Activist, actress, writer and producer Issa Rae ’07 called on members of the Class of 2021 to move through the world with confidence, lend a helping hand and foster community in her commencement speech to undergraduates on Sunday.
Sunday morning’s ceremony, which followed one for graduate students on Saturday, was the first undergraduate commencement since 2019. Only 1,436 bachelors degrees were awarded, a drop from 1,792 in 2019 and a reflection of the number of seniors who chose to take a gap year rather than endure another year of virtual pandemic schooling.
This year’s commencement ceremony looked different, too. Graduating seniors sat on the field in chairs spaced six feet apart, and each was allowed only two guests, resulting in a Stanford Stadium with broad swathes of empty seats. Still, graduates participated in the traditional Wacky Walk, parading into the stadium in exuberant costumes — and masks.
For her speech, Rae drew upon rapper Boosie Badazz’s “Wipe Me Down” to highlight themes of confidence and service, focusing on the lines “I pull up at the club VIP/ Gas tank on E/but all drinks on me (Wipe me down)” to guide her address.
Graduates laughed and applauded as Rae first read the lines.
Rae said she and her friends had played the song as they embarked on their own Wacky Walk in 2007 — capping an undergraduate career in which Rae majored in African and African American Studies and wrote and produced several multicultural theatrical productions on campus.
She dubbed the lyrics her “personal mantra,” which would guide “the way I moved through my community and through my own spaces in life.”
To Rae, “the club” referenced in the lyrics is “the club of life.” Drawing on her own experiences as an undergraduate, Rae recalled how she sometimes questioned her belonging at Stanford, only to later realize that many of her peers experienced similar feelings of self-doubt.
She encouraged graduates to “pull up at the club VIP” as they enter the next stages of their life “because you’re exactly where you’re supposed to be.”
Consistent with her points on belonging, Rae encouraged graduates to provide support for and depend on the Stanford community as they move beyond their time on campus, as she has.
Rae said that members of her Stanford community made her feel as though her undergraduate plays were worthy of Tony Awards.
Her peers also supported her creative endeavors, contributing to her “Dorm Diaries” web series and later helping to elevate her “The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl” YouTube series, which paved the way for her successful HBO series “Insecure.”
Drawing from the lyrics’ second line — “Gas tank on E but all drinks on me” — Rae said Badazz’s words “opened [her] eyes to the true nature of giving.”
“Do you hear the humility and service in that?” Rae asked the graduates.
She said that graduates should strive to build and honor their Stanford communities, in spite of one’s personal — and in some instances challenging — circumstances: “Trust and believe that your Stanford community will show up for you in unexpected ways.”
For Rae, it was her time at Stanford — surrounded by supportive peers, friends and thinkers — that ultimately gave way to her dream of writing her own television series.
Rae said the support she gained from the people she met on campus aided in her creation of her dream show “Insecure,” which was nominated for 11 Emmy Awards and won one last year.
She pivoted into the “wipe me down” refrain of the song, describing the lyric as one that “commands respect, it says give me my props, I’ve earned them.” Rae said being able to create and produce “Insecure” with a similar mindset that allowed her to create the show on her own terms.
As she closed, Rae reaffirmed the uncertainty that comes with navigating post-graduate life, emphasizing the value of community in fostering stability and purpose.
“Build and tap into your community. The brilliant minds in this room will have a hand in shaping the culture, making the world better, leaving long-lasting legacies behind and doing a bunch of other important shit,” she said.
Her address was met by loud applause. President Marc Tessier-Lavigne then asked the graduating class if drinks would be on them when they saw someone in need, to which graduates cheered, “Yes!”
“Just to be clear, for everyone here today, the drinks are on me,” Tessier-Lavigne said.