Smokey Robinson Delivers Commencement Address
More than 850 graduates received degrees at the 2009 commencement. President Roger H. Brown presented honorary doctor of music degrees to Motown legend Smokey Robinson, singer Linda Ronstadt, Dominican singer/songwriter Juan Luis Guerra, and producer/sound engineer George Massenburg. The night before, Berklee's graduates paid tribute to the artistry of the honorees at the annual commencement concert.
Robinson delivered the commencement address, imploring the class of 2009 to follow its dreams. Student speaker Sarah Noe spoke to her fellow graduates about the value of Berklee's motto, esse quam videri: to be rather than to seem. (See below for transcripts of their speeches.)
Keynote Speaker Smokey Robinson's Address
"Thank you very much, President [Roger H.] Brown, to the faculty, to everybody who is responsible for me being here, to my friend and brother [assistant chair of music business/management] John Kellogg. This is such a terrific honor for me.
"I had the great joy of coming here last evening to witness a concert that I thought was so awesome. I mean, it was awesome. I am a real advocate for music being in our schools. I've even spoken to Congress about doing whatever we can to get music back into our elementary schools, into our high schools, into our inner city schools. Because music is such a wonderful, wonderful tool—not only music, but any artistic form of expression—for our kids to have and to know. It gives them mind occupation and keeps them off the streets in many instances, and I wish so much that the programs can be reinitiated in all of our schools. I'm a real advocate for that. I was here last night and I enjoyed the concert so much. They sang and played some of my music and I thought it was so wonderful. I noticed in a couple of songs the words had been changed, but heck, I said, 'This school is really on top of it, because it's teaching the kids artistic freedom, creativity, adaptation.' I loved it. It was wonderful.
"Someone asked me back in the reception room if I had ever received an honorary doctorate before. I told them yes, but this one is so very, very special because it's like I'm getting a doctorate from my peers. When people who are embracing music and who love music recognize you, that's unbeatable. So this is really, really, really, really special for me, and I appreciate it so very much. I appreciate being here among you and seeing you and hearing you play and sing. You are awesome. I think it's so ironic that in my life I have been given awards and things like that for doing what I absolutely love. I grew up in the hood in Detroit and my wildest dream was to be in show business—something that I thought was absolutely never going to happen because of where I grew up. But it was my dream and I am very, very, very blessed because I get a chance to live my dream. It's ironic to me that people give me awards and doctorates and things like that for doing what I love. Heck, I would do this for nothing. I have done it for nothing, really. It's so ironic that it's happening like this but it is.
"First of all, I want to say to you: Never ever give up on your dreams, because your dreams are you. They're what you really want for yourself. So many times people are forced into situations where they have to live lives and do work and do things that are not really their dreams. I assure you that when you live your dream, when you get a chance to earn your living, living your dream, you cannot beat that. So if it happens for you, embrace that with your entire being. It's a wonderful life.
"Music just happens to be the international language. Music is understood all over the world. No matter what you do or where you go, people enjoy music. It brings people together. Here is a quick example of what I'm talking about. There were many Latin-speaking people here last night playing their music. And it was so awesome. I just love all kinds of music, from classical to gut-bucket blues to rap to hip-hop to whatever, because I love music and I enjoy listening to music every day. But many times when I've gone to other countries to perform the promoters will, after the convert that night, take you to what is the in spot in that particular city or town to enjoy yourself. So we go to this little club there, and we're in Spain. They have a band up on the stage and they're playing and the guy is singing: 'Now if you feel that you can't go on. Because all your hope is gone.' You close your eyes because you think you're listening to Levi Stubbs. He is just on. The Four Tops are up singing there if you close your eyes. So when they came off, I went over to the guy and I said, 'Hey man. That was awesome.' And he said, 'No comprende.' He knew every word to that song verbatim, every word, and he didn't even understand English. Music is the international language. You are embarking upon a life where you can speak to people all over the world. People who don't even speak your given language will understand you through your music. So, go for it. I mean that.
