Harvard College Bhangra performs.

Bhangra transformed the stage with color as members performed in the Punjabi dance tradition at the Cultural Rhythms festival in Sanders Theatre.

Photos by Jon Chase/Harvard Staff Photographer

Arts & Culture

‘This is our block’

5 min read

Star, creator of hit show ‘Insecure’ Issa Rae honored as Artist of Year at annual Cultural Rhythms festival

The voice of spoken word performer Remka Nwana rang out at Harvard’s 37th annual Cultural Rhythms festival Saturday as she declared, “This is our block,” an allusion to the hit HBO comedy “Insecure” about two young professional women living in multicultural South Los Angeles.

“Now, let me stress this is our time to impress on them our voices, which they oppress. Let us possess the space, escape, and celebrate for all the cultures that make us are immaculate, and this is something everyone should advocate,” the senior read. “Be loud and proud. Honestly, brag about where you’re from, because to conform, that is the biggest form of self-hate. Let our stories hold weight and let us declare this is our block.”

2023 Artist of the Year Issa Rae holds her award, flanked by Alta Mauro and Sade Abraham.
Artist of the Year Issa Rae (center) with Alta Mauro, associate dean of students for inclusion and belonging (left), and Sade Abraham, senior director of the Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations.

A week of block party revelry, including a food festival at Harvard Yard featuring 20 cuisines, culminated Saturday in a celebration of Harvard’s diversity at Sanders Theatre. “Insecure” creator and star Issa Rae was honored as Artist of the Year by the Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations and the Office for the Arts.

The award-winning entertainer sat down for an evening discussion with the festival’s first all-Black directing trio, Kyla Golding ’24, Tiffany Onyeiwu ’25, and Hayat Hassan ’25, who asked Rae about her creative process, advice for students hoping to break into a creative field, and the importance of having a community to support you.

“I think about how so much of my journey has been a result of the people that I met in school,” she said. “I didn’t realize leaving there that this was the last forced community at the end. Everyone’s excited to escape and get out and then go into adulthood, just become who you’re supposed to be, but the people around you that you meet here are so important. These are your collaborators.”

Devon Gates
Bass player, composer, and vocalist Devon Gates ’23 was joined onstage with friends from her dual Harvard-Berklee program.

Rae, who formed her media company HOORAE in 2020, also opened up about the culture shock of moving back to the U.S., where she was born, after living in Senegal during her early childhood. Upon their return Rae and her family moved to Maryland and eventually settled in South Los Angeles just prior to her teen years.

“A lot of my inspiration for [‘The Mis-Adventures of Awkward] Black Girl’ came from that 12-year-old’s experience of adjusting and being around Black people again and understanding my blackness and having my blackness placed up in a microscope and examining that and finding the humor,” Rae said, explaining her mother placed her in a predominately Black school after moving to LA. The groundbreaking web series catapulted Rae to stardom and led to a New York Times best-selling book by the same name.

Rakesh Khurana, Danoff Dean of Harvard College, delivered opening remarks, emphasizing the importance of diversity in the College’s mission to educate its students.

“A program like Cultural Rhythms is so powerful to space and time that we might enlarge ourselves and in the process Harvard’s history and heritage,” Khurana said. “In a space like this, reshape Harvard’s future and show that our diversity is a source of infinite possibility for our world.”

Harvard’s diversity was on full display with musical performances by 11 student groups. Bass player, composer, and vocalist Devon Gates ’23 was joined onstage with friends from her dual Harvard-Berklee program, the group setting the mood for the night with an effervescent jazz performance.

Harvard Philippine Forum dancers.
Harvard Philippine Forum’s act tied tradition with popular contemporary music.

Additional student performances set audience members off on a global dance tour. Bhangra transformed the stage with color as members performed in the Punjabi dance tradition, followed by a salsa trip through the Caribbean with Candela Latin Dance Troupe. The audience went wild for Harvard Philippine Forum’s act, which tied tradition with popular contemporary music. Other performers included UNIQUE: Harvard College Step Team, Harvard Asian American Dance Troupe, Mai Kim Nguyen featuring Sergio Javier Jara-Reynoso, Omo Naija x The Wahala Boys, Mariachi Veritas, RAZA Ballet Folklórico, and the Kuumba Singers of Harvard College.

Cultural Rhythms began in 1986 to unite the Harvard community and celebrate the rich cultural and ethnic diversity of its student body. Every year, an artist is honored for his or her contributions to the arts and society. Past honorees include Lady Gaga, Salma Hayek, Taraji P. Henson, Viola Davis, Rubén Blades, and Janet Mock.