The announcement of Michelle Obama as a music keynote panelist at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, might have seemed strange. But in hindsight, it made perfect sense: She had a song to release.
On Wednesday morning, the first lady joined actress Sophia Bush, songwriter Diane Warren and rappers Missy Elliott and Queen Latifah onstage in the Austin Convention Center for a conversation about women in the arts, education and society.
After speaking at length about the "doubters" who either implicitly or explicitly told her she would not succeed because she was a black girl, Obama worked in an early mention of education for young women, echoing a letter she posted earlier that day. Millions of girls across the globe are unable to attend school due to violence, discrimination or lack of proper healthcare, she said.
"For me, 62 million girls not getting an education, that’s personal,” she said.
In contrast to her husband’s keynote four days prior, in which President Obama cautiously defended his stance on privacy and encryption, the panel Michelle Obama was a part of was a more casual conversation. Each of the panelists touched on women who had influenced their lives, and the importance of music in providing positive role models for young girls.
Elliott spoke about the pressures of being a female artist in the mainstream, recalling being told she wasn’t the "right size” because of her weight at the start of her career. She said she was inspired to push harder because of women in the hip-hop culture who had come before her, such as MC Lyte, Salt and Pepa, and Latifah (who also happened to be the moderator of the panel). A standout song, she said, was Latifah's "U.N.I.T.Y."
Another point of conversation was the release of a song called “This Is for My Girls,” which would also be performed at SXSW. The song, which was written by Warren and features Elliott as well as Janelle Monáe, Kelly Clarkson and a handful of other female artists, is a bouncy, uplifting pop tune with straightforward, positive lyrics. From the chorus:
This is for my girls all around the world
Stand up, put your head up
Don't take nothing from nobody
This is for my girls stand up and be heard
Elliott compared it to Latifah’s “Ladies First” and 702’s “Where My Girls At,” saying that those songs made women feel empowered, and that more were needed. Obama is not actually featured on the track (“I can’t even carry a tune,” she joked in a post about the song), instead limiting her contribution to support and promotion of the song. The proceeds, Obama said, would go to her Let Girls Learn initiative.
As diversity is an increasingly prominent topic in the national conversation, from the Oscars to the technology industry, it was no surprise that it came up at SXSW. Latifah invited a question from a man that asked how men could be "more supportive allies for women and women’s equality."
Bush said she wanted men to get involved with organizations focused on equality, but also to hear what women were saying. “First things first,” she said, "Listen to a woman you care about tell her story so that you can hear what it’s like on our end."
Obama said men should also think about their own positions of power. "The question you can ask yourselves is, is there diversity around the table?” she said. "If you’re a man at the table and you look around and there are only men at the table, then you should ask yourselves how can I do better."
Latifah took it further and talked about women in the arts. She said she’d started out rapping in a group dominated by men, but they respected her as an individual artist and pushed her to get better. But without more voices, the art form would suffer.
Her answer to what was missing in hip-hop: Women.
"It’s why you’re not getting as rich, as diverse a sound in the music as you should," she said. “Whenever you remove a woman’s voice from anything, you are lacking.”
In the final minutes of the session, Latifah asked two questions just about everyone in the audience was wondering: What would Obama miss most about being in the White House, and would she run for president?
Obama said she would miss the young people she interacts with as first lady. But, she said, she would not let the end of her husband's term stop her: "I’m going to continue to work with our young people all over the world.
"But not as president. I will not run for president,” she said, pausing for a moment as sighs spread across the audience. Part of the reason for not wanting to run, she said, was because she had two daughters, and they’d already dealt with the pressures of being the children of a president.
Instead, she said, she was looking forward to doing work that she’d been unable to do while in the White House.
She then took a similar tone to that of her husband, who three days earlier had said he was at SXSW to recruit more digital entrepreneurs to think about how they could make an impact on the world. “I hope there’s some people in the audience that want to be president of the United States,” she said.
“We need good, smart, decent people with strong values and strong morals that want to go into politics. So I would encourage all of you to consider a life in public service."