“So I made it to Harvard. Never thought I’d be able to say that in my life, but it feels good.”
With those words, Rihanna kicked off her acceptance of Harvard University’s Humanitarian of the Year award. The pop star was given the prestigious honour on Tuesday in recognition of her extensive charity work – and, ever the consummate performer, her speech didn’t disappoint.
When she was a child growing up in Barbados, Rihanna said, she would see charity appeals on TV and think to herself: “I wonder how many 25 cents I could save up to save all the kids in Africa?”
“I would say to myself, ‘When I grow up, when I can get rich, I’mma save kids all over the world’,” she continued. “I just didn’t know I would be in the position to do that by the time I was a teenager.”
Rihanna was signed by Jay-Z to Def Jam Recordings in 2005, at the age of just 17, and started her first charitable organisation – the Believe Foundation, helping terminally ill children – a year later.
Since then, she has founded the Clara Lionel Foundation Global Scholarship Program (named after her grandparents), aimed at helping students from the Caribbean attend college in the US, and thrown her support behind the Global Partnership for Education and Global Citizen Project, which gives children in developing countries access to education.
After Rihanna’s beloved grandmother Clara Brathwaite died from cancer, she also built a state-of-the-art medical centre in Barbados to diagnose and treat the disease.
However, the 29-year-old singer told the crowd at Harvard that it doesn’t take being a multimillionaire to help others.
“People make it seem way too hard, man,” she said. “The truth is, and what I want the little girl watching those commercials to know, is you don’t have to be rich to be a humanitarian. You don’t have to be rich to help somebody. You don’t gotta be famous. You don’t even have to be college-educated.”
Being a real humanitarian, she said, only takes helping “one person, expecting nothing in return. To me, that is a humanitarian.”
Rihanna continued: “It starts with your neighbour, the person right next to you, the person sitting next to you in class, the kid down the block in your neighbourhood. You just do whatever you can to help in any way that you can.
“And today I want to challenge each of you to make a commitment to help one person: one organization, one situation that touches your heart.”
“My grandmother always used to say if you've got a dollar, there's plenty to share.”
In receiving the Harvard University Peter J. Gomes Humanitarian Award, Rihanna is in esteemed company. Past honourees include Malala Yousafzai, Aung San Suu Kyi, and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon – as well as Sharon Stone and Lionel Richie.
Now that’s what we call a dream dinner party.
Images: Rex Features