Less than a week after President Barack Obama kicked off SXSW with an Interactive keynote interview, First Lady Michelle Obama set the tone for SXSW Music with a keynote that included Missy Elliott, Diane Warren, and Sophia Bush, and was moderated by Queen Latifah. The conversation served as a platform for FLOTUS to highlight the White House’s Let Girls Learn initiative, a program that partners with the Peace Corps to address access to education for girls around the world.
After the event opened with a performance by Chloe and Halle Bailey, young sisters signed to Beyoncé’s management company, it became clear why Michelle Obama was speaking at a music keynote and joined by musical powerhouses. The discussion was introducing, “This is For My Girls,” a girl power song written by Warren and featuring Missy Elliott, Chloe and Halle, Janelle Monae, among other singers, for which all of the proceeds will go to Let Girls Learn.
Queen Latifah began Wednesday’s discussion, which centered on doing social good, with a question about which “pivotal moment” inspired each woman’s passion. For Latifah it was her teenage years, in which she saw the way crack ruined the lives of her classmates and friends, and how AIDS stigmatized and alienated Latifah’s family members. Missy Elliott shared her experience of watching her mother suffer in—and then eventually leave— an abusive relationship. Diane Warren talked about being a “messed up kid” who found salvation in songwriting. Sophia Bush talked about summer camp. For Michelle Obama, it was “the doubters.”
“I don’t know about young people here, but growing up as a black girl on the southside of Chicago, where the expectations of me were limited—as I was trying to make my way and do good in school and apply to good colleges, there were always people around telling me what I couldn’t do,” she said. “My reaction at that time was to prove the doubters wrong.”
But Obama pointed out that not every young person—especially young girls—is able to push back against doubters and systems that interfere with their learning and education. She talked about Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani activist who was shot in the head by the Taliban after advocating for the education of girls. She also referred to the #BringBackOurGirls campaign, which was created after more than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls were kidnapped from their dorms by members of Boko Haram. These stories are examples of what Michelle Obama described as “grown men trying to snuff out the aspirations of little girls.”
These stories inspired the launch of Let Girls Learn and #62MillionGirls, a social tag that refers to the number of girls around the world who are denied an education. The discussion—which ranged from topics such as musical inspirations to the importance of diversity to affect change—was light on the details about the initiative. Audience members and viewers were encouraged to get involved with #62MillionGirls by signing a Change.org petition, hosting fundraising events, and donating to the Let Girls Learn Peace Corps fund. Helping could even be as simple as downloading “This is For My Girls” off iTunes.
A song available for download and donating to a fund may seem like simplistic solutions to the myriad social, political, and economic factors that interfere with the education of young girls, but Obama seems to be a believer in the power of the people. A few audience questions referenced the end of her time and position in the White House, something Obama doesn’t seem that worried about. Perhaps the most anticipated question of the afternoon was the final one: “Will you run for president?”
After the cheers died down, Obama answered with a firm, “No, I will not run for president.” She added, “No, nope, not gonna do it,” just in case we didn’t get it. She wouldn’t put her daughters through being the president’s daughters twice. What she does plan to do is continue rallying around the causes that her personal to her—just not from the White House.
“There’s so much that I can do outside the White House,” she said. “And sometimes there’s more that you can do outside the White House.” And with this new campaign, it seems that Obama is ready to tackle projects even when she isn’t First Lady.