NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ — Choose to be great—and good.
That was a key takeaway from Stevie Van Zandt’s speech during Rutgers University’s commencement ceremony yesterday, May 14, at High Point Solutions Stadium in Piscataway. The storied rocker, actor and activist spoke to a crowd pegged at 45,000 people strong, urging graduates to both push themselves and improve the world.
“Reach for greatness—nothing less,” he said. “And make sure you have some fun along the way. Life should never be boring.”
Van Zandt rose to fame by playing in Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band. He co-produced legendary records like “The River” and “Born in the U.S.A.” before becoming an international activist, often fighting to overturn American foreign policy. Van Zandt then revived his career by landing a top acting role on the HBO show “The Sopranos.”
The Jersey native invoked much of his history during the graduation speech.
He and Springsteen spent years working their craft, trying to bust out of the garage and into the mainstream. Van Zandt and his crew thought rock music would “change everything,” he said, despite some of the genre’s founding icons falling from grace or leaving music behind.
When the E Street Band began to find success, Van Zandt started reading everything he could about post-World War II American foreign policy. What he found—like the country’s support of some foreign dictators—disturbed him, he said.
So he left the band to do activist work full-time. As his pals bought mansions and lived the rockstar life, he traveled from one dangerous country to another, trying to avoid military checkpoints.
Eventually, he learned of apartheid in South Africa. The longstanding system of segregation, which oppressed millions black people, became Van Zandt’s next target.
“You’d see an occasional demonstration, but the public apathy was pathetic,” he said of Americans’ knowledge of apartheid. “It was simply not on the public’s radar.”
Van Zandt and other musicians recorded music in a push against the system. Their work boosted public awareness and was ultimately considered a contributor to the demise of apartheid.
Doing that sort of good, he told Rutgers graduates, is essential to living a fulfilling life.
“You don’t have to bring down a bad government every day. Just do something nice for somebody,” he said. “You’ll feel better.”
But Van Zandt later faced blowback for his activism. In the 1990s, after helping to topple apartheid and produce some of the country’s most celebrated music, he found himself out of work.
“I had been in one of the most successful bands in the world, achieved a significant level of celebrity and I couldn’t work,” he said. “I was informally, unofficially blackballed by my industry for my political activity.”
That made him hungrier. He pushed his way back into entertainment, making his way onto “The Sopranos.”
The now-deceased star of that show, James Gandolfini, graduated from Rutgers. Van Zandt gave his colleague and friend a shoutout during the ceremony, a move met with applause from the crowd.
Despite his past troubles, Van Zandt has remained an outspoken activist.
Indeed, some of his lines that were met with the loudest cheers bashed President Donald Trump and Republicans. Van Zandt, for example, denounced gerrymandering and attempts to gut environmental regulations. He also praised immigrants and said the “biggest threat” to the country are religious extremists, “some foreign, mostly domestic.”
He also rallied for the arts and against cuts to arts education in schools.
“We’re the only country in the world where art is considered a luxury,” he said. “You are going to have to change that.”
Yet not all of Van Zandt’s speech focused on politics or his work. He gave the 17,729 members of the Class of 2017 advice to be used every day, as well: Do your homework before you talk, do what you love and reject mediocrity.
“When your ship comes in you will probably be at the airport,” he said. “You can make all the plans you want, but keep yourself open for unexpected opportunities because that is where most of life comes from.’’
He also invoked the university slogan, “Jersey roots. Global reach,’’ by showing just how much weight the state has. Look no further, he said, than Bruce Springsteen or Tony Soprano. What matters most, Van Zandt added, is being authentic.