Rihanna Takes A Bow


Singer and philanthropist receives Humanitarian Award at Sanders.


On February 28, Robyn Rihanna Fenty, commonly referred to solely as Rihanna, received the 2017 Harvard Humanitarian of the Year award. Beginning at noon, Harvard students were able to pick up tickets to attend the ceremony in Sanders Theater in her honor. The Harvard Foundation honors Rihanna in the midst of its annual Cultural Rhythms week with its 2017 Dialogue Series. On Saturday, Viola Davis will be recognized as the Artist of the Year. The Harvard Foundation honors public figures with the Peter J. Gomes Humanitarian Award who are strong leaders and prominent members of important movements. Rihanna is a critically acclaimed musical artist and popular culture icon, but her merit as a philanthropist has warranted her receiving such an award.

Rihanna and various affiliates of the Harvard Foundation on stage.

While Memorial Hall is renowned for its ability to house the largest Harvard classes and events, Rihanna’s appearance brought the building to capacity. Lines for picking up and entering Sanders Theater for the performance spanned the length of Science Center Plaza, along with a substantial group of those who had not been able to attain a ticket but anxiously waited to see whether they would be admitted. With free admission and only in-person ticket distribution along with a limit of 2 tickets per person, some students had waited over 5 hours to see whether they would be able to attend the appearance.

The event showcased a number of different speakers and performers. The Grammy-Award winning singer watched excitedly as Harvard’s Kuumba performed for her. Before accepting her award, the artist received high praise from Harvard undergraduates working with the Foundation as well as the Harvard Foundation’s director Dr. S. Allen Counter, Reverend Liz Walker, and Dean Rakesh Khurana.

Reverend Liz Walker welcomed Rihanna, “who beams with the generosity of spirit that lights up the whole world.” Reverend Walker then asked the room to join her in a prayer during this time of love and celebration. Rihanna’s good heart not only shows through her charitable actions, but in the way that she influences and inspires those who look up to her. Senior Harvard Foundation intern Doni Lehman took the opportunity to emphasize the influence that Rihanna has on others. “I want to take this moment to thank you, Robyn, for giving up a piece of yourself and your life to ‘Rihanna,’” remarked Lehman about how the artist has previously described herself as ‘Robyn’ and her stage persona as ‘Rihanna.’

As a young child, Rihanna recalls watching commercials that asked for “quarter-a-day” donations to help children and her desire to save up money and “save all the kids in Africa.” However, she never expected that she’d be in the position to have an impact as early in her life as she has. At just age 18, Rihanna had already started her first charity.  Before awarding Rihanna, Dr. Counter spoke highly of the artist and philanthropist. Dr. Counter spoke for the room when he thanked Rihanna and praised her work, as she has “shared her time, her talent, and her effort with her humanitarian efforts.”

Taking to the stage, Dean Khurana began to praise Rihanna and her values, which he noted aligned with the mission of the college. “I am so delighted and honored to welcome you to our community,” said Dean Khurana.

Student speakers used Rihanna’s own words to express their admiration, whether through popular lyrics or quotations. While many may know Rihanna for her record-breaking, chart-topping music, her philanthropic work began in the first year after she began her career. “I think it was eye-opening for many people, myself included, to have a woman so prevalent in pop culture be honored for a side of her public image that we don’t often see,” said audience member Patric Verrone ’18 of the experience.

Rihanna’s Clara Lionel Foundation Scholarship Program, named in honor of her grandparents, supports students from Caribbean countries attending U.S. colleges. Through the program, Rihanna has provided scholarships up to $50,000 a year. In her home nation of Barbados, Rihanna has contributed to the creation of a center for oncology and nuclear medicine in order to diagnose and treat breast cancer. Dr. S. Allen Counter recognized Rihanna’s charitable accolades in building the state-of-the-art center. As speaker Yousra Neberai, a junior studying government with a secondary in Global Health and Health Care Policy, noted, “one of the greatest barriers to treatment is distance.” Rihanna’s work reducing barriers to higher-level medical care exemplifies humanitarianism and inspires others to follow in her path. The treatment center was created in memory of her grandmother. Getting slightly emotional, Rihanna explained how her grandmother had “lost her battle with cancer, [becoming the] very reason and driving force behind Clara Foundation.”

Becoming the Global Ambassador for the Global Partnership for Education and Global Citizen Project in 2016, Rihanna has dedicated her time and talent to bringing attention to the education discrepancies globally. The multi-year campaign, which especially empowers girls, provides children in more than 60 developing countries with access to education. As sophomore Harvard Foundation intern Dylan de Waart said, “often all these kids need is a chance.”

Although Rihanna has accomplished much as an artist, she expressed that all people are capable of being humanitarians, regardless of wealth or prominence. “People make it seem so hard, man. You don’t have to be rich to help someone, you don’t have to be college-educated,” explained Rihanna. Humanitarianism starts with the desire to help others. The philanthropist said that it involves wanting to “impact as many lives as possible, but it starts with just one.”

Rihanna reflected on a common sentiment of her grandmother’s: “If you got a dollar, there’s plenty to share.” The impact of her grandmother on her philanthropy and passion to help others is clear and brings the artist strength. The selfless nature of her advocacy and outreach is apparent. While many may perceive the artist as less emotional due to her confidence and healthy sense of self, it is clear that Rihanna cares deeply about others and has devoted herself to doing so. Lehman characterized Rihanna’s public persona and philanthropic activities perfectly: “While she cares so little about her haters, she cares so much about others.”

After reflecting on her difficulty writing a speech about Rihanna for a lack of words, Lehman explained that it’s because “there’s really nothing to say about Rihanna because, as a result of her confidence and strength, she doesn’t really care what I have to say.” Whereas many women are held to high, patriarchal standards, Rihanna is able to transcend the negativity placed on her and rise above.  “Through your power, you help other women realize their own,” said Lehman, causing Rihanna to become emotional at the sincerity of the statement.

Although Rihanna has devoted her time and effort to creating charitable organizations, the artist has also used her presence and fame to call attention to important issues. “When she’s not personally changing lives, she’s leveraging her fame to influence her fans.” It is Rihanna’s personality and confidence in herself that inspires her fans and gives strength to the feminist movement.

Rihanna’s confidence and philanthropy is inspiring, whether viewed from across a crowded Sanders Theater, via Twitter, through iTunes, or following her charitable work. “We’re all human and we just want a chance a chance at life; a chance at education; a chance at a future, really,” explained Rihanna.

Hunter Richards (hrichards@college.harvard.edu) is revitalized. Mama, we made it.