At the ceremony Blades appeared in a conversation with actor John Lithgow ’67, Art.D.’05. The singer, who was born in Panama, came to the U.S. in 1974 at age 22. He told Lithgow that his work owes a great debt to literature, particularly that of García Márquez (the two have become close friends over the years), and a long tradition of Latin American troubadours who sang of the social and political reality in the region.
“I write short stories, and I sing them,” Blades said. “Most of the songs I was hearing growing up were about love, a love that was just starting, a love that one longed for or one that had ended. Very few songs had to do to what was happening around me. I wanted to inform what was happening in the cities.”
The Harvard Arts Medal recognizes a Harvard or Radcliffe alum or faculty member who has made a contribution through the arts to education and the public good. In awarding the medal to Blades, who received a master’s of law at Harvard Law School in 1985, President Larry Bacow noted that bestowing the honor was a long time coming — the ceremony had to be postponed for two years due to the pandemic.
“We have an opportunity today to recognize an extraordinary artist, musician, actor, humanitarian, and public servant,” said Bacow. “One of the things Rubén and I share is that we’re both refugees from the legal profession. But we also share something else. His family had to leave Panama and like many immigrant families came to this country in search of both freedom and opportunity. My parents did exactly the same.”
Bacow recounted the story of how Blades made the transition from law to music. Blades, who studied law in Panama, couldn’t practice it in Miami, where he came to join his father and mother. When Blades moved to New York, he found a job working in the mailroom of Fania Records, known as the Motown of salsa.
“And one day, a singer got sick, and someone said, ‘There is a kid in the mailroom who can sing,’” recounted Bacow. “In my time as president, I have met many graduates from Harvard Law School. I don’t think I have ever met anyone so talented.”
Blades has won 22 Grammy and Latin Grammy awards. His last album, “Salswing!,” won the 2021 Latin Grammy for best salsa album. He is also an actor, having performed in a Broadway musical and in nearly 50 television shows and movies. He ran for president of Panama in 1994 and served as Minister of Tourism from 2004-2009. He is working on his memoirs.
Prior to the ceremony, Blades spent four busy days at Harvard. He rehearsed with the Harvard Jazz Band led by musician Yosvany Terry. He met with students to discuss their original compositions, and offered feedback as part of a series of events called CompFest — the Harvard Students Composers Festival, a production of the Office for the Arts at Harvard. He also took part in a student panel with Latinx student groups organized by the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies.
At the student panel, moderated by Doris Sommer, Ira Jewell Williams Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures and in African and African American Studies, Blades spoke of his political activism through arts and of his transition from music to politics.
“An artist is a citizen,” said Blades at a Tsai Auditorium event last Tuesday evening. “Artists have a duty as citizens to try to utilize whatever influence they may have, after educating themselves on the issues, to provoke a reaction and make the changes that are needed to be made.”