Valedictory Exercises 2019: Williams Speech

Pharrell Williams
Valedictory Exercises, May 17, 2019
University of Virginia


Thank you, Michelle. Thank you. It’s great to be back in Charlottesville. I am forever grateful for this opportunity to spend time with you today.

President Ryan, UVA faculty and staff, family and friends, and most importantly the Class of 2019, thank you!

Also, shout out to Coach Bennett and your amazing team. Congrats on your incredible season. 

Being here with you today, seeing this crowd… I feel like Virginia is having a moment. Now, I know this podium is often the domain of acclaimed actors, academics, athletes, business leaders, world leaders and even the occasional musician, but make no mistake, I am standing here today as a proud Virginian. A Proud Virginian. Proud of you. And whether you are from Virginia or not, the fact that you are sitting here today means that The Commonwealth has connected us all. It is an incredible aspect of humanity – to feel connection. I believe we have been connected for a very important reason.

Today is about celebrating YOU for all of your hard work.  You’ve brought your friends and family and a lot of positive energy. I love it. Bottle that up. Because the world needs it. The world needs you. In fact, I think the world could use a little more Virginia.You see, I am not a leader. I am certainly not here to lead you. As a matter of fact, YOU are more likely to lead me some day. But I suppose I have acquired some experience. I’ve played a lot of different roles in life and in business, and I am truly blessed to be able to share my perspective with you. The further you remove yourself from your experience here in Charlottesville, it will become more and more clear that your education is indeed a blessing. And the price of your degree – besides its literal cost – is a responsibility. It’s a responsibility to make life better. 

And here’s the catch: the only way to make life better for yourself – the only true and lasting way to do that – is to make life better for others. 

I’ll say that again:  The only way to make life better for yourself is to make life better for others. This applies to home. To work. To society. I can say with 100% confidence that I would not be speaking to you today had I not put this concept into practice in my career. When I made others the focus, incredible things began to 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.

For me, it always comes back to Virginia. I love Virginia. I grew up in Virginia Beach and I see its tremendous potential. Loving something means loving it enough to make it better. When you’re a music producer, that’s what you do. You listen to a track… it blows your mind. And then you try to make it even better. When you’re a business owner, that’s what you do. You love a company, you think it can change the world. Then you try to make it better. That’s true when you love something—and it’s especially true when you see something that might limit the potential of what you love.

My love for the commonwealth inspired me to organize the Something in the Water festival here last month. I organized that festival because I believe there IS something in the water here. Virginia has and continues to produce icons and I know there are a few future icons sitting out there waiting to reveal yourselves.It was the beautiful spirit of Virginians that made the festival a success. People showed up. The local government showed up. And the best of Virginia was put on display for the world.

But, I am not naïve… The deep love I have for Virginia and its people doesn’t blind me to the fact that the water is also troubled. If anything, my love heightens my awareness of that. Virginia, like the rest of the country, has a complicated history – a history that continues to shape the present. The first enslaved Africans sold into bondage in North America stepped foot on our soil exactly 400 years ago. That history is very much with us. Those columns in front of the Pavilions. The Rotunda. Built by slave labor. The food was served by one of Jefferson’s slaves, rented out to the University of Virginia. Slaves labored on this campus until 1865. The first Black student wouldn’t arrive until nearly a century later and HE LEFT because he was subjected to so much abuse. You don’t need me to tell you the history. Some incredible progress has been made, but it’s clear there is still work to be done.

The reason I share these reminders is because I know it will only motivate you more. It will ignite your spirit to BE the change. To drive distinction between your generation and those of the past. Most of us are just trying to do the right thing and live good lives. We want everyone to live good lives. But for all of our sophistication. For all of our technological advances, we have to continuously remind ourselves that life is NOT GAME OF THRONES. I mean… I love Game of Thrones. Game of Thrones has taught us a lot, but we seem all too comfortable applying the same cycle of empathy, then apathy, then sympathy and at times frustration that we’ve felt watching a show over the years to issues that are very, very real. It is just a show. It is not real. But you know what is real? The plight of illegal immigrants. 

You know how it goes… A headline grabs our attention. We see the news. We feel sadness for people at the border. We all want better for our children – we can relate. We debate the rule of law, but it is clear these people need safety and security. We want to help. Then the news cycle shifts. The algorithm goes to work. Apathy sets in. We tune out, and move on. But unlike a TV show, their plight is real. It’s not improving. Those tiki torches are real. They are here – emboldened - but the news moves on. When the stories are real, we cannot afford to just move on. We cannot let the algorithm continue to distract and even worse, DIVIDE us. Because it is. Algorithms have no conscious, but you do. Outsmart the algorithm that’s manipulating your newsfeed and life. You are smarter than that. It’s your self-awareness. Your vision. Your privilege. And your empathy that will guide you to the right answers.  

I realize that this sounds like I am just talking about people of color, but this goes way beyond skin color.  The spirit determined to keep us divided operates without limitations. In this country, women didn’t gain the right to vote until 1920. Women didn’t get control of their reproductive rights until 1973. And those rights are under attack every day across America. The Americans with Disabilities Act didn’t happen until 1990. Before that, people with disabilities could be denied employment. Shut out of public services and spaces. No laws protected them. LGBTQ Americans couldn’t marry until 2015. In several states, they can still be fired for their sexuality. Life for low-income people is harder in every way. Shorter life-spans. Higher infant mortality rates. Higher imprisonment rates. Lack of access to healthy foods. Crushing debt. 

Women, LGBTQ, teachers and the poor are fair game for the oppressors. 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. In 2019, what’s the real role of the Electoral College if not a tool of oppression? But despite all of their efforts, I guess even the oppressors are at times susceptible to outside forces… It seems that the Taliban have infiltrated the Alabama and Missouri state capitols. 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? In fact, we might want to be careful because those same women whose reproductive organs men are trying to govern might finally - CHOOSE - to not reproduce at all, effectively ending MANkind altogether. 

