Obama and his wife, Michelle, marked the history of American music Wednesday night during the latest installment of the PBS television program “In Performance at the White House.” The president also noted the 50th anniversary of the National Endowment for the Arts and the Humanities.
“Creativity, it’s always played a central role in the life of our nation,” Obama said. “It’s our artists who hold up a mirror to our society, reminding us of our common purpose and our collective obligations.”
Obama said American music is grounded in stories of real people and that lyrics share the tales of hometowns and the hood, love and heartbreak.
“In America, we turn life into lyrics,” he said.
Obama referenced one of the evening’s performers, Buddy Guy, who once said artists are singing about “everyday life, rich people trying to keep money, poor people trying to get it and everyone having trouble with their husband or wife.”
“Except me,” Obama added. The audiences’ laughter filled the White House East Room, which had been transformed into a concert venue with an elevated white stage and blue spotlights.
Obama called the group of performers helping him to celebrate American music “an eclectic bunch.” The concert was hosted by Carol Burnett and included performances by Guy, Usher, James Taylor, Queen Latifah, Smokey Robinson, Esperanza Spalding, MC Lyte, Audra McDonald, Trombone Shorty, Keb’ Mo’ and Brian Stokes Mitchell.
At a morning workshop at the White House, the first lady advised students training with some of the artists that failure and rejection are part of the steps toward achieving success.
“Failure is a part of that whole process,” Mrs. Obama said. “You just learn to pick yourself up. And the quicker and more resilient you become, the better you are.”
The students from middle schools in Manassas and Herndon, Virginia, and Landover, Maryland, learned to rhyme and produce and write songs during the workshop titled “A Celebration of Song.” At the conclusion of the lesson, they broke out into five groups to craft and perform original work with their celebrity mentor. They were also treated to an impromptu performance by