Michelle Obama at SXSW: “There Are a Lot of Men-Only Tables Going On”

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After a lengthy, not entirely unpleasant performance by Beyoncé proteges Chloe and Halle, today’s South By Southwest panel featuring First Lady Michelle Obama, Missy Elliott, Diane Warren, and Sophia Bush kicked off in powerful fashion, thanks to moderator Queen Latifah. Explaining the events in her life that lead to her wanting to strive beyond her upbringing and better the lives of those around her, Latifah touchingly recalled the story of her two uncles, both of whom fell to AIDS. This set off a panel that was mostly about female and minority empowerment — but also about celebrating Michelle Obama, and rightfully so.

Throughout the talk, Obama promoted the efforts of her Let Girls Learn campaign, which at first set off my cynicism alarm but, through the combined excitement of Obama and her panel-mates, actually helped prove to this skeptic that empowerment songs, like the Diane Warren-penned, Obama-endorsed “This Is For My Girls,” actually have a purpose, and they work.

But the biggest successes of the panel came during the Q&A, with two questions. The first asked the panelists which album impacted them the most. Missy Elliott took the easy (but probably true) road, talking on the importance of early female rappers like Queen Latifah, MC Lyte, and Salt n Pepa. Diane Warren took the most expected road, given that she’s a songwriter, and said the Beatles and early Motown records. Sophia Bush, like Missy, also said Latifah. Latifah, for her part, spoke at length about Teena Maria, who inspired her to write and produce her own songs.

Michelle Obama, though, said Stevie Wonder, and told a story about her grandfather, whom she called Southside. He was a carpenter, loved jazz. She would go to his house every weeked and play music with him and play with his dog, Rex. He bought her Talking Book, and played that album over and over and over again — until Songs in the Key of Life.

It was a touching moment that proved she had the same, if not better, storytelling skills as her husband. And then she said something that proved she wasn’t afraid to ruffle the feathers of the men in the room — or any room, for that matter.

When asked what men could do to help level the playing field for women, Obama said, “When you have a seat at the table, and you have access to power, the question you can ask yourselves, is there diversity around the table? Are there voices and opinions that don’t sound like yours?” She finished by saying, “There are a lot of men-only tables going on.”

Obama’s speaking moments were generally compelling and made the fact that she answered “no” to the question “Will you run for President?” just a little bit sad. Her explanation of that answer made plenty of sense, on both personal and political levels: she doesn’t want to subject her two daughters to more White House-level scrutiny, and she correctly believes that important change can be made outside of the Oval Office. First Lady Obama’s statements, along with those provided by President Obama last Friday, foreshadow what will probably be a long life of service in the public sphere for the Obama family.

Lastly, and with no context whatsoever, here is a video of Michelle Obama singing Boyz II Men.