“So I made it to Harvard,” Rihanna said, before flipping her hair as the crowd cheered. This was not the usual public appearance for the Barbadian pop star, who found herself on stage earlier this week at Harvard University to accept the school’s Humanitarian of the Year Award.
Rihanna’s story has always been a complex and layered one—from the breakout debut in 2005 inflected by the sounds of her Caribbean homeland to “Work,” a patois-laced crossover masterwork straight from the dancehall. She’s one of the most-followed celebrities on Instagram and Twitter, presenting an unvarnished public profile that has seldom felt calculating or managed. Instead, the Rihanna we get usually feels like the genuine, three-dimensional article.
But the singer—born Robyn Fenty—has still kept some things largely behind the scenes, specifically her immense philanthropic work. Though she has made the requisite performances at charity galas—notably for the bone marrow organization DKMS and her own Charity Ball—the singer has a wide-ranging charity footprint, including providing for cancer treatments and equipment in Barbados and college scholarships for Caribbean students to study in the United States. And while eyes might understandably roll at the announcement of a $710 Dior t-shirt declaring “We Should All Be Feminists,” at least some of the proceeds will go to her Clara Lionel Foundation charity.
The recognition at Harvard is not mere celebrity elbow-rubbing; previous winners include UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Malala Yousafzai, Lionel Richie, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. And with the recognition, Rihanna sets an example for other popular artists in our difficult political moment. “In the fight against injustice, inequality, and poverty, access to education and health is our most powerful weapon,” her website reads. It’s good to have Rihanna on our side.
Below find the complete text of Rihanna’s speech, followed by video (starts at 01:15:00)
So I made it to Harvard. Never thought I’d be able to say that in my life. But it feels good. Thank you, Dr. Counter. Thank you to the Harvard Foundation, and thank you, Harvard University, for this great honor. I’m incredibly humbled by this — to be acknowledged at this magnitude for something that, in truth, I’ve never wanted credit for.
When I was five or six years old, I remember watching TV and I would see these commercials and I was watching other children suffer in other parts of the world. The commercials where you could give twenty-five cents and save a child’s life and…you know. I would think to myself, “I wonder how many twenty-five cents I could save up to save all the kids in Africa.” And I would say to myself, “When I grow up and I get rich, I’m going to save kids all over the world.” I just didn’t know I would be in the position to do that by the time I was a teenager.
At seventeen, I started my career here in America, and by the age of eighteen, I started my first charity organization. I went on to team up with other organizations in the following years. I met, helped, and even lost some of the most beautiful souls from six-year-old Yasmina Amina, who passed away in 2010 from leukemia. Her story inspired thousands to volunteer as donors through DKMS. Fast forward to 2012 when my grandmother, the late Clara Brathwaite…she lost her battle with cancer, which is the very reason and the driving force behind the Clara Lionel Foundation.
We’re all human. And we all just want a chance. A chance at life. A chance at an education. A chance at a future, really. And at CLF, our mission is to impact as many lives as possible, but it starts with just one. Just one. As I stare out into this beautiful room, I see optimism. I see hope. I see the future. I know that each and every one of you has the opportunity to help someone else. All you need to do is help one person, expecting nothing in return. To me, that is a humanitarian.
People make it seem way too hard, man. The truth is–and what the little girl watching those commercials didn’t know–is that you don’t have to be rich to be a humanitarian. You don’t have to be rich to help somebody. You don’t got to be famous. You don’t even have to be college-educated. I mean…[laughter]…I wish I was. I’m not saying…you know. Especially today. It’s true…I might come back. But alright.
But it starts with your neighbor. The person right next to you. The person sitting next to you in class, the kid down the block in your neighborhood…you just do whatever you can to help in any way that you can. And today I want to challenge each of you to make a commitment to help one person. One organization, one situation that touches your heart. My grandmother always used to say, “If you’ve got a dollar, there’s plenty to share.” Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. This was my honor.