SXSW Dispatch #2: Michelle Obama, riot grrrl | WBEZ
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Jim DeRogatis

SXSW Dispatch #2: Michelle Obama, riot grrrl

AUSTIN—Kicking off South by Southwest 2016 with a keynote address formatted as an Oprah-style talk show panel with the express goal of publicizing the White House initiative #62milliongirls, Michelle Obama threatened to be overshadowed by her husband’s appearance last Friday—to say nothing of his announcement of a nominee to the Supreme Court, which was happening at exactly the same time.

During his talk at SXSW, the President spoke about the national security threats of digital communications without limits to an audience of tech entrepreneurs in the midst of the government’s headline-making legal case against Apple. But if Michelle didn’t make that kind of hard news or take that much of a risk in Austin, she did something that arguably was more valuable, especially in this season of endlessly bitter politicking.

She inspired.

Sitting in the center of a panel moderated by hip-hop pioneer Queen Latifah and also including former One Tree Hill and current Chicago P.D. actress Sophia Bush, superstar producer Missy Elliott, and platinum songwriter Diane Warren (who penned the cause’s new charity anthem, This is for My Girls), Obama talked about the importance of young women believing that they can do anything, including changing the world. And she started by noting how one of her own biggest inspirations as a girl growing up in Chicago was proving wrong the many “doubters.”

“Growing up as a black girl on the South Side of Chicago, where the expectations were limited, there were always people around telling me what I couldn’t do,” the First Lady said. “There were always people telling me how far I should dream. My reaction to that was to prove the doubters wrong.”

The message is of course as relevant to the tens of thousands of artists gathered in Austin, men and women, as it is to girls around the world who are being denied an education. Meeting so many young people and spurring their ambitions is the thing Obama said she has enjoyed most about the White House.

She will continue this work when she leaves the White House, she added, with a smile that hinted she’ll be glad when she and her husband finally escape the relentless Presidential pressure cooker.

Actually, it was more than a hint: Obama broke into a little a cappella Boyz II Men, singing, “It’s so hard to say goodbye to yesterday.”

And no, she added later in response to a question chosen in advance from the audience, she will not someday run for President herself.

Another inspiration for the First Lady: Her grandfather growing up on the South Side, a carpenter whom everyone simply called “South Side” (“We weren’t very original,” she joked). He fostered an enduring love of music by giving her a gift that she still considers her favorite album of all time: Stevie Wonder’s Talking Book (though she said that Songs in the Key of Life ranks a close second).

“When I wrote ‘Ladies First,’ I never thought that someday I’d be sitting with the First Lady,” Queen Latifah said. The feeling seemed to be shared by the capacity crowd, many of whom arrived hours before the speech, and all of whom submitted to Secret Service scans and pat-downs the likes of which have never been seen at a music festival. 

But then SXSW 2016 promises to be a different kind of festival, and it began on a high note indeed.

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