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Hustle Is A Political Act: Michelle Obama's SXSW Keynote Shifted The Spotlight

First lady Michelle Obama on stage with Missy Elliott during her SXSW keynote event on Wednesday, March 16.
Drew Anthony Smith
Getty Images
First lady Michelle Obama on stage with Missy Elliott during her SXSW keynote event on Wednesday, March 16.

The most meme-able moment of Michelle Obama's keynote event at yesterday's South by Southwest conference and festival came when she responded to a question from her friend Queen Latifah by crooning a few bars of the Motown weeper "It's So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday." The novelty of a first lady singing (and doing so well enough that Latifah suggested she make a single soon) was charming, if not entirely fresh; after all, Obama has rapped with Jay Pharoah, danced to Beyonce and lip-synced with Ayesha and Steph Curry. What did feel notable was the comfort with which she broke into song, and the associations both her song choice and her presence as a keynote speaker for a music convention made. The song, like the day's roundtable discussion in general, place the genial #FLOTUS within a certain historical moment while embodying a circle of empowerment that promises to extend well beyond her time in the White House.

The moment is the hip-hop era, embodied by the rapper-turned-singer-actress Latifah and by Missy Elliott, who made a rare speaking appearance at the first lady's request. The contemporary context is the entertainment milieu that hip-hop has forever changed. "To have written ' Ladies First' and be sitting with the first lady ... it's surreal," said Latifah, who was an enthusiastic and equanimous moderator throughout the session. In Obama's vision, however, this meeting of minds across the space between the world of beats and rhymes and politics — a meeting centered around conversation among three African-American women — was not a dream. It stood for the reality emerging as she and her husband prepare to leave the White House, one in which hip-hop's influence on the American vernacular is generally appreciated, and significant energy is being expended to acknowledge women's influence on hip-hop, and on popular culture in general.

Michelle Obama's hip-hop era is also the Oprah era, a time in which women have gained enormous influence by dominating channels that the male-dominated political scene did not always recognize as serious, like daytime and television and mainstream pop music. While that other Lady O was not present in Austin, her spirit, grounded in the optimistic belief that entertainment can be uplifting and that listening to ordinary women can make a difference, permeated the roundtable. The keynote's two other participants were also in the culture industry: the actress Sophia Bush, known for her role in One Tree Hill, a show beloved by teenage girls; and Diane Warren, the mega-successful songwriter behind hits for divas like Celine Dion and that multivalent mainstay, Beyonce. Warren, whose co-write with Lady Gaga, "Til It Happens to You," addressed the tough subject of rape and was nominated for an Academy Award, recently penned the charity single " This Is for My Girls" to benefit Obama's Let Girls Learn education initiative, which provided a focus for this roundtable. Bush is known for using social media to promote causes ranging from environmentalism to marriage equality. By convening this gathering, placing herself among women whose power originates in their work as culture-makers, Obama made a strong statement about how pop can influence social consciousness: "Right now, you're practicing utilizing your power," she said to the audience of aspiring musicians and music-biz professionals, congenially challenging them to think of this week's South by Southwest hustle as a political act.

This made sense for Obama, whose insistence that she will never run for president was underscored by her assertion that she can accomplish more beyond the realm of electoral politics. She has often used music to promote her initiatives, so often focused on youth. She does so to reach her daughters' generation, but also because taking music seriously is fundamental to her own generation, the post-soul babies who listened to Stevie Wonder as children (Obama recalled receiving his Talking Book from an uncle as a grade-schooler and how the album pushed her to "think about how you could affect the world") and found inspiration in the rhymes of conscious rappers like KRS-One. One agenda this roundtable fulfilled was placing women at the center of that musical history. Elliott cited Salt-n-Pepa, MC Lyte and Latifah herself — all rappers who crossed into the pop world and subsequently are sometimes overlooked as central to the genre's legacy — as major influences, and Warren pointed out that Elliott fulfills the same role for many young artists today.

Ms. Obama's playful song choice also made a statement of female pride: First featured in the 1975 teen movie Cooley High and later made popular by the ladies' favorite vocal group Boyz II Men, the song is exactly what a gathering of women would consider meaningful, no matter whether men might find it romantic fluff. Her warm reminiscence and playful sharing encapsulated the panel's mood, one in which women sure of their power showed that they could relax and be personal without risking their authority.

Of course, hip-hop itself remains a form identified with masculine self-assertion, just as electoral politics are undergoing a very slow evolution toward gender equity. Latifah addressed this with one of the roundtable's most pointed statements: "When we talk about what's missing in hip-hop," she said, " women is what's missing in hip-hop." Not at this event. Selecting two of hip-hop's most beloved and influential female artists as her peers, Obama quietly suggested that a problem usually viewed as still to be solved can be recast, at least somewhat, by taking a different historical view. For a couple of hours, a different vision of music and popular culture dominated, one with women of color at the absolute center, and it didn't feel unrealistic. Shonda Rimes, Rihanna, and Ava DuVernay all live in this "alternate" universe too.

This welcoming event was very much in line with women's talk. There were true confessions: Elliott shared the story of her mother, a domestic violence survivor, and Latifah recalled being drawn to activism after seeing loved ones fall to the 1980s crack epidemic and to AIDS. There was laughter about the need for men to "get it together," in the first lady's words (though, as usual in public conversations among women like this one, plenty of love was thrown toward the "good guys" too). And there was much praise exchanged. Yet by interweaving these intimate-feeling moments with serious ones in which she clearly stated the need to place more women at the table, both as schoolgirls and in the highest halls of power, Obama subtly insisted that women's expressiveness and achievements are integral to the flourishing of a just society.

The Let Girls Learn initiative represents a culmination, or at least a new stage, of a politicized view of girls' development that has strong roots in popular music. In the 1990s, the idea that girls needed their own language to address power inequities emerged within both the punk-based riot grrrl movement and the music of artists like Elliott and Latifah. The messages carried forward in the music were taken up by activists, but also by organizations like the Girl Scouts and the Clinton administration, which sponsored its own Let Girls Learn-style initiative in 1997. Much has changed since then, including a general American willingness to see the pop realm as a force for empowerment, if not always a strictly political one. Michelle Obama's older daughter, Malia, was born in 1998, at the height of this first wave of politicized, pop-flavored "girl power." As a millennial, she belongs to the generation an event like this one works hardest to reach — one in which and meticulously branded direct action remind us that all politics is entertainment, and no less serious for that. The world Malia is entering as an adult is more open, not only to girls' empowerment, but to pop empowerment. And that is a force Michelle Obama knows how to embrace.

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Ann Powers is NPR Music's critic and correspondent. She writes for NPR's music news blog, The Record, and she can be heard on NPR's newsmagazines and music programs.