Some of you will say: That’s not me. And that’s not ON me. It’s not what I believe or what I want to see.  I get that. But we are all connected, remember? And Virginia - this is our chance to lead.

Now, I want you to be honest and feel safe – Let me see a show of hands of anyone is this room, graduates or guests, that have ever been made to feel like you were less than equal. Like you were disadvantaged. Or outwardly harassed or hurt because someone thought you were different. If someone singled you out for your OTHER-ness.

Keep your hands up.  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. Keep your hands up.

Now I want to see a show of hands of any graduates or guests that KNOW of someone who fits that description – someone who had been discriminated against, hurt or harassed because they were different. They could be your friends, classmates or people back home.

Alight. Keep your hands up. You are the compassionate ones. The empaths. The allies. 

Keep your hands up.

If you didn’t raise your hand, it’s okay. Everyone is on their own journey. But given that we are all bonded by this school, these students, and this great state, I think we can all raise our hands in solidarity with these incredible graduates. Do you feel that connected-ness?  It is real. It represents understanding. It represents awareness. Enjoy that feeling. That’s empathy.



Once we know the plights of others, we can’t un-know it. If your hand is raised, I am asking you to join me in serving as an Ambassador to the state of Virginia. Think of Virginia as a country and we’re checking immigration papers. Guess what… Any and all are welcome and treated as equals from here on out in Virginia. You are now ambassadors. You thought you were just graduating today, but today is actually a job fair. I am recruiting you!


You can put your hands down. Thank you.

So, what do we do next? In my mind, the place to start is with reparations. I know it is a word that gets people fired up and turned off – mainly because most people don’t really know what it means. But you know who ISN’T turned off by the word reparations? The educated. The people who raised their hands just now. The connected and aware. You guys. They call your generation digital natives – you’ve only known a digital world. But I also consider you to be knowledge natives. Your generation hasn’t had to unlearn false narratives about our history. You KNOW the real plight of Native Americans. You know what they were promised and never delivered. From an early age, you’ve questioned why we have slave owners on our money, and not the original inhabitants of this land.

Whether you prefer statistics or anecdotes, it’s clear that ending slavery wasn’t enough. Racism simply migrated from the American slave system to the justice system. The healthcare system. The financial system. The housing system. The education system. It infested everything. Every institution. Every branch of government. A country with a foundation in racism can easily slide into all forms of discrimination. Once again… whether you prefer statistics or anecdotes, we are a nation divided. 

I want my kids, and all kids, to know the beauty of this country: that out of many, we are one. But that won’t happen on its own, just because we wish it so. For me, it’s fundamentally about education. In all of my experiences, in all of my travels, I keep coming back to education as the answer. Education is the death blow to discrimination. Equality is achieved via education.

Far too many Black children still receive a second-class education in neglected, under-resourced schools. And even when they do graduate high school, they can’t afford college. America’s education system is failing a lot of people, but especially African Americans. To me, any legitimate conversation about reparations starts with education. But that’s me. Education is my starting point. What’s yours? Whatever issue is most important to you. Healthcare. Business. Law. Sports. Entertainment. Whatever. Consider how the legacies of discrimination against all types of people have infected it. Because it always has. Think about ways you might start healing it. And do it knowing that when you repair things for others, you repair them for yourself. For everyone. 

In the end, this isn’t about one group of people, it’s about all of us. 

Now, I know you’re thinking: “Why is he saying this to us today, of all the days?” As I have matured, so has my advice and my perspective. I’ve been privileged to meet the world’s most successful business people. The world’s most creative. The world’s most accomplished. I’ve met Oprah AND Obama. And you know who I believe actually has the best shot at fixing things – YOU. If I honestly thought it was Oprah or Obama, I would tell them. I’m saying this because I believe in you more than anyone. I trust in your generation’s ability to right the wrongs past generations couldn’t. And I have this deep faith because I already see it happening. Put your privilege to work. Privilege is a super power if used to restore equality. Of course, we all have different privileges. Different levels of power. Who we are and where we come from dictates those things.  But one way or another, we have some power to change the culture that excludes and marginalizes and oppresses people. 

Earlier, I said: the only way to make life better for yourself is to make life better for others. Just imagine how much more we could accomplish, how much more we could be, if everyone could purse their dreams unhindered? If everyone was free to be who they are? Humanity would be unstoppable. 

Class of 2019, you are entering the society at a time of incredible social progress – but it’s progress that’s being met with a divisive, regressive spirit with a force I’ve yet to see in my lifetime. Yet your generation is rising to the occasion. Hate groups have emerged. But a college student body just voted to deliver long-overdue justice to the descendants of 272 slaves. Our elected officials, steeped in privilege and hubris, have let us down. But a new generation of political leaders are taking Congress by storm. There’s been a recent rise in hate crimes against LGBTQ people. But trailblazers like Laverne Cox, an amazing Black transwoman activist and actress, are proudly taking to the stage and telling their stories. 

Get ready, these people are part of a tidal wave of fresh perspectives ready to be unleashed on society. I want you to have hope. Enable these people. Embolden their efforts. BE a part of that change. When you see something that needs extra care, give it the care it needs. On that note, let us protect our teachers at all costs. Repeat after me:  Let us protect teachers at all costs.

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. I see Something in the Water. So, go—History has been anticipating you. Don’t keep it waiting any longer. And definitely don’t fail to make your mark. 

So UVA – Thank you again for this opportunity. You’ve humbled me again.

Who won the NCAA Championship this year?

Two up two down.