Commencement 2016 Is a Rap

On Friday, May 6, the audience at Boston University's Agganis Arena was abuzz. Anticipation was high for Berklee's annual commencement concert in which 124 graduating seniors paid tribute to this year's honorees Rita Moreno, Lucian Grainge, The Isley Brothers, and Milton Nascimento.

The show opened with Tickwanya Jones singing “This Old Heart of Mine.” It was the first of six selections, including hits such as “Fight the Power,” “It's Your Thing,” and “Work to Do,” chronicling the multi-styled music of The Isley Brothers, who are also Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award winners.

Inspired by the Broadway show Hamilton, Rita Moreno became the first Berklee commencement speaker to rap her address.
Kelly Davidson

Rita Moreno's celebrated work in musical theater, TV, and movies was represented by tunes such as “Guess Who I Saw Today,” “Fever,” and the theme song from the TV show The Electric Company. Also highlighted was “America” from West Side Story. Moreno was the first Latina to win an Oscar for her role as Anita in the show.

From the left: Lucian Grainge, Ernie Isley, Ronnie Isley, Rita Moreno, and Milton Nascimento received honorary doctor of music degrees at the May 7 commencement.
Kelly Davidson

From the catalog of Milton Nascimento—perhaps the best-known Brazilian songwriter other than Antônio Carlos Jobim—the student performers presented two medleys of his most familiar songs, including material from his groundbreaking album with saxophonist Wayne Shorter, Native Dancer. Of note was “Brazil,” which featured vocalist Christina Rodriguez deftly trading phrases with trumpeter Arnetta Johnson.

The program also represented the career contributions of Lucian Grainge and the diverse acts he has worked with as an executive at Universal Music Group. Selections ranged from “Dancing Queen” (Abba) to “Pretty in Pink (Psychedelic Furs) to “Back to Black” (Amy Winehouse) to “Sorry” (Justin Bieber). Of note was Emily Estefan's heartfelt rendition of Sam Smith's “Stay with Me,” on which she sang and played guitar with the backing of a string section.

Other highlights included an a cappella choral version of “When Doves Cry,” in remembrance of Prince, and the contrasting jubilant and graceful choreography danced by eight Boston Conservatory students on “Mambo” from West Side Story.

Garbed in caps and gowns for the graduation ceremony the next morning, the grads, honorees, college leaders, and faculty members took their places in the Agganis Arena for the formal ceremonies.

Presenting the honorary degrees, President Roger H. Brown gave some background on each recipient. He cited Lucian Grainge's abilities as a negotiator which enabled Universal to amass a larger catalog than any other major record label, and for his prescience in forging alliances with technology companies. After receiving the degree, Grainge said, “The respect I have for you, this class, this graduation, your contributions, and musicianship—I am in awe of you. I am honored and humbled to be here.”

Introducing Ronnie and Ernie Isley, Brown noted that the Isleys explored funk, disco, R&B, doo-wop, and rock, reaching the Billboard Top 50 in five different decades. Ernie Isley told the crowd, “Berklee, I want you to know: last night, you outdid yourselves. You're professionals. Ronald and I, in the spirit of all the brothers, appreciate it beyond words and appreciate you. I'm fully confident that the future of music rests in good hands because of Berklee.”

Brown characterized Nascimento as a singular writer and a beloved global ambassador for the Brazilian people. “He has been a voice for social justice over a career of more than 40 years,” Brown said.

As the commencement speaker, Rita Moreno rapped part of her message, inspired by the hit Broadway musical Hamilton. She rhymed, “You must have the au-dacity, the pluck, the grit the pers-pi-cacity. Your talent may be terr-if-ic, your writing pro-li-fic—but do you have the mo-ti-va-tion to use your cre-a-tion for this gen-er-a-tion, to give it the passion, the voice to speak its choice? Yo, I'm sayin', write your score for more than popularity—live life with clarity—of who you are—your worth on earth.”

She also told the grads, “What matters is that you use what you have learned wisely. The only thanks I ask is that you sing properly and honestly. If you do this, I will be repaid.”