Actor Tom Hanks had a message for members of the Wright State University 2020 graduating class.
Barack and Michelle Obama and tons of big-name celebrities turned out Sunday to virtually salute the high school class of 2020.
Though several speeches in YouTube’s “Dear Class of 2020” livestream were filmed before Black Lives Matters protests broke out across the country following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody, a handful of celebrities focused on praising young activists for their role in pushing for change.
Lizzo opened with a flute rendition of “Pomp and Circumstance,” accompanied by the New York Philharmonic, as images on the green screen behind her displayed images from Black Lives Matter protests.
Alicia Keys praised the younger generation for “inspiring the world to see our collective humanity” through protests, calling on everyone to “empathize with those who seem different on the surface.”
“Right now, it might feel like there’s not a lot to celebrate, and that’s OK,” she said. “You’re not thinking about your time at school. You’re thinking about marching and protesting and making sure your voices are being heard. … You’re taking your heartbreak and your outrage and turning it into action.
“I see you. You’re unstoppable,” she told graduates.
Here are the graduation special’s highlights:
Barack and Michelle Obama congratulated students for their ‘long journey’
The Obamas appeared together in a video from their home, celebrating a “huge day for all of you,” as the former first lady put it.
The Obamas congratulated students on not just completing their academic journey, but doing so while figuring out how to support their teachers, friends and family through unprecedented circumstances. And above all, they advised graduates to make sure to properly celebrate their accomplishments, and to thank their parents for helping them succeed.
“Today is the culmination of a long journey,” Barack said. “Just as you were rounding the final turn, the world threw a pandemic your way. … That’s a lot to ask of anybody, but despite all that, here you are.”
Michelle Obama joined the livestream again later to address protests in the U.S., calling attention to the country’s long history of racism and calling on graduates to encourage their peers to vote and learn more about their local elections.
“What’s happening right now is the direct result of decades of unaddressed prejudice and inequality,” she said. “For too many people in this country, no matter how hard they work, there are structural barriers for them that just make the road longer and rockier. … If you can’t even approach the police without fearing for your life, well, then how do you even begin to chart your own course?”
She added later: “Not only can you do better than those who came before you, but you will.”
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Beyoncé told grads ‘change starts with you’
Beyoncé, too, praised young people for their role in raising their voices in response to Floyd’s death and called for more black female voices in the music industry.
“You have arrived here in the middle of a global crisis, a racial pandemic and worldwide expression of outrage at the senseless killing of yet another unarmed black human being. And you still made it,” she said. “Thank you for using your collective voice in letting the world know that Black Lives Matter.”
The music icon added: “We’ve seen that our collective hearts, when put to positive action, can start the wheels of change. Real change has started with you. … Your queerness is beautiful. Your blackness is beautiful. Your compassion, your understanding, your fight for people who may be different from you is beautiful.”
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Lady Gaga called for a brand new forest
Gaga said she had recorded her “Dear Class of 2020” speech two weeks ago and it had to be rewritten.
“My speech was recorded before the murder of George Floyd, and the subsequent activist movement protesting police brutality and systemic racism in this country,” said Gaga, wearing a black leather vest with metal spikes.
Gaga said there is “much to be sad about, there is much to be celebrated. You are watching what is a pivotal moment in this country’s evolution. You’re watching society change in a deeply important way.”
Gaga, her voice breaking with emotion, said she thinks of racism in America as a forest.
“I imagine a broad forest filled densely with tall trees – trees as old as this country itself, trees planted with racist seeds, trees that grew prejudiced branches and oppressive leaves and mangled roots that buried and entrenched themselves deep within the soil forming a web so well developed and so entangled.”
“This forest is where we live, it’s who we are,” she said, inviting graduates to challenge that existing forest. “I believe in my heart that the people that are going to make this change happen are listening to me speak right now.”
“It’s you who are the seeds of the future” for a “new and different forest.”
Gaga concluded saying, “Congratulations to the class of 2020; I can’t wait to see your forest.”
Condoleezza Rice, Jenna Bush invoked passion, life rules
Rice, the former Secretary of State, spoke during the “challenging, sometimes tragic, unprecedented times.”
But she urged youth to look forward to a brighter future. After growing up in Alabama in the Jim Crow era with dreams of becoming a concert pianist, Rice talked about finding passion despite any circumstances.
“My plea to you: Don’t let anyone you tell you that you can’t be passionate about something because of the color of your skin, or your gender, or circumstances from which you came,” said Rice. “It is your passion, work for it, embrace it, and it will pay dividends in life.”
Rice said have “faith the future will be better than where we are today.”
Bush invoked her grandfather, former President George H.W. Bush, who had a list of rules in life which included, “Don’t get down when life takes a bad turn; don’t blame others for your setbacks,” and “As you succeed, be kind to people along the way.”
“Class of 2020, create your own list of rules,” Bush said, “The world will be better because of you.”
Mark Hamill, Daisy Ridley combined to read ‘Oh, the Places You’ll Go!’
“Star Wars” actors Hamill and Ridley read portions of the classic Dr. Seuss story “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!”
“Even one story can inspire the world. Why can’t it be yours?” said Hamill. After completing the story, the Jedi said, “With that, your training is older; now go forth and become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.”
And if the path is not foreseen at this point, Hamill said, “Don’t force it”
“The Force Awakens” director J.J. Abrams spoke afterwards saying, “When life is hard, that is when true character reveals itself. Stay strong, stay positive and stay inspired. Because a great story can inspire the world.”
Taylor Swift, Justin Timberlake, Liza Koshy, Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel and Shawn Mendes also joined in on the congratulations. Other guests teased to join later in the broadcast include Jennifer Lopez, Malala Yousafzai, Missy Elliott, Tom Hanks, BTS, Michael B. Jordan, the cast of “Schitt’s Creek,” Billie Eilish, Katy Perry and John Mulaney.
Obama’s closing: ‘Make it mean something’
Barack Obama returned at the end of the broadcast for final words to the graduating class. “Yours comes as the world turned upside down, by a pandemic, and a country swept up by protest. I can barely imagine how head-spinning these months have been for you.”
He said the peaceful protesters were “unbelievably inspiring. You make me optimistic about our future” because “the old normal wasn’t good enough.”
Obama called for graduating students to serve society, use technology and social media wisely, to keep faith in democracy – by voting and protesting. “After all, we are a nation founded on protest.”
“America changed, has always changed, because young people dared to hope,” said Obama. “Congratulations Class of 2020. Make it mean something, and keep making us proud.”
Katy Perry, wearing a white gown that highlighted her pregnant baby bump, then instructed the graduating class to move their mortarboard tassels from right to left, signifying the end of the ceremony. Perry belted her songs “Daisies” and “Firework.”
“Dear Class of 2020” had been set to livestream Saturday, but organizers pushed it back a day so it wouldn’t conflict with Floyd’s memorial service.
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