PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] —In the Meeting House of the First Baptist Church in America, Class of 2017 graduates and Brown faculty and staff gathered on Saturday, May 27, for this year’s Baccalaureate service. The Commencement and Reunion Weekend tradition honors the degree candidates’ achievements and expresses thanks through a wide range of spiritual, secular and artistic traditions.
And perhaps no element of the annual ceremony was more inspiring for its artistry than the address by Brown Class of 2004 graduate Daveed Diggs — an award-winning performer, musician and writer known for his Tony-winning performance in the Broadway hit “Hamilton” as well as his work in film, television and music.
Diggs’ speech — which he titled “Daveed Diggs Says Some Things” — was by turns hilarious and grave. He spoke both from notes and off-the-cuff, delivering elements of his address in rap and demonstrating the literary and performance skills for which he is widely acclaimed. From a rap adaptation of a work of literature to a disturbing anecdote about a frightening stop by police officers, Diggs held the audience's rapt attention.
His address also included specific advice. Some serious, some quite playful — such as turning down offers of speaking engagements at prestigious institutions and immediately forgetting the content of his address. From the beginning, he had the graduates laughing as he wondered aloud how to properly address Brown President Christina Paxson.
He followed with a high-speed recitation of a rap adaptation of Jean Toomer’s “Cane” that he wrote in 2003 while at Brown. Diggs went on to talk about self-doubt, a long period before starring in “Hamilton” during which he felt unsuccessful, as well as the deep political divisions that characterize American civic life.
VIDEO: “Daveed Diggs Says Some Things.”
“You were born into a time in our country that feels different than any I have ever known,” Diggs said, adding that he was grateful that the graduates would be the ones to confront the difficulties of the moment. “These times in many ways defy explanation. But what these times really need are people who challenge all explanations. They never thought outside the box because they never accepted the premise that there was a box.”
“Our world desperately needs you now,” Diggs implored. “We need your new ideas because our old ones have made a big mess of things. If you’re like I was, you’re a little nervous at this moment. You know that a lot of people sacrificed a lot to get you to this point and you feel like you owe them a great success story. But also, if you’re like I was, you have no idea what you’re going to do after tomorrow.”
Diggs, who said he felt like he was born two years and four months ago, when he began starring in “Hamilton,” told the students: “Maybe you have a timeline in your head, some date by which you’re going to be successful… The work for you and us all in this is the day-to-day. It’s the stitching together a nation divided. It is the honest effort to understand the circumstances of the people around us.”
In introducing Diggs, who will receive an honorary degree from Brown on Sunday, May 28, Paxson spoke of his “utter liberation.”
“In his life and in his work, he occupies a creative space that is virtually free of boundaries — set by his own sense of limitation or by the categories imposed by others,” Paxson said.
She linked that utter liberation to her advice to the Class of 2017. Paxson told the students that “the world needs you to be true to yourself, to be exactly who you are,” and that Diggs understood what that looked like.
The 90-minute service was at times loud, ebullient and full of laughter. At other times it was quiet, sober and reverent. It included prayers, rituals and blessings from Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Christianity, Buddhism and ancestral African and indigenous peoples’ traditions as well as rousing dance and musical performances.
“We organized the service around the idea of gratitude and thanksgiving,” said Janet Cooper-Nelson, chaplain of the University. “We give thanks for our lives, our experiences and the teachers who taught us.”
The event’s dual nature — raucous and reflective — was evident from its earliest moments. As students entered the historic church, they were greeted by the upbeat sounds of the Drums of Mali, musicians who were seated on the lawn near the entrance. Soon after, the students settled into the Meeting House’s hushed interior.
The tension between the celebratory and the solemn is implicit in the event, Cooper-Nelson said, because thanksgiving involves both looking forward and looking back, including honoring beloved Brown community members who died in the last year.
“The end of one season, the beginning of another,” is how the Reverend Kirstin C. Boswell-Ford, associate chaplain of the University for the Protestant community, described the moment as she encouraged students to “seize it and marvel at all that it is.”
The pattern of cheers giving way to quiet reverence or vice versa repeated itself throughout the Baccalaureate service. For example: After a long moment of silence following a Tibetan Buddhist reading, Shades of Brown began singing the song “Survivor” by Destiny’s Child as members of the Fusion Dance Company sprang up to dance on the pews and in the aisles.
Cole Moore, a graduating senior, said that even on the eve of his Commencement, his Brown experience — in this case, through the Baccalaureate — exposed him to new ideas and traditions.
“I had no idea what to expect, but it was wonderful,” Moore said. “I have a lot of family here and purely for logistical reasons, I was thinking that I wouldn’t make it to Baccalaureate. But I’m fascinated by these religious traditions that are not in my life. I was interested in learning about the parts of campus that haven’t been part of my experience. It was beautiful.”