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Video: Barack & Michelle Obama deliver their 2020 commencement speeches/YouTube

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama headlined a special virtual commencement this past weekend that honored graduates across the country that were unable to have in-person ceremonies due to the coronavirus pandemic. The four-hour tribute, entitled “Dear Class of 2020,” streamed on the YouTube Originals channel on Sunday, June 7th, and featured a vast array of A-list speakers and performers to help the class of 2020 celebrate from home. The event was previously scheduled for Saturday but was moved in respect of George Floyd’s memorial service that took place that day. 

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The event opened with Lizzo performing a rendition of “Pomp and Circumstance” on the flute along with the New York Philharmonic, followed by an opening speech by Alicia Keys, who addressed the moment we are having right now in the wake of George Floyd’s death. “Some of you might not feel like celebrating right now. And that’s okay,” she recognized, while also commending the resilience and strength of the class as they navigate the current global crisis and the protests taking place across the country and all over the world. 

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Presidential speeches from Michelle & Barack Obama

Former President Barack Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama kicked off a joint speech from their living room by excitedly congratulating the class of 2020, acknowledging that while graduating in the middle of a pandemic is certainly unexpected and challenging, there is still much to celebrate. 

“Today is the culmination of a long journey,” said Obama. “Think back to when you were starting your first year. You were probably just hoping that by graduation day, you would’ve found your people, learned some new skills and got yourself ready for your next step, maybe college, maybe grad school, maybe your first job. You accomplished all that. And then just as you were rounding the final turn, the world threw a pandemic your way.”

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The couple urged the graduates to take the time to reflect on all of their accomplishments and of course to thank their parents, concluding their joint speech by telling the students to “hold your heads high and celebrate.” 

The speech was later followed by individual remarks by both Obamas, beginning with Michelle Obama, where she offered words of hope and advice regarding the tumultuous times we are living in, discussing the protests, COVID-19, and racial inequality in our society. 

“While this period is certainly unprecedented, it is not a complete anomaly; simply some random coincidence to be dismissed,” she said. “What’s happening right now is the direct result of decades of unaddressed prejudice and inequality. The truth is that all those tiny stories of hard work and self-determination that we like to tell ourselves about America, well the reality is a lot more complicated than that because for too many people in this country no matter how hard they work, there are structural barriers working against them that just make the road longer and rockier.”

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She went on to say that while she did not have the exact answers as to how to fix the inequality and injustices that currently plague our country, she had several lessons to share, including how imperative it is to share your voice with the rest of the world. “For those of you that feel invisible, please know that your story matters, your ideas matter, your experiences matter, your vision for what our world can and should matters, so don’t ever let anyone tell you that you’re too angry or you should keep your mouth shut,” the former first lady said.

“There will always be those that want to keep you silent, to have you be seen but not heard. Maybe they don’t even want to see you at all, but those people don’t know your story and if you listen to them then nothing will ever change.” 

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At the end of her speech, Mrs. Obama implored the graduates to continue to channel the discomfort that they may feel into activism, while expressing her confidence in them to continue to make waves of change that their generation has already played a part in creating. 

The 44th President of the United States’ remarks came later on in the virtual ceremony. He echoed his wife’s sentiments regarding both the pandemic and the protests and emphasized how the students can play a major role in reshaping the world. 

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“As scary and uncertain as these times may be, they are also a wake-up call and they are an incredible opportunity for your generation because you don’t have to accept what was considered normal before,” he said. “You don’t have to accept the world as it is. You can make it into the world as it should be and could be. You can create a new normal, one that is fairer and gives everybody opportunity and treats everyone equally and builds bridges between people instead of dividing them.” 

While he commended the strength and success of the graduating class, Obama recognized the challenges that may be presented as our country grapples with the implications of George Floyd’s death and the implicit systemic racism that it has brought to the forefront. 

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“I’ll admit that it’s a little unfair to lay such a heavy burden on you. I wish that my generation had done more to solve some of our country’s big problems so you didn’t have to. But the good news is that I know you’re up to the challenge. You are the best-educated generation in history.”

He closed his speech with a quote about hope. “Hope is not a lottery ticket; it’s a hammer for us to use in a national emergency, to break the glass, sound the alarm, and sprint into action. That’s what hope is. It’s not the blind faith that things will get better, it’s the conviction that with effort, and perseverance, and courage and a concern for others, things can get better. That remains the truest part of our American story. And if your generation sprints into action, it will still be true of America’s future.” 

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Celebrity guests

The former President of the United States and First Lady were joined virtually by a slew of other celebrities including Beyoncé, who gave a powerful and moving speech of her own. 

“You have arrived in the middle of a global crisis, a racial pandemic, and worldwide expression of outrage at the senseless killing of yet another unarmed black human being. And you still made it,” the singer said, after congratulating the 2020 graduates.

She went on to discuss her own difficult experiences, as well as the faith she has in the futures of the students despite the difficulties that they may be currently facing. 

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“To the young women, our future leaders, know that you’re about to make the world turn. I see you. You are everything the world needs. Make those power moves. Be excellent. And to the young kings, lean into your vulnerability and redefine masculinity. Lead with heart. There’s so many different ways to be brilliant. I believe you and every human being is born with a masterful gift. Don’t let the world make you feel that you have to look a certain way to be brilliant. And no you don’t have to speak a certain way to be brilliant. But you do have to spread your gift around the planet in a way that is authentically you.” 

Other speeches included addresses from Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lopez, Billie Eilish and Taylor Swift, who discussed how she was mailed her diploma due to being on tour at the time of her high school graduation. Tom Brady, Justin Timberlake, and Shawn Mendes also gave congratulatory speeches to the graduates. 

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Comedians Jimmy Kimmel, (adorned in a bathrobe and a graduation cap made out of a pizza box), Stephen Colbert, John Mulaney, and Colin Jost were among other well-wishers for the class of 2020 and reflected back on their own high school and college years, giving some comedic advice of their own, even though Jost joked to “take all of it with a grain, or an entire shaker, of salt.” 

Musical performances

Along with Lizzo, the tribute featured musical performances from Katy Perry, Megan Thee Stallion, Chloe x Halle, the cast of Schitt’s Creek featuring Mariah Carey, and a rendition of U2’s  “It’s a Beautiful Day” produced by Finneas and featuring Camila Cabello, Noah Cyrus, Khalid, Tove Lo, Leon Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Coldplay’s Chris Martin, Ben Platt, and Ty Dolla $ign. A vocal performance of Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise” additionally featured Madison Calley, Misty Copeland, Naya Lovell, Janelle Monáe, Shonda Rhimes, Tracee Ellis Ross, Kelly Rowland, and Yara Shahidi. K-pop group BTS closed out the celebration with a compilation of several of their songs

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In addition to the celebrities, the 4-hour long video also featured performances and stories from graduating students across the country, adding a personal note to the event. 

Virtual ceremonies 

The tribute was a heartfelt and heartwarming celebration that honored thousands of high school and college graduates across the country. While the students may not have been able to celebrate through a real ceremony by walking across a stage, they have a special event to remember where some of the biggest celebrities wished them the best, that they can revisit and continue to be inspired by for the rest of their lives. 

This celebration followed the two virtual ceremonies prior to this one where Barack Obama was a commencement speaker, including Chase’s “Show Me Your Walk, HBCU” and “Graduate Together: America Honors the High School Class of 2020” that took place on May 16. 

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According to YouTube, “Dear Class of 2020” is now the most-viewed YouTube Original live event to date. More than 665,000 viewers were recorded to be watching when it aired, and it boasted 17 million views within 24 hours of the livestream. 

The event raised nearly $2 million from corporate donors thanks to partnering with Michelle Obama’s Reach Higher Initiative, who hosted the first hour of the special, as well as Google.org.  

The full replay of the special can be watched here

Written by Christine Feeley

To read Hollywood Insider’s CEO Pritan Ambroase’s love letter to Black Lives Matter, in which he tackles more than just police reform – click here. 

An excerpt from the love letter: Hollywood Insider’s CEO/editor-in-chief Pritan Ambroase affirms, “Hollywood Insider fully supports the much-needed Black Lives Matter movement. We are actively, physically and digitally a part of this global movement. We will continue reporting on this major issue of police brutality and legal murders of black people to hold the system accountable. We will continue reporting on this major issue with kindness and respect to all black people, as each and every one of them are seen and heard. Just a reminder, that the Black Lives Matter movement is about more than just police brutality and extends into banking, housing, education, medical, infrastructure, etc. We have the space and time for all your stories. We believe in peaceful/non-violent protests and I would like to request the rest of media to focus on 95% of the protests that are peaceful and working effectively with positive changes happening daily. Media has a responsibility to better the world and Hollywood Insider will continue to do so.”

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Author

  • Christine Feeley is a writer for Hollywood Insider and as a fan of all things film and television, she is very passionate about gender equality within the entertainment industry as well as how it can be used to promote social change. She hopes to bring an enriched perspective to the world of entertainment through her alignment with Hollywood Insider's mission to share meaningful and positive content with audiences.

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