Prominent Black and African American Alumni Tell Students ‘Let Your Best Self Shine’
Since its founding in 2017, the Berklee Summer Initiative (BSI) has been building community and increasing graduation rates among students who identify as Black and African American. Designed to support students throughout their entire Berklee journey, the program starts with a five-day pre-orientation and continues with monthly activities, professional mentoring, workshops, and more.
Each year, the program invites alumni back to campus to advise BSI students on how to make the most of their college experience while preparing for life after Berklee. This year’s panel featured alumni who have found success as performers, songwriters, producers, engineers, and in other roles.
Courtney Harrell ’01: “The voice is spirit.”
Courtney Harrell is a casting producer for NBC’s America’s Got Talent and an acclaimed vocalist and songwriter who’s collaborated with everyone from Ariana Grande and Beyoncé to John Legend and Mary J. Blige. She shared a story about how she worked to overcome vocal damage in 2012 and ended up finding her voice. “When the doctor showed me my vocal chords on the screen, I realized that you can see the instrument, but you can’t see the voice. The voice is spirit, and what goes into your spirit is what comes out.” Harrell had to stop using her voice for seven months, but after she took time to simplify her life and heal, she discovered that her singing had changed. “The voice I have now is not the voice I had while studying at Berklee. It’s much bigger, and my range is huge—I didn’t have that before I made big changes in my life.”
Will Wells ’11: “Your education is never done.”
Will Wells is the electronic music producer for the Broadway sensation Hamilton. He’s worked with Quincy Jones ’51, Alex Lacamoire B.M. ’95, Imagine Dragons, DJ Premier, and others, and coproduced Cynthia Erivo’s Academy Award–nominated song “Stand Up” from the 2019 film Harriet. At the Berklee panel, Wells stressed the importance of being open-minded, recalling a producer he met early on in his career who, despite not having formal music training, showed him a technique that helped him think about production in a new way. “The producer was doing things I was told never to do. But it sounded dope. He was using the EQ as a musical instrument, not as a tool. I thought: I need to write a textbook about that.” Wells encouraged students to embrace their education at Berklee, but to never stop seeking out new opportunities for growth. “Don’t devalue the education you have received, but know that your education is never done.”
Juno ’16: “Listen to your gut.”
Juno is an artist, guitarist, and songwriter who’s worked with Lizzo, Erykah Badu, Common, and India Arie, played guitar on BET’s Black Girls Rock!, and appeared on Fox’s hit show Empire. When asked for advice on navigating major career choices, Juno replied, “Listen to your gut.” Her instincts led her to tour with smaller artists over more established acts because, she said, "I want to leave an impact on the next generation." Juno also encouraged students to pay attention to the way people communicate: “Every opportunity is not a good opportunity. Be clear with what your mission is and what your values are. Take jobs that line up with your goals.”
Anthony Majors B.M. ’14: “Let your best self shine.”
Anthony Majors is a producer and engineer at Atlanta’s Patchwerk Studios whose credits range from Missy Elliott ’19H, Janelle Monáe, and George Clinton to MTV, BET, and Sony Pictures. When a student asked the panel how they overcome the intimidation of working with big names in the studio, Majors responded, “Sometimes I’ll be in the room and my back is turned to people, and I say, ‘I bet they think I’m whack.’ If you think like that, you’re going to be so cautious of every little move. Eventually you just have to let your best self shine, because people will appreciate who you are.”
Denise Carite B.M. ’10: “Find your tribe.”
Denise Carite is a vocalist who’s worked with Usher, Anita Baker, Demi Lovato, Lalah Hathaway ’90, and Stevie Wonder, and performed on the scores for The Lion King, The Boss Baby, Just Mercy, Us, and Hidden Figures. She also served in the house band for NBC’s The Voice and as a vocal coach for Fox’s The Four. A former Berklee Presidential Scholarship recipient, Carite said that she learned early on that finding a community is crucial for musicians. “I always advise students to be present, and find your tribe. If you don’t find your tribe, just make it one of your goals to constantly be in a community.” She encouraged students to surround themselves with others who share their passion, “not just for the look of it, or for a social media post, but for the impact it has on others.” Carite continued that she gets less discouraged “on the front line” when she feels the support of others behind her.