Berklee Student Compares TED Events To ‘Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory’

Usman Riaz is the youngest TED Senior Fellow ever selected.

Photo via Vimeo

Photo via Vimeo

Usman Riaz, a first-year student at Berklee College of Music, is about to embark on a journey as a senior fellow of the TED organization, which he likened to a tour of Willy Wonka’s famous chocolate factory.

“You get to see all of these incredible things,” said Riaz, a Pakistani musician trained in classical piano and influenced by percussive guitarists. “We get to view all the talks live, and get to see everything amazing about them.”

Riaz, 22, has been selected as one of 12 TED Senior Fellows that will present at the next four TED conferences around the world starting in 2014. Riaz is the youngest Senior Fellow in the program’s history. According to TED officials, in 2011, a viral video for his song “Fire Fly” helped bring his sound from the small-but-thriving Pakistani music community to a global audience, landing him on stage at TEDGlobal 2012.

His talents on the harmonica, mandolin, harmonium, and guitar—many of which he learned by watching Internet videos—led to other performances, including an appearance in Boston for a Google conference, which helped him get a spot at Berklee as a student.

Now, after being selected as a Senior Fellow by TED, Riaz will travel the globe and emphasize how people can further their talents in music, writing, and art through the use of multimedia and the Internet.

Riaz spoke with Boston about his scheduled appearances, and what responsibilities come with being part of TED:

What does it mean to be a TED fellow?

Now that I’ve been selected, the main thing is going to the TED conferences. The first will be in March, which will be a week-long conference. It’s going to be a pretty big conference. The second one will happen in October. It will be in Rio, in Brazil. These are week-long conferences, and two of them happen every year. Also, because of my senior fellowship and the connection with the community, I will be invited to TED X conferences all over the world as well.

That sounds like a lot of traveling around.

It’ll be a great time. I’m very grateful.

Once you’re settled in, what will you be doing when you get to these conferences?

I don’t just do music; I do fine art as well. I also directed my two short films to compliment my music. Because at the end of the day, I want to tell a particular story with my work, doing all of these things allows me to do that. While I’m on stage, that’s what I talk about. I show videos and do live demonstrations on stage, and then show another and do another live demonstration. I keep the audience very interested—at least I try to.

What do you think people get out of your appearances?

I am hoping I maybe show them what is possible out there. We have so much knowledge available to us, right at our fingertips; we can find anything online, just by typing it in. I want to show them what they can do. They can take that information and do whatever they want with it.

That’s how you learned to play so many instruments, right? Watching videos online?

I was a classically trained pianist. Everything else has been learning through multimedia like the Internet and television.

And those skills led you to this TED Fellowship?

TED has led to so many things. If it didn’t happen, I might not have been at Berklee. Through TED I got performance opportunities all over the world. One was performing at a Google conference in Boston last year, and that’s how I met the Dean of Admissions at Berklee. Everything just came full circle.

How did you get that first experience with the organization?

The Internet. My whole story is, I applied to Berklee as soon I was done with high school because I wanted to learn music and do more. I had an audition I had to do with Berklee, but it was clashing with the recording dates for my personal album. Once I finished my album, and got all of that music out of my system and put it online, the TED people found it and saw it all and invited me to TEDGlobal 2012. One thing led to another, and I got to perform and speak on the main stage.

So you put Berklee aside, did TED, then got into Berklee through TED?

That performance opportunity in 2012 just led to everything else. I mean, I got the opportunity to perform at the Boston Google conference, and the stars just aligned. The Dean of Admissions just happened to be there. I never dreamed I would be there. Everything just fell into place.

Lucky you. Now you’re the youngest TED Senior Fellow. What’s that feel like?

It feels amazing. Everyone selected is so much older and more experienced. I’m grateful they picked someone like me who has very little experience compared to others. It’s a huge honor that they believe in my work.

What’re the benefits of being the youngest TED Fellow?

We don’t get any money, but we get to attend the actual conferences, which normally cost money. It’s like being in Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. There are a lot of celebrities that go to the larger conferences. It’s always just a very incredible group of people, and to associate and talk to everyone, maybe that could lead to—especially for scientists and researchers—grants for their work. It could lead to people following their work and supporting them later. The same could happen for my music. It’s just great to be there.