Five of the most influential artists in the performing arts will receive honorary doctorates from Berklee College of Music and Boston Conservatory at Berklee in virtual commencement ceremonies on Saturday, May 9. Mikhail Baryshnikov and André De Shields will receive honorary Doctor of Arts degrees from the Conservatory, and Sheila E., John Legend, and Cassandra Wilson will receive honorary Doctor of Music degrees from the College.
This year’s honorary doctorate recipients will be recognized for their numerous achievements in the arts as well as their enduring contributions to the cultural fabric of America and the world. Past recipients from the College include Duke Ellington (the first, in 1971), Aretha Franklin, Quincy Jones ’51, Wang Leehom ’99, Juan Luis Guerra ’82, Missy Elliott, Esperanza Spalding B.M. ’05, Rita Moreno, Justin Timberlake, and A. R. Rahman. Past recipients from the Conservatory include Sutton Foster, Leontyne Price, Betty Buckley, Debbie Allen, Nicholas Paleologos, Barbara Cook, Billy Porter, Victoria Livengood (M.M. ’85, voice), and Mary Rogers.
From their remote locations around the world, a group of student performers representing the College and Conservatory class of 2020 will unite as a collaborative virtual ensemble to record a multigenre tribute to the honorees, with accompanying split-screen-style videos. The prerecorded tribute will air on Friday, May 8, on the Berklee YouTube channel, and the ceremonies will be streamed on Berklee social media channels the following day.
In addition, when circumstances allow, the institution will host in-person ceremonies and receptions on campus in the fall semester: one for each of the three college divisions, one for the conservatory, and one for Berklee Online graduates.
André De Shields is the triple-crown winner of the 2019 awards season, having won the Outer Critics Circle, Drama Desk, and Tony awards for best featured actor in a musical for his critically acclaimed performance as Hermes in Hadestown. The Actors’ Equity Foundation followed suit with the Richard Seff Award, honoring veteran stage actors’ best supporting performances of the year. Prior to his Tony Award win, De Shields was best known for his show-stopping performances in four legendary Broadway productions: The Wiz, Ain’t Misbehavin’, Play On!, and The Full Monty. In a career spanning 50 years, he has distinguished himself as an unparalleled actor, director, and educator, receiving in 2018 the eighth annual Off-Broadway Alliance Legend Award and the 33rd annual Bob Harrington Life Achievement Bistro Award. Among his other accolades are the 2009 National Black Theatre Festival’s Living Legend Award and a 2007 Village Voice Obie Award for sustained excellence of performance. In 2019, De Shields received the key to the city of his hometown, Baltimore, Maryland, from Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young; the inaugural Harlem Week Pride 50 Award; the Project1Voice Lifetime Achievement Award; the Joyce Warshow Lifetime Achievement Award from SAGE; the Oscar Hammerstein Award for Lifetime Achievement in Musical Theatre; and an induction into the American Theater Hall of Fame. De Shields is a proud member of AEA, SAG-AFTRA, and SDC.
Mikhail Baryshnikov is considered one of the greatest dancers of our time. After commencing a spectacular career with the Kirov Ballet in Leningrad, he settled in New York City in 1974 as principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre (ABT). In 1978, he joined New York City Ballet, where he worked with George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins. A year later he was appointed artistic director of ABT where, for the next decade, he introduced a new generation of dancers and choreographers. From 1990 to 2002, Baryshnikov was director and dancer of the White Oak Dance Project, which he and choreographer Mark Morris cofounded to expand the repertoire and visibility of American modern dance. As an actor he has performed widely on- and off-Broadway, as well as in television and film, receiving a Tony Award nomination and a Drama Desk Award nomination for Metamorphosis, and an Academy Award nomination for The Turning Point. He recently toured Brodsky/Baryshnikov, a theatrical solo work directed by Latvian director Alvis Hermanis. In 2005, he launched Baryshnikov Arts Center (BAC) in New York City, a creative space designed to support multidisciplinary artists from around the globe. Among Baryshnikov’s many awards are the Kennedy Center Honors, the National Medal of Arts, the Commonwealth Award, the Chubb Fellowship, the Jerome Robbins Award, and the Vilcek Award. In 2010, he was given the rank of Officer of the French Legion of Honor, and in 2017 he received Japan’s prestigious Praemium Imperiale International Arts Award in Theatre/Film. Current projects include NOT ONCE., a cinematic installation developed in collaboration with Jan Fabre and Phil Griffin, and a second theatrical production directed by Hermanis, The White Helicopter, which premiered November 2019 at the New Riga Theatre.
Guided by family, faith, and music, Sheila Escovedo has made a name for herself as one of the most talented artists over the past five decades. An acclaimed percussionist, singer, author, and actress, Escovedo has released eight studio albums, two of which reached RIAA gold status. She has received four Grammy Award nominations, an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Music Direction for the program In Performance at the White House: Fiesta Latina, and has reached no. 1 on the Billboard Dance Club Songs chart twice. Her producing, arranging, and performance talents can be seen from appearances on the Grammys, Academy Awards, Latin Grammys, BET Awards, Kennedy Center Honors, Summer Olympics, and NAACP Image Awards. Her collaborations with the likes of Prince, Hans Zimmer, John Rich, Gary Clark Jr., and the iconic E Family Band showcase her versatility, performing across a variety of musical genres. Escovedo’s eagerness to share her music, her openness as an author, and her fire for her ministry make her a relatable, inspirational figure for people of all ages.
Multiplatinum artist and producer John Legend has garnered 11 Grammys, an Academy Award, a Golden Globe, a Tony Award, and an Emmy, making Legend the first African American man to earn the elusive EGOT status. Since 2004, Legend has released six acclaimed albums. Legend executive produced and starred in NBC’s Jesus Christ Superstar: Live in Concert in 2018, winning an Emmy for Outstanding Variety Special, and a nomination for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series, Movie, or Variety Special. He joined NBC’s The Voice for season 16 in 2019, where he won with his mentee Maelyn Jarmon, and is currently a coach for season 18. Legend is a partner in Get Lifted Film Co., serving as an executive producer for Southern Rites, United Skates, WGN America’s Underground, and films Southside with You and La La Land. As a philanthropist, Legend initiated the #FreeAmerica campaign in 2015 to change the national conversation surrounding the United States’s misguided criminal justice policies and to end mass incarceration.
Cassandra Wilson is an iconic jazz musician, vocalist, songwriter, and producer. She is heralded for incorporating blues, country, and folk music into her work, expanding the genre of jazz. In the 1980s, she met saxophonist Steve Coleman in New York and became one of the founding members of the M-Base Collective. She signed with Blue Note Records in 1992 and released the landmark album Blue Light ‘Til Dawn, paving the way for a new generation of jazz singers seeking an approach and repertoire that challenged the supremacy of the American standard songbook. Her accolades include two Grammy Awards, a Django d’Or, an Edison Jazz Award, and a marker on the Mississippi Blues Trail. She performed on Wynton Marsalis’s Blood on the Fields, the first jazz work to receive the Pulitzer Prize. In 2015, Wilson joined forces with the prestigious Legacy Recordings, a subsidiary of Sony Music. Her latest project, Coming Forth by Day, was released on the 100th anniversary of Billie Holiday’s birth, April 7, 2015. Wilson has launched the website Really Cassandra Radio to develop a more direct relationship with her audience; a section of the site, Secret Garden, is designed for listeners to access music from her published and unpublished catalogue, including selections from her upcoming work, Jupiter Rising.