Pharrell Williams to the Class of 2019: ‘You guys are going to change the world!’

Pharrell Williams to the Class of 2019: ‘You guys are going to change the world!’

Friday afternoon at Valedictory exercises at the University of Virginia, music megastar and entrepreneur Pharrell Williams told the Class of 2019 “the only way to make life better for yourself is to make life better for others.”

Speaking to a packed John Paul Jones Arena, Williams, a Virginia Beach native, opened by giving props to UVA men’s basketball coach Tony Bennett and his team, who won the NCAA championship in April. “Congrats on your incredible season,” he said to loud whooping and cheers.

Looking out at the audience of thousands, Williams said he saw a crowd of people teeming with positive energy. “I personally believe that positivity is something that we should bottle up,” he said, “because the world as we know it, and we see it, needs it.

“The world needs you. In fact, I think the world could use a little more Virginia,” he said to applause.

Williams said helping others has been the secret to his success. “I can say with 100% confidence that I would not be speaking to you here today had I not put this concept into practice in my career. When I made others the focus, incredible things would always happen.

“The good thing is your generation knows all of this already. I am just here to nudge you again as you move on from classrooms to boardrooms,” he continued.

Williams spoke of his love of Virginia and how loving something means loving it enough to make it better. “Virginia, like the rest of the country, has a complicated history – a history that continues to shape the present,” he said. “The first enslaved Africans sold into bondage in North America stepped foot on our soil exactly 400 years ago to this year.

“That history is very much with us. Those columns in front of the Pavilions, the Rotunda – built by slave labor” he said. “The food was served by one of Jefferson’s slaves, rented out to the University of Virginia. Slaves labored on this campus until 1865.”

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Pharrell Williams Addresses UVA Class of 2019

Williams, who may be best known for his 2013 hit “Happy,” has a long list of talents.

He is a visionary recording artist, a producer, songwriter, philanthropist, fashion designer, author and entrepreneur. He was last at UVA in September 2017, performing at “A Concert for Charlottesville: An Evening of Music and Unity,” which was organized to unify the community following that summer’s white supremacist attacks in Charlottesville.

Williams urged the Class of 2019 not to tune out to the challenges facing the country; the challenges of immigration, the reality of racism (“Those tiki torches are real people,” he said, referencing the Unite the Right rally), the struggle for women’s rights, the rights of the LGBTQ community, the rights of people with disabilities, Native Americans and the rights of low-income people.

“Women, LGBTQIA, teachers and the poor are fair game for the oppressors,” he said. “Even our own high school students are falling prey. You know the oppressors are entrenched when anxiety-inducing active shooter drills at public schools seem like the most viable solution to protect our children from gun violence.”

This Williams remark inspired a particularly strong reaction from the audience: “In 2019, what’s the real role of the Electoral College if not a tool of oppression?” he asked.

Williams also touched on women’s reproductive rights. “We ended slavery – you would think we’d be tired of telling other humans what they can and cannot do with their bodies. Haven’t we learned our lessons about trying to govern human bodies?”

Some in the audience, Williams said, will say, “That’s not on me, it’s not what I believe or what I want to see … But we are all connected, remember? And this, Virginia, this is our chance and your chance to lead.”

Audience members raise their hands after Williams asks people to signify if they or anyone the knew had been marginalized. Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications
Audience members raise their hands after Williams asks people to signify if they or anyone the knew had been marginalized. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

Williams asked members of the audience to raise their hands if they had ever been made to feel they were less than equal. He then raised his hand, and hundreds of others went up and stayed up as he continued.

“Keep your hands up,” he said. “Look at these graduates with their hands up. They’ve accomplished what others told them they never would. Despite some strong, strong forces conspiring to hold them back, here they are. You win. Look at you. You win.”

In a skin-tingling moment, Williams asked the crowd, “Do you guys feel that power of Virginia in this room? Enjoy that feeling. That’s empathy!

“WELCOME TO VIRGINIA.

THIS IS VIRGINIA,” he intoned.

So how can previous inequalities be addressed, Williams asked the audience. “In my mind, the place to start is with reparations,” he said.

He acknowledged the word is a hot potato and can set people on edge. “The educated are not the ones who are turned off by that word,” he said. “Education is the death blow to discrimination.”

“America’s education system is failing a lot of people, but especially African Americans,” he said. “To me, any legitimate conversation about reparations starts with education.”

Williams urged members of the Class of 2019 to put their privilege to work as they go forward with their lives. “Privilege is a super power if used to restore equality,” he said.

He said today’s graduates represent the country’s future. “When I look out, I see thinkers, innovators, rule breakers. I see ambition. I see energy. I see bold, audacious dreams that are bound to disrupt,” he said to cheers. “So, Class of 2019, history has been anticipating you. Don’t keep it waiting any longer, 2019. And definitely don’t fail to make your mark.

“This is your time! You guys are going to change the world. Virginia is going to change the world,” Williams said to growing applause.

To bring he remarks to a rousing end, he closed by asking “Who won the NCAA Championship this year?”

His response to deafening cheers: a victorious “Two up, two down” hand sign that represents the state of Virginia.

Williams, making the hand gesture for the state of Virginia. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)
Williams, making the hand gesture for the state of Virginia. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

Following Williams’ remarks, a surprise gift from the Seven Society was presented by Patricia Lampkin, vice president and chief student affairs officer. The secret society presented a check for $47,777.77 to establish a fund to assist students who are accepted to live in the Academical Village and are in need of financial assistance.

Reading from a statement, Lampkin quoted the society: “Our hope is that, as a result of this fund, no student will be hesitant to submit an application to live on the Lawn due to financial constraints.”

The Seven Society, UVA's most famous secret society, presented a gift to assist students who are selected to live on the Lawn but cannot afford to do so. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

Earlier in the ceremony, which kicks off graduation weekend, class gifts and student honors were presented.

Rehan Anthony Baddeliyanage, a beloved engineering student who passed away earlier this semester, was honored with one of three Algernon Sydney Sullivan Awards, given to recognize his compassion, service, and influence on the University community. “A fierce and loyal friend, Rehan Anthony Baddeliyanage created a community of care and compassion in all the spaces he inhabited at the University,” said Nikhith G. Kalkunte, the co-chair of the Residence Staff Program, Housing and Residence Life. Many of the student presenters and President Jim Ryan wore pins bearing Baddeliyanage’s likeness. Baddeliyanage’s younger brother Roshan accepted the award on Rehan’s behalf.

The Class of 2019 presented Ryan with a check for $44,473 to go to more than 325 organizations and departments across Grounds. This year, 28% of fourth-year students participated in the campaign. In accepting the donation, Ryan thanked the class for the gift. With his typical humor, he added, “I also want to point out that more than 1,000 people from your class participated in the class giving campaign this year – including 100% of graduating students from the School of Nursing. I can’t imagine how much peer pressure that last person felt. But whoever you are, I appreciate it.”

Friday’s proceedings also included the presentation of several awards to members of the Class of 2019 and to other members of the University community.

On Saturday, degree candidates in the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences will begin their Final Exercises on the Lawn at 10 a.m.

Sunday’s ceremony, also beginning at 10 a.m. on the Lawn, will feature degree candidates from the:

  • School of Architecture.
  • Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy.
  • School of Continuing and Professional Studies.
  • Curry School of Education and Human Development.
  • Darden School of Business.
  • School of Engineering and Applied Science.
  • School of Law.
  • McIntire School of Commerce.
  • School of Medicine.
  • School of Nursing.
  • Data Science Institute.

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McGregor McCance

Associate Vice President for Communications and Executive Editor, UVA Today Office of University Communications