Lionel Richie, Lucinda Williams, Todd Rundgren, Neil Portnow, and Shin Joong Hyun Receive Honorary Degrees

At Berklee's 2017 commencement ceremonies, graduating students began the next chapter of their lives inspired by words and music from honorary doctorate recipients Lionel Richie, Lucinda Williams, Todd Rundgren, Neil Portnow, and Shin Joong Hyun.

May 13, 2017

More than 1,000 graduates from 71 countries and 40 U.S. states received degrees today at Berklee’s 2017 commencement. Berklee President Roger H. Brown presented honorary doctor of music degrees to music legends Lionel Richie, Lucinda Williams, Todd Rundgren, Neil Portnow, and Shin Joong Hyun. Rundgren delivered the commencement address to the graduating class and an estimated audience of nearly 7,000 guests at the Agganis Arena.

The annual commencement concert, held the previous evening at the Agganis, featured some of the college’s most accomplished students paying tribute to the honorees; the event also featured surprise performances by Americana singer-songwriter Williams, who sang “When I Look at the World,” and Joong Hyun, who delivered a solo guitar performance crafted especially for the occasion. As the concert reached its finale, international superstar Richie joined students on stage as they performed "We Are the World," the anthemic charity benefit song Richie cowrote with Michael Jackson in 1985 to deliver humanitarian aid to Africa.

"Who would've thought the students of Berklee would bring me to tears on my own songs?" Richie said of the performance at commencement.

Richie added, "I wish Michael Jackson would have been with me to share that moment, because what I saw on your faces was the enthusiasm, the passion, the drive, the love, and the dreams."

Watch Richie offer his advice to the graduating class:

In his commencement address, Rundgren—a songwriter, producer, recording artist and multimedia pioneer—encouraged the graduates to keep on learning. “When I got out of high school, I learned to learn. Ever since then, I have absorbed anything that has been put in front of me that is of interest. I’ve learned not only how to expand the range of my musical expression, but I’ve also learned things like computer programming and video production and other things, which any of you could easily absorb if you don’t leave here thinking that your education is finished. Today, this appears to be the end of something, but it’s really the beginning of something for you.”

He added, “The most important thing you can take advantage of in the world of music is to see yourself. I eventually got to the point where music meant self-exploration [to me] more than anything else. I encourage everyone here to be brave and fearless in that respect.”

Watch Rundgren's full address:

Harnessing the Power of Music

In accepting his honorary degree, Richie testified to the power of music, recounting the humbling experience of meeting Nelson Mandela, the former post-Apartheid president of South Africa, who told him, "Your lyrics got me through many days in prison." Richie encouraged students not to squander that power.

"You are in the prime seat to tell the world what they need to know," Richie said to the graduating student artists.

Williams applauded the graduates for pursuing music. “The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once said, ‘Without music, life would be a mistake,’’’ said Williams. “All of you, each in your own way, have chosen a life in music. And while it may not be easy, you will always have a role in guaranteeing that life will not be a mistake. Thank you so much to Berklee College of Music for this tremendous honor.”

Portnow, president and CEO of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, reflected on his numerous career achievements, such as presenting a Grammy Award to former President Barack Obama in the Oval Office. “It just shows that if you follow your dreams and keep an open mind on how to achieve them, anything is possible, which is what happened to me. And to that point, Berklee can be very proud of having recipients of 275 Grammy and 88 Latin Grammy Awards so far, and more surely to come from some of you folks.”

"We're ready for you," Portnow said, on behalf of the Recording Academy, to the graduating students.

He added, “I know [my family] would be very proud. And I’m deeply grateful to Berklee and deeply moved by this experience today.”

Watch Portnow share his insights with the graduating class:

The day also included a first: in his introduction, President Brown noted that Shin Joong Hyun is the first artist from South Korea to receive Berklee’s honorary doctorate of music. Brown cited Richard McDonald, Fender’s chief product strategist, who called Shin “an absolute legend" and "an ever-evolving artist" whose "body of work spans 1960s psychedelic rock to '80s power pop, all done with a serious dose of guitar virtuosity.”

Faculty commencement speaker Carolyn Wilkins, a professor in the Ensemble Department, reminded graduates that “the power of music binds us together in ways that we are only beginning to understand.” Charis Tan, this year's student speaker and a film scoring major from Tanamera Crest, Singapore, spoke about the best advice she was given while at Berklee: be honest and stay true to one's artistic vision.

This year’s honorary doctorate recipients were recognized for their achievements in contemporary music, for their enduring contributions to popular culture, and for the influence their careers and music have had on Berklee’s international student body. Past recipients include Duke Ellington (the first, in 1971), Aretha Franklin, Dizzy Gillespie, Quincy Jones '51, Smokey Robinson, Steven Tyler, Loretta Lynn, Juan Luis Guerra '82, Annie Lennox, Paco de Lucia, Carole King, Willie Nelson, Alison Krauss, George Clinton, Julio Iglesias, Plácido Domingo, A. R. Rahman, Rita Moreno, Milton Nascimento, and Wang Leehom '99.