With graduation ceremonies across the country and worldwide being canceled due to social distancing following the Coronavirus, YouTube held a national graduation ceremony for the Class of 2020 this Sunday (June 7) — with the help of a number of pop stars, celebrities and public figures.
The event began with Lizzo leading a New York Philharmonic-backed version of graduation staple “Pomp and Circumstance” on flute, which started traditional but exploded into a trap beat about halfway through. Alicia Keys was the first speaker to offer her thoughts, empathizing with graduates that.” But she saluted the ways they’ve responded to national tragedy by trying to better the world around them: “You’re taking your heartbreak and your outrage and you’re putting it into action — and you are showing that you are the generation that’s the one that’s going to heal this.”
Further pop stars offering their words of wisdom included Justin Timberlake, who addressed viewers from a makeshift graduation program and pointed out how historically unique this ceremony would be, and Taylor Swift, who lamented that she too was not able to have a traditional graduation, due to being in the midst of a radio tour. (“I ended up getting mailed my diploma.”) BTS also delivered individual messages from all seven members, with RM leading off and sharing a memory from his snowy middle school graduation, saying “It was the moment I most felt like me, myself.”
Lady Gaga began her address by explaining that she had to re-record her speech after “the murder of George Floyd, and the subsequent activist movement protesting police brutality and systemic racism in this country.” She also offered to graduates that when viewing the state of the world today, “There is much to be sad about, there’s also much to be celebrated… you are watching what is a pivotal moment in the country’s evolution. You’re watching society change in a deeply important way.”
Beyoncé delivered one of the longest and most powerful messages on the day, addressing the protests that had sprung up around the world in the wake of George Floyd’s killing at the hands of the Minneapolis police. “Thank you for using your collective voice in letting the word know that Black Lives Matter,” she offered to the Class of 2020. “Real change has started with you, this new generation of high school and college graduates we celebrate today.”
She also took the time to decry the continuing sexism that persists in the music industry, and that she’s struggled against since the beginning of her decades-long career. “As a woman, I did not see enough female role models given the opportunity to do what I knew I had to do,” she related. “To run my label and management company, to direct my tours, that meant ownership — owning my masters, owning my heart, owning my future and owning my own story.” She finished by shouting out those who still felt like outsiders: “Your queerness is beautiful, your blackness is beautiful, your compassion, your understanding, your fight for people who may be different from you is beautiful.”
Musical performances were relatively scarce across the ceremony, but a couple remote collaborative performances were featured. First, Finneas O’Connell led a number of star singers — including Noah Cyrus, Tove Lo, Khalid, Ty Dolla Sign, Camila Cabello and Chris Martin — in a minimally accompanied cover of U2’s “Beautiful Day.” The performance was introduced by Bono, who revealed that the song originated from a stormy day in Ireland. “The song was not a description of where we were at — it was a prayer for where we could go,” he offered. “And a dream — like America is a dream of what we might be.”
Later, the cast of cable sitcom Schitt’s Creek joined online to perform a version of Mariah Carey’s “Hero” — led by Noah Reid as Patrick, who also has a side career as a singer-songwriter. Then, as a surprise for the song’s final chorus, Carey herself joined the remote singalong, much to the shock of the entire cast (particularly a screeching Daniel Levy as David). Maluma also offered a video of him singing recent single “ADMV” while lounging in an outdoor chair and drinking a gigantic glass of red wine, actors Chris Pine and John Cho performed an unexpectedly fun “Graduation Day” song as their ’80s duo alter ago Bronson PineCho, and Chloe X Halle performed a sparkling “Do It” in the middle of a ring of spotlights.
In addition to further words of encouragement and advice from Billie Eilish, Jennifer Lopez, Demi Lovato, Chloe X Halle and Katy Perry, the ceremonies also offered a variety of non-musical heavy hitters, from YouTube stars to late-night hosts to major tech company CEOs. But of course, the biggest names involved were those of former First Couple Barack and Michelle Obama, who first appeared together to offer words of encouragement and to preach that “all the work you’ve put in to get your education is still one of the best investments you can make.”
Later, Michelle appeared individually, offering a series of lessons, and giving a particular focus to addressing the racial inequities spotlighted by the George Floyd killing. She gave historical context to the historical moment, calling it “unprecedented but… not a complete anomaly,” while encouraging graduates to have difficult conversations with people in their lives to help battle ignorance. Barack also appeared on his own, to again drive home the significance of graduation, and to prime the graduating class for the challenge of building a new world in the wake of COVID-19 and the recent protests. “You don’t have to accept what was considered normal before,” he offered. “You don’t have to accept the world as it is. You can make it into the world as it should be.”
The graduation ceremony was capped with Katy Perry officially announcing, “Class of 2020, you are graduates in 3…2…1…,” then shifting her imaginary tassel — as video of dozens of graduates flooded the screen — and closing with performances of new single “Daisies” and older No. 1 “Firework.” After the official Class of 2020 graduation ceremony wrapped, it was followed on YouTube by the “After Party,” with performances from Megan Thee Stallion, CNCO and BTS.