Lakers star James kicked off the virtual ceremony, commending the senior class for their resilience and hard work in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. Kevin Hart, Zendaya, Timothee Chalamet, Pharrell Williams, Megan Rapinoe, Lena Waithe, Bad Bunny and Kumail Nanjiani (by way of his “Animal Crossing: New Horizons villager) also appeared to celebrate the grads and pass down some wisdom.
In his speech, Obama said that the class of 2020 has had to deal with a lot of challenges during their education, including the rise of social media, school shootings and climate change. And just when they were at the finish line, schools everywhere shut down due to coronavirus.
“As much as I’m sure you love your parents, I bet being stuck at home with them playing board games or watching ‘Tiger King’ is not exactly how you envisioned the last few months of your senior year,” he said.
He also joked that a virtual event was probably better than sitting through an actual commencement, especially if he had delivered a long-winded speech, and he added that not many people look great in caps, particularly if you have big ears like him.
The former president then took a serious tone, saying that this generation will have to grow up faster than usual.
“This pandemic has shaken up the status quo and laid bare a lot of our country’s deep-seated problems. From massive economic inequality to racial disparities, to a lack of basic healthcare to people who need it. It’s woken a lot of young people up to the fact that the old ways of doing things, just don’t work,” he said.
Finally, he made a veiled jab at President Trump’s administration when urging the students to stick with their values.
“Do what you think is right. Doing what feels good, what’s convenient, what’s easy, that’s how little kids think. Unfortunately, a lot of so-called grownups, including some with fancy titles and important jobs, still think that way, which is why things are so screwed up. I hope that instead, you ground yourselves in values that last,” he said.
During James’ speech, he focused on the ideal of building and supporting a community.
“Our school are our safety net. Our people build our communities. To the class of 2020, as you celebrate tonight, do not forget your safety net. Every teacher, every coach, every pastor, they along with your friends and family got you to this moment. And now, it’s time to go to a new place,” James said.
He added that the graduates are probably tired of hearing “stay home,” so he had a different message and mission for them.
“My message is: Stay close to home. Maybe not physically, but in every other way possible. Pursue every ambition, go as far as you can possibly dream. Be the first generation to embrace a new responsibility. A responsibility to rebuild your community,” James said.
Malala Yousafzai, missing her own graduation, urged everyone to remember the less fortunate students in developing countries.
“The class of 2020 won’t be defined by what we lost to this virus, but by how we responded to it. The world is yours now, and I can’t wait to see what you make of it,” she said.
Dua Lipa performed a virtual musical number with the help of some high-school cheerleaders and a drumline. Ben Platt was later joined by his brothers Henry and Jonah for a graduation medley, and the trio stood six feet apart singing a capella against a green screen.
Alicia Keys, a proven piano maestro, performed a song for frontline workers, doctors and nurses, in addition to shouting out the graduates. The Jonas Brothers sang a socially-distance mix of songs, and H.E.R. and YBN Cordae, both young Grammy nominees, also sang later in the show.
Earlier on Saturday, Obama spoke at the HBCU virtual graduation ceremony and made stronger comments about President Trump. During his brief speech, he criticized the administration’s response to the coronavirus pandemic and handling of Ahmaud Arbery’s killing.
“More than anything, this pandemic has fully, finally torn back the curtain on the idea that so many of the folks in charge know what they’re doing. A lot of them aren’t even pretending to be in charge,” he said. “If the world is going to get better, it’s going to be up to you.”
He added, “Just as we see it when a black man goes for a jog and some folks feel like they can stop and question and shoot him if he doesn’t submit to their questioning. Injustice like this isn’t new.”