President Obama praised pop queen Beyoncé and television showrunner Shonda Rhimes as just two examples of how far African-Americans have progressed in the United States since the Civil Rights movement during his commencement address at Howard University on Saturday.
During his roughly 45-minute speech at the historically black college Saturday afternoon, Obama said that America “is a better place today” than it was when he graduated in 1983. The President declared that both the world and race relations in America are better, too, saying that his reelection in 2012 was “just one indicator of how attitudes had changed.”
“In my inaugural address, I remarked that just 60 years earlier, my father might not have been served in a D.C. restaurant — at least not certain of them. There were no black CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. Very few black judges,” Obama said. “Shoot, as Larry Wilmore pointed out last week, a lot of folks didn’t even think blacks had the tools to be a quarterback. Today, former [Chicago] Bull Michael Jordan isn’t just the greatest basketball player of all time — he owns the team.”
“When I was graduating, the main black hero on TV was Mr. T. Rap and hip hop were counterculture, underground. Now, Shonda Rhimes owns Thursday night, and Beyoncé runs the world,” the president added to laughter from the graduates. “We’re no longer only entertainers, we’re producers, studio executives. No longer small business owners — we’re CEOs, we’re mayors, representatives, Presidents of the United States.”
During his speech, Obama also pointed to writer and social commentator Ta-Nehisi Coates and the late musician Prince as examples of individuals who didn’t conform to expectations and ultimately forged their own unique path in life.
“You can write a book that wins the National Book Award, or you can write the new run of Black Panther. Or, like one of your alumni, Ta-Nehisi Coates, you can go ahead and just do both,” Obama said. “You can create your own style, set your own standard of beauty, embrace your own sexuality. Think about an icon we just lost — Prince. He blew up categories. People didn’t know what Prince was doing. And folks loved him for it.”
Obama’s nod to Beyoncé is the second high-profile endorsement the singer received this week. Earlier this week, British pop queen Adele paused a concert in Denmark to sing her praises, exclaiming before a crowd in Copenhagen that Beyoncé is “Jesus f*cking Christ” and that her music still “blows my mind.”
Beyoncé set a record last week with her latest release — the Black Lives Matter-themed Lemonade — landing all 12 of the album’s songs on the Billboard Hot 100 simultaneously, a first for a female artist.
The pop star and her husband, music mogul Jay Z, were frequent visitors to the White House during the Obama administration. Beyoncé sang at President Obama’s second-term inauguration, and most recently attended the White House Easter egg roll with her daughter, Blue Ivy.
Watch the rest of President Obama’s Howard University commencement address above.
Follow Daniel Nussbaum on Twitter: @dznussbaum