"It's so good to see that some of you are doing the business end of music. All of you should. It is show business. It's not just going out and having a good time and not paying attention to what's going on with your business as far as what you're doing. That was going on in the old days, even before I got started. So many artists were being duped out of their money and their royalties and things like that because they were not taking care of their business. And it is show business. Thank God for Berry Gordy, who started a record company where young talent could come along and be paid for their creativity. It's such a joy to me to be and to have been a part of the Motown movement. We are now in the process of having a three-year celebration—we started last year but it's going to go until 2010 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the advent of Motown records. I'm very proud, because that started about 15 years or so before I was born [laughter] . . . No, I was there on the very first day. I grew up at Motown. It has been a wonderful life experience.
"For those of you who are embarking upon being artists in this business, I go and I speak everywhere and I speak at many, many places all the time. When I go and speak to young people who are thinking about being in show business and thinking about what that means, I want to say to you first of all: Never, ever get full of yourself. Never, ever think that you're it. Because if anything, you're blessed. You're getting the chance to live a life that you love. I don't trip on Smokey Robinson. I'm just a very blessed man who is getting a chance to live a life that I love. Creativity is blessing. It's something that's a gift to you from God that you have that is special for you. God gives everybody gifts. Some people never find out what their gifts are. Some people never know what their gifts are. But you do. You know what your gift is. You're gifted with the love of music and with your ability to write it and to play it and to perform it.
"I have a story that I made up that I tell young people about show business. I call it the story of 'Ubla.' Ubla was a man who was a member of the very first tribe of people on earth, the very first people on earth. And in his little gathering, in his village, men have always imitated the animals. We imitate the animals when we dance and we sing and do things like that. We sing like the birds, we dance, and some people have been known throughout history to wear feathers like the animals. So, we have imitated them. In Ubla's village there was a coyote that used to come to the rock every night and bay at the moon, and all the villagers would come out to see the coyote bay at the moon. [imitates howling] One night, the coyote did not show up. Ubla was waiting there. The coyote did not show up so Ubla got up on the rock and he started to bay at the moon. [imitates howling] And the people recognized the fact that it didn't sound like the regular coyote so they all came out to see who was baying at the moon. It was Ubla up on the rock. When Ubla finished baying at the moon he didn't see them. And he looked down and there they were. And they looked up at him and said, 'Uh.' That was the beginning of show business.
"You didn't start it and you are not going to finish it, so never, ever get to the point where you think that you're that important, that once the world has become aware of you, it cannot do without your talent. Show business is a very fickle life. You're up today, you're down tomorrow. You're in today, you're out tomorrow. It's a life of peaks and valleys. Let your valley inspire you to get to the next peak. And if you have a lot peaks in a row, don't take yourself so seriously that you think that you're it. You're blessed. You're getting the chance to do something that you love and earn a living at it. And I say Godspeed to all of you. Go out and do it. Because I got a taste last night of what you can do and of who you are, and I'm so proud of you and I'm so happy to be here today. I'm so proud to be getting this doctorate from your school. It is a school of music. It is a school of my life. I'm so proud to be here and I'm so happy. I say God bless all of you."
Student Speaker Sarah Noe's Address
"Esse quam videri: to be rather than to seem. It has been adopted as the motto of many throughout the world, including what has been our home over these past few years: Berklee College of Music.
"Now perhaps you have seen these words along your way—maybe as a reference to history or on the school's official seal. Nevertheless, they do more than make up some ancient phrase or just fill up space on a flat surface. They speak with an anthemic resound, and there is a reason Berklee chose this idea to represent its mission.
"The phrase is most prominently found in the Latin text of philosopher Cicero in his essay 'Laelius on Friendship'; it was also used by the Greek playwright Aeschylus in his piece Seven Against Thebes. Taking a moment to consider the context of this idea in these works, we will discover a message that is greater than just the rhetoric of a bunch of writers: It is a message that is meant for every one of us.
"First we have Cicero's philosophical 'Laelius on Friendship.' Dating back to 44 B.C., it takes place in the Middle Roman Republic as a dialogue between two men and their father-in-law. After the death of a dear friend, the father-in-law is inspired to give sage advice to the younger men on what qualities make for good friends and the idea that true friendship cannot exist without virtue. He makes the claim that 'few are those who wish to be endowed with virtue rather than seem to be so.' In other words, not many people actually desire to possess virtue or integrity, probably because it requires a harder path to stay on. It takes more endurance and willpower to preserve an attitude and a work ethic of excellence than it does to just give in to weakness or to give up altogether.
"Because of this, most people will elect to appear to be people of genuine principle, because it is effortless. Surely this is a concept that humanity down through time can still relate to. Like the picture that Cicero's story paints, our elders have been here to encourage us to strive for what is best. It does not matter if it is pertaining to relationships, to work, or to art.
"The Greek writer Aeschylus also used the idea similarly in his mythic narrative Seven Against Thebes, where it is said of one of the main characters, 'His resolve was not to seem the best, but in fact be the best.'
"It does not matter what language this idea is translated to or from, or how old these particular quotes are. It does not matter whether we put these words on a seal, on a sweatshirt, or on the front of a fraternity house: They still communicate an idea that is deeper than what could be gleaned from a simple backward glance. In accordance with what Aeschylus said, indeed, our resolve should also be: not to seem to be the best, but be the best. Here we stand today, having been blessed with the opportunity to study for the past four years at our college of our choice, a luxury that many are not afforded around the world today. And not only have we been able to partake in a quality education, but also we have had the chance to study and to thrive in the very subject that we love most-our music, our medium of communication.
"An incredible investment has brought us here today. The money, the endless hours of work, and, for many, sacrifice has been players in our journey. We have believed in ourselves, in our craft, and we made it through a tremendous milestone that we are here to celebrate now. In these past few years we have spent those hours cultivating our artistic identities as well as finding our voice in the world. Through our experiences, through the expansion of our knowledge, and the relationships we have made, we have amassed a trove of tools and that have the ability to benefit us throughout the rest of our lives. We must maintain our authenticity to save ourselves from losing our grasp of those identities. We made the most of our own means and what was offered to us here in Boston, and it is imperative that we continue to do so every day henceforth.
"However, we're going to have to maintain our authenticity to save ourselves from losing grasp of those identities that we have founded. Honesty is the key to our accountability to authenticity: honesty with ourselves and with our peers. If we choose to compromise our artistic integrity and our vision, we will be doing the world and ourselves a great injustice. We each have a unique and invaluable place on this planet as well as within the forums and airwaves. As artists we have the ability to affect people's ideas and their emotions. We can evoke joy or weeping with our chords and our poetry; we can also motivate people to stand up for change and justice with our own outspoken platforms. However, if on this day we go out into the world and we let failure discourage us, or a languid spirit seize our pens, the world will be losing a great asset and we will be causing detriment to our own heart's call.
"We've known as college students that time is rarely on our side, but that won't change out in the real world either. Another famous Latin quote, carpe diem, tells us to 'seize the day.' In the original poem, the author Horace states, 'Seize the day and place no trust in tomorrow.' As for us, if we fail to 'seize the moment' or make the most of every day we are given, we may be forced to look back on a life that fell short of its full potential. There is no reason for this to occur. There is no reason for wasted days. This is our generation—the torch has been passed to us. Now we have the opportunity to go out and share our art with the world, and help bridge the gaps between cultures and creed, between race and tongue, with the one language that transcends borders.
"The Canadian rock band Rush had a song on its 1981 release Moving Pictures entitled 'Limelight.' It incorporates this idea of esse quam videri:
Living in the limelight
The universal dream
For those who wish to seem
Those who wish to be
Must put aside the alienation
Get on with the fascination
The real relation
The underlying theme
"Some of us may find our futures in the 'limelight' or high-profile positions that demand compromise and exude pressure. And some of us may spend our days in more reserved situations. Either way we still have immense control over our destiny—we have the choice to be the best you or me that we can be. Perhaps you have heard the quote 'knowledge is power.' However, I would go one step further and say that knowledge is the scepter but that only using that knowledge—and putting it into action—will yield power. We have to stretch our abilities to their limits and set out to expand different horizons musically, socially, and otherwise. We do not need to put on an artificial front, because what we have to say is worth saying. Our creative contributions are worth sharing.
"You and I were born for such a time as this, and a passion has been emblazoned upon us to answer the call of creativity. There is a scripture in the Christian Bible that states, 'A burning light is not covered, but put on the table; so that its rays may shine on all who are in the house' (Matthew 5:15). So ladies and gentlemen, on this day of commencement, on this day of new beginnings, I implore you: Do not hide your light, do not hide your gifts. Do not shy away from reaching for greatness and persisting past the obstacles that you may face along the way. Do not settle for second best or to just to 'seem.' There is no person in the world like you. There has never been a generation like us before. There is no better time than today. Now go and be."