston University’s Agganis Arena. Sona Jobarteh, one of the foremost kora players in the world, was presented with her honorary degree at the inauguration of President Erica Muhl. The three honorees will have an opportunity to address the graduating class of 2023.
Commencement festivities will begin on the evening of Friday, May 12, at 7:30 p.m. with a reception and concert at Agganis Arena. The concert will feature a global cast of over 200 student vocalists, instrumentalists, dancers, arrangers, and track producers from the graduating class, who will perform a musical tribute to the work of each of the honorees.
This year’s honorary doctorate recipients will be celebrated and recognized for their invaluable contributions to the worlds of music and philanthropy. Past recipients from the college include Duke Ellington (the first, in 1971), Aretha Franklin, Quincy Jones ’51, Celine Dion, B.B. King, Joni Mitchell, Chaka Khan, esperanza spalding B.M. ’05, Willie Nelson, Missy Elliott, Ringo Starr, Gloria Estefan, and John Legend.
One of the most dynamic entertainers performing today, global megastar Usher has won eight Grammy Awards, including his first, in 2001, for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance for “U Remind Me”; released eight studio albums; and sold more than 23 million albums in the U.S. and more than 80 million worldwide. Dubbed Billboard’s “number one Hot 100 artist of the 2000s” and “number two most successful artist of the 2000s,” and “one of the best-selling artists in American music history,” according to the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), Usher catapulted four consecutive albums to number one on the Billboard Top 200, beginning with the diamond-certified Confessions in 2004. The album features four consecutive Billboard Hot 100 number one singles—"Yeah!” (featuring Lil Jon and Ludacris), “Burn,” “Confessions Part II,” and “My Boo” (with Alicia Keys)—and the top 10 single “Caught Up.”
Usher has taken his musical pursuits from the performance stage to the small screen as a judge on NBC’s The Voice and on the big screen in the critically acclaimed film Hustlers. He has also distinguished himself 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. He has also contributed to numerous philanthropic causes and historic advancements. He penned a moving essay in The Washington Post lobbying for the recognition of Juneteenth as a holiday in 2020, and has been honored by the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, the Trumpet Foundation, the international organization DoSomething, and by the NAACP as its 2010 Ford Freedom Award Scholar. He is equally at home on the stage of his sold-out My Way Las Vegas residency as he was on a 2016 government cultural mission to Cuba as part of President Barack Obama’s Presidential Committee for Arts and Humanities. That same year, he was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Later this year, Usher will release his ninth studio album.
Known for her timeless songs “Feel Like Makin' Love,” “Tonight I Celebrate My Love,” “Where Is the Love,” and “The Closer I Get to You” (the latter two duets with her former Howard University classmate Donny Hathaway), Roberta Flack has been hailed as one of the greatest songstresses of our time and remains unparalleled in her ability to tell a story through her music. Born into a musical family in North Carolina, the four-time Grammy Award winner is a classically trained pianist who began playing at the age of nine. At age 15, she received a full scholarship to attend Howard University. Discovered while singing at Mr. Henry's, a nightclub in Washington, D.C., by jazz musician Les McCann, she was soon signed to Atlantic Records. From her debut album, First Take, released in 1969, Flack’s music has effortlessly traversed a broad musical landscape from pop to soul to folk to jazz. She is the only solo artist to win the Grammy Award for Record of the Year consecutively with “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” in 1973, and “Killing Me Softly with His Song” in 1974. The artist, whose music has been defying, crossing, and blending genres for more than six decades, was honored by the Recording Academy in 2020 with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. In addition to her musicianship, Flack has enriched the lives of others through her humanitarian work. In 2007, the former schoolteacher founded the Roberta Flack School of Music at the Hyde Leadership Charter School in The Bronx, which provides an innovative and inspiring music education program to underprivileged students free of charge. In 2020, she hosted a YouTube listening party with Rhino Records to raise funds for the nonprofit organization Feed the Children during the COVID-19 pandemic. Earlier this year, Penguin Random House published The Green Piano: How Little Me Found Music, Flack’s debut children’s book, which was cowritten with Tonya Bolden and recounts her childhood in a home surrounded by music and love.
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. Jobarteh is the first woman within this ancient tradition to master the kora, a 21-string instrument from the Mandeng regions. Originally introduced to the kora at the age of 4 by her elder brother Tunde Jegede, she went on to study under her father, breaking an ancient, male-dominated tradition that had been exclusively handed down from father to son for the past seven centuries. As a lifelong musician, Jobarteh earned a scholarship to the prestigious Purcell School of Music and the Royal College of Music in the U.K., where she studied the cello, piano, and harpsichord as well as composition and scoring. Her career has scaled to new heights with tours throughout Europe, China, Africa, India, Australia, and the U.S. She has also headlined sold-out concerts at the Barbican in London; the Kölner Philharmonie in Cologne, Germany; and La Seine Musicale in Paris. Jobarteh’s music combines the traditional sound of her Gambian heritage with more modern elements of jazz, blues, and R&B/soul. Her most recent record, Badinyaa Kummo, displays her skills as an innovative composer and multi-instrumentalist, and includes guest appearances by Senegalese singer Youssou N'Dour, Malian kora master Ballaké Sissoko, and American saxophonist Kirk Whalum. In 2022, she was commissioned to write the opening and closing sequence music for the film Beast, starring Idris Elba.
In addition to her musical career, Jobarteh is a social activist and educator, having founded the Gambia Academy, a groundbreaking institution for children aged 8–18 dedicated to reforming the African education system. The academy teaches a pioneering new academic curriculum that centers uniquely on African core values, traditions, and perspectives. Through her music and African-centered education system, Jobarteh strives to give African culture prominence and relevance in a world where she feels it has been mostly viewed as inferior. In her recent CBS 60 Minutes interview with Lesley Stahl, Jobarteh discussed how breaking convention as the first female kora master “is a very central and important adaptation that tradition must take in order to be relevant to our new society.”