Heads of state, Nobel laureates, titans of business. Sure, lots of famous and interesting people visit Harvard’s campus all the time. But none of them generate quite the sensation — or the declarations of love — that superstar Rihanna set off on Tuesday afternoon.
The pop singer received the Harvard Foundation’s Peter J. Gomes Humanitarian Award during an hourlong ceremony before a raucous crowd that had waited hours to get a coveted seat inside jam-packed Sanders Theatre.
“I’m incredibly humbled to be acknowledged at this magnitude for something that, in truth, I never wanted thanking for,” said Rihanna during brief remarks that were frequently interrupted by squeals and cheers.
A native of Barbados, Rihanna has leveraged her global celebrity and used her impressive social media following to shine a bright light on the challenges many in the Caribbean still face gaining access to education and health care. She has raised millions for a number of causes.
In Barbados, she supported the modernization of the Queen Elizabeth Hospital’s new cutting-edge facility for treating breast cancer, a disease that took her grandmother, and launched a scholarship program in 2012 to help college students from the Caribbean further their studies in the United States.
The eight-time Grammy winner also serves as a worldwide ambassador for the Global Partnership for Education and the Global Citizen Project, which help provide learning opportunities for girls in developing nations, and have teamed up with other charitable group, including UNICEF, H&M, and Mac Cosmetics, to raise money for women and children affected by AIDS.
“We are all human and we all just want a chance: a chance at life, a chance at an education, a chance at a future,” Rihanna said. Noting that fame and fortune are not necessary to change a life, she challenged College students to use their education, their skills, and their good fortune to lift up someone else or contribute to an organization that helps others.
“As I stare into this beautiful room, I see optimism, I see hope, I see the future,” she said. “I know that each and every one of you can help someone else. All you need to do is help one person, expecting nothing in return. To me, that is a humanitarian.”
Dean Rakesh Khurana noted that Rihanna’s widespread popularity attracts the kind of diversity the College strives to achieve. “As you can see from our students, that by drawing on our mission — our commitment to freedom, to pluralism — that we can create … a model of respectful, mutual relationships that bring together our diverse community, where our diversity comes to be seen as a source of infinite possibility,” he said.
Through her “unapologetic” music and fashion, Rihanna “symbolizes an alternative, liberated social system in which women can own their own desires and feel no responsibility to anyone’s expectations other than their own,” said Doni Lehman ’17, a Harvard Foundation intern and one of three College students who paid tribute to the singer. As a trailblazer, she “provides a much-needed supplement to traditional white feminism” and through her own power helps “other women realize their own.”
After a couple of hit singles, Rihanna (born Robyn Rihanna Fenty) exploded onto the music scene in 2007 as a young protégée of rap mogul Jay-Z on their can’t-get-it-out-of-your-head collaboration, “Umbrella.” Since then, the 29-year-old has racked up 13 more No. 1 hits that move easily between reggae, R&B, rap, and electronic dance music.
The beloved Rev. Professor Peter J. Gomes died in 2011. The award named in his honor recognizes distinguished leaders who have made important public service contributions globally, who exemplify “compassionate humanitarianism,” and who embody the Harvard Foundation’s ethos of improving and promoting racial, ethnic and cultural awareness and understanding. Past honorees include 2014 Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai, actor James Earl Jones, and Arthur Ashe, the late tennis star and AIDS activist.