First Lady Michelle Obama’s keynote at SXSW brought an all-star panel together for a broad discussion of music, activism, and diversity, one that also gave her a chance to encourage men in positions of power to bring other voices into the discussion. Obama was joined onstage by Missy Elliott, veteran songwriter Diane Warren, actress Sophia Bush, and moderator Queen Latifah. Their conversation focused on Obama's Let Girls Learn initiative, an effort to raise enrollment rates for adolescent girls around the world, but the topic wasn't restrictive by any means. Obama sang a little Boyz II Men; she sang the praises of Stevie Wonder's Talking Book and Songs in the Key of Life; she offered advice to would-be feminist allies. And if you were wondering, she's definitely not running for president.
After a brief introduction and a performance by the young YouTube stars Chloe and Halle Bailey, Latifah opened the panel by asking the guests what instigated their passion for activism. For Latifah, it was seeing her friends, family, and community decimated by the twin horrors of AIDS and crack in the '80s; for Missy, it was watching her mother escape an abusive relationship. Obama said she was motivated by the people who doubted her ability to succeed. "Growing up as a black girl on the south side of Chicago, as I was trying to make my way and do good in school, there were always people telling me what I couldn't do," said Obama. "My reaction was to prove the doubters wrong."
"There are a lot of men-only tables in this country"
She also referenced the stories of Malala Yousafzai and the schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram, all of whom were targeted because of their attempts to receive an education. "Grown men are trying to snuff out the aspirations of little girls," said Obama. "All of these stories generate the anger and the sense of unfairness that makes you want to move ... I'm trying to carry that spirit over to these 62 million girls." To hear Obama tell it, interests in music and in activism are analogous because they spring from the same kind of passion.
The panel was at its most engrossing when someone asked how men can serve as better allies for women around the world — a question that earned a sharp, lengthy response from Obama:
When you have a seat at the table and you have access to power, the question you can ask yourself is, "Is there diversity around the table? Are there voices and opinions that don't sound like yours?" We reach better answers when we have a broad array of voices... we're better able to empathize. If you're a man at the table and you look around and there are only men at the table, you should ask yourself, "How can I do better?" There are a lot of men-only tables in this country, and around the world... We need you, men. Get it together."
When someone asked if she would run for President someday, Obama used the question to emphasize the good people can do without the force of higher office. "There are so many ways to impact the world," said Obama. "You don't have to be the president of the United States to do wonderful, marvelous things, and I'm not slowing down anytime soon." Her panel may not have been rich in pure music nerdery, but it made for the perfect transition between the SXSW's ideas-heavy first half and its more music-focused back end.