2021 Commencement address by Issa Rae
Following is the prepared text of the address by Issa Rae for delivery at Stanford’s Commencement ceremony for the Senior Class of 2021 on June 13, 2021.
Good morning. Thank you for the honor and privilege of being your class of 2021 Commencement speaker. I am both delighted and terrified to speak here at my alma mater and what is, hands down, the best school in the world. I can say that because I’ve been to every school on Earth. So, you can trust me.
Before I start, I just want to acknowledge how incredible you all are for making it this far. This past year and a half has tested so many of us, and I can’t imagine having to muster up the enthusiasm, much less the strength, to finish getting my degree while the world was falling apart around us. But you fuckin’ did it and I promise you that, despite the insanity and uncertainty you’ve endured, you will cherish these years and the people around you for the rest of your life. You can actually trust me on that.
It took me leaving here to realize it, but this place is truly amazing. You can get a good education anywhere, but what made Stanford special for me was two things: 1) it granted me the room to make a space for myself if I didn’t see one, which in turn, gave me the confidence to create a space for myself when I officially entered the outside work; and most importantly and life-changing is 2) the community it allowed me to build. The community I built at this school is without a doubt the reason I was able to pursue my dreams and why I was asked to speak before you. And so, this morning, I’d like to walk you through how this community shaped me, if that’s OK with you.
It all started here for me. I remember sitting where you all sat at my own graduation when I was 22 years old. My friends and I had just done the hypest Wacky Walk of all time, carrying a boombox and blasting, Boosie, Foxx and Webbie’s “Wipe Me Down” remix. That iconic song would serve as our personal anthem for future birthdays, holidays, more graduations, weddings, reunions, kickbacks and congratulatory celebrations. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the opening bars of that bop would serve as a personal mantra for me and the way I moved through my community and through my own spaces in life. But more on that later…
A couple of months prior to our graduation, a rumor started spreading that Oprah was going to be our Commencement speaker and we were excited as hell. I was especially hype because Oprah was and is one of my core three inspirations, along with Diddy and Ellen (this was 2007 guys, chill). I couldn’t believe that Oprah herself was going to come and send off our class into greatness! WOW. What a way to go out. And then a few weeks before, it was announced that we were getting a Poet Laureate to speak and I said, “a poet whateate”? I was triggered because I have never been cultured enough to enjoy raw poetry – my shit needs to be cooked a little. But I still went in with an open mind. However, you don’t play a song like “Wipe Me Down” and then just sit down and listen to dry words, no matter how brilliant, so unfortunately my mind closed very quickly.
In my defense, I was so hype off of the adrenaline of FINALLY entering into the next phase of my life that I tuned everything out to cherish the final moments with my friends for the last time we’d all be in one city. We were quietly cracking jokes, laughing and sharing memories with one another via text. In hindsight, it was disrespectful – and if you’re doing that during my speech right now? Absolutely no hard feelings. I forgive you – I’m on your time.
My West African dad, however, was sitting up in the audience watching me, seething. He sent me a text from above: “Stop acting like a fool and show some respect.” My dad was particularly upset that day because up until that point, he was under the impression that I had spent the last four years majoring in Political Science. I had already disappointed him once in high school, when I discovered after working at his Inglewood clinic and interning at Killer King Hospital that I didn’t like to see people in pain and no longer wanted to be a doctor like he was.
But he bounced back quickly and was like, “There’s always law or business!” And so I told him I’d pursue law. Instead, he learned that day, via the ceremony pamphlet I guess, that I had actually not majored in PoliSci. After the ceremony, he yelled, “African American Studies?! You may as well have majored in FLOWERS!” I didn’t understand why Botany had to catch a stray, but he was quite pissed.
To my credit, I took all of the courses to be able to declare, but when it came time to answer the simple question of “why I wanted to major in political science” – I could only think because my dad wanted me to. And so I didn’t. I wanted to be a writer and I wanted to pursue film, TV and, at the time, theater and I wanted to tell our stories – but I was also too scared to pursue it as anything but a hobby. Until Stanford and the community I built here changed that for me.
So now I’d like to revisit the song “Wipe Me Down” I was telling you about and deconstruct those influential bars I mentioned that shaped my approach and worldview. What are those magical bars, you ask? I’ll tell you. Foxx opens the first verse with these powerful two sentences: “I pull up at the club VIP, gas tank on E, but all dranks on ME. Wipe Me Down.” That is the kind of seasoned poetry I can get behind. Let me repeat that – “I pull up at the club VIP, gas tank on E, but all dranks on ME. Wipe Me Down.”
When I use my Stanford education to break these lyrics down, I can’t help but to think of my own journey, and what your journey will ultimately be. Now mind you, a lot of this will be a reach, but bear with me.
Let’s start with the first bar – “I pull up at the club, VIP.” Now, imagine you’re entering the club of life. Over the years, I’ve learned how essential it’s been for me to approach every opportunity and obstacle as a VIP – as someone who belongs and deserves to be here. That was a lesson I began to learn here. From the moment I started my first class at this school, I started to question whether or not I truly deserved to be here. I thought I was great at Calculus until I took Math 42 that first quarter and my entire world collapsed. I was like, “Can I even add?! What the fuck was AP Calc for, then?!” And then a couple of quarters in I learned, like many of you did I’m sure, “Oh! Everybody feels like that here. Everybody worries that they don’t deserve to be here.”
And then I settled in and started to slowly create the spaces that made me comfortable on campus. When I felt the Drama department was a little too white to fit into, I was able to get the resources from Stanford to put on multicultural theatrical productions for all four years I was here. And my fellow classmates rallied to support my admittedly very bootleg productions by either being in the shows, helping me behind the scenes and buying tickets to attend them. After my second year of putting on plays, I felt like I could actually write, direct and produce … professionally.
So, when I was a sophomore here, I stopped out of school to try to pursue film in L.A. At 19, I had co-written a feature film script with my writing partner at the time, a fellow Stanford classmate – who shared my love for ’90s black romances. Gassed that we had written something special, we begged our parents to let us take some time off to try to get this film made and “make it” in Hollywood. Her parents were cool about it, but my mom was worried about my commitment like, “Don’t waste this time” and my dad was like, “Don’t waste our money.” I promised them both that I would come back to school if nothing happened by the end of the quarter, and they agreed to let me stop out… Long story short – we did NOT make it in Hollywood. And I learned soooo many disheartening lessons about the kinds of stories Hollywood was not interested in telling. Lessons that would make me question whether I could ever tell stories in this industry at all.
So I came back to finish out school, tail between my legs, and continued to put on these plays that built my confidence as a creative. Again, these plays were super trash in hindsight, but the Stanford community, and my community, in particular, really made me feel like they were Tony Award-worthy.
My senior year, after still trying and failing to secure writing opportunities – because my work “didn’t have an audience” – I got the inspiration to create a web series that I called Dorm Diaries. The series was about being black at Stanford and featured my friends, who were “playing” archetypes. In some cases, my friends were putting in hours for class, their schoolwork, rehearsals for the play I was putting on AND THEN dedicating their time to be in this hobby of a web series I made. That’s love. And then when I released the series on Facebook (this was 2007 guys, chill), the outpouring of support for the episodes from my community, made me realize that Hollywood was wrong about there not being an audience for the stories I wanted to tell.
So as you leave this campus and venture out, whether you’re starting a new job, or going to grad school or figuring out your purpose from gig to gig – make sure you “pull up at the club VIP,” because you’re exactly where you’re supposed to be.
The next bar of Foxx’s opus opened my eyes to the true nature of giving. He says: “Gas tank on E, but all dranks on me.” Oh man, chills – do you hear the humility and service in that? What I took from this line is that no matter what obstacles or dire circumstances you personally face, you should always value and celebrate your community. He’s saying, “No matter what I’m going through, I got you!” Words to live by, and words I’ve experienced from my chosen family here. Trust and believe that your Stanford family will show up for you – in unexpected ways.
When I was a Freshman, I lived in Rinconada and my other close friend lived in Branner. We would always make the bike treks to Uj to kick it, but she had ulterior motives. She had a crush on a guy, who was two years ahead of us, because he reminded her of her current boyfriend. He was an amazing dancer and also gay, but ride-or-die friends don’t ask questions – they just ride – so I always tagged along on her visits. They never got together because, again, he was gay – and then he eventually graduated, leaving us behind.
BUT, fast forward to 2011 – I’m four years out of college, very broke and I’m not where I want to be at all. I have this one idea for a series called The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl that I’ve been sitting on for two years because I don’t have the resources or money to make it happen. Out of the blue, my friend’s old crush hits me up – saying that he’s been thinking about pursuing acting – and asks if I know of any classes or opportunities, to please send them his way. I tell him I absolutely will be on the lookout.
And then when I finally pressure myself to stop making excuses and decide to make the first episode of Awkward Black Girl he is the first person I called to act in it. I didn’t have much of a script, just a concept – but he was DOWN because he wanted the experience.
As the series started to grow, I was getting progressively more poor, but my small extended Stanford community started to come through in ways that I never expected. The girl I mentioned co-writing the script with my sophomore year came on as a producer and helped to up the production quality of the series. Then when we started a small writers room for Awkward Black Girl, we tapped another girl from Stanford who was a year older than us, who was working to break into the industry. The two of them were just as broke as I was, gas tanks fully on E, but they rallied together to “buy drinks” and help me make the series.
And then when I couldn’t afford to make the show anymore, it was our mutual Stanford friends, and in some cases, administrators, who donated either personally or via Kickstarter to keep the series going. The outpouring of support from this community – of people who I met here on this campus, are the reason I was able to ultimately make the show of my dreams for HBO, Insecure. And in my own industry journey, I’ve always made it a priority to find ways to buy the next round of dranks, figuratively speaking.
Are you all still with me? Are you following? OK, well, that brings me to the last golden nugget of a sentence. The refrain, “Wipe Me Down,” commands respect. It says, give me my props. I’ve earned them. Yesterday morning, I finished shooting the final season of my show, Insecure. When I wrapped what ended up being a very grueling week and final 20-hour day, I got teary-eyed while thanking one of my Awkward Black Girl OG’s from my curated Stanford community. She started with me on the web series and ended with me as an executive producer on the TV show. She was standing right across from me and then right next to her stood one of my best friends, another alum who creatively inspired one of the main characters in the series.
This is a show I was writing for eight years, shooting for six, and a series that the industry, just 10 years ago, thought wouldn’t have an audience. We were nominated for eight Emmys last year and won one. And we got to shoot five seasons of it on our terms. “Wipe Me Down!”
That show and my journey was literally made possible not by any mentors or connections to the industry, it was made by tapping into the people sitting next to me at one point. Connecting with new people after school is especially hard during this time and climate, but if nothing else, the isolation and circumstances of last year made the relationships I’ve been able to build over time that much more dear to me.
As you all leave here today, many of you might be wondering what the hell is next. You might feel smart, but unprepared OR you may be lost for a bit as you figure out what moves to make or where to go – and how to make the most of the time and hella money you spent here.
Many of those answers are sitting right next to you, or across from you, or behind you. Build and tap into your community. The brilliant minds in this room will have a hand in shaping the culture, making this world better, leaving long-lasting legacies behind and doing a bunch of other important shit. I’ve watched so many people in my own class do just that, and I can’t wait to witness what you all contribute to the world.
So, to honor the classic song that has guided my own life – as you leave this room don’t forget to ask yourself what you can offer to make the “club of life” go up? How can you make this place better, in spite of your circumstances? And as you figure those things out, don’t forget to step back and wipe yourselves down, wipe each other down and go claim what’s yours like the VIPs that you are. You’ve earned it. Congratulations!