Commencement 2017


Honorary Degree Recipients

Roberta Flack

Internationally hailed as one of the greatest songstresses of our time, GRAMMYAward winner Roberta Flack remains unparalleled in her ability to tell a story through her music. Born in Asheville, N.C. and raised in Arlington, Va., Flack discovered her earliest musical influences from the local Baptist church, where she heard such gospel luminaries as Mahalia Jackson and Sam Cooke with the Soul Stirrers.

At home, an old upright piano Flack’s father repaired for her was the instrument she used to develop her burgeoning talent. At 13, she won second place in a statewide contest for black students with her performance of a Scarlatti sonata, and at age 15, she became one of the youngest students ever to enroll at Howard University, attending on a full music scholarship. Within a year, she was conducting her sorority's vocal quartet, accompanying pop, jazz, and opera singers, and changed her major from piano to voice, as she was assisting the school's choir conductor. To earn extra money, she also taught piano privately and played the organ at her parents' church - a job previously held by her mother.

Flack next changed her major to music education, becoming the first black student teacher at an all-white school near Chevy Chase, Md. By the time she graduated, at 19, she'd already directed a production of Aida, earning her a standing ovation from the faculty after her final exam recital. She began graduate studies in music, but the sudden death of her father forced her to leave both school and home to take a teaching job out of the necessity to support herself.

While teaching, she continued to perform, serving as an accompanist to opera singers at Washington’s posh Tivoli Club and playing blues, folk songs, and pop standards during intermissions. Her reputation and profile continued to grow, and in 1968, a benefit performance for the Inner City Ghetto Children’s Library Fund led to an audition with Atlantic Records, which in turn led to her debut album, First Take.

First Take was the beginning of a storied recording career that would include 19 studio albums, eight No. 1 singles, and four GRAMMY Awards. After winning her first GRAMMYAwards in 1973 for “The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face” (Record of the Year) and her Donny Hathaway duet “Where Is the Love” (Best Pop Vocal Performance by a Duo, Group, or Chorus), Flack won two more GRAMMYAwards in 1974, winning Record of the Year and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance for “Killing Me Softly With His Song.” To this day, Flack remains the only artist in history to win consecutive Record of the Year honors at the GRAMMY Awards.

Today, Flack is focused on empowering the next generation of artists. Her Robert Flack School of Music, housed at the Hyde Leadership Charter School in the Bronx, was designed to engage children who demonstrate a strong interest in studying music, educate them in the fundamental principles of music, and enable them to read and write their own music. In addition, given the exposure to these elements, there is an opportunity to utilize music as a means of augmenting a strong academic education.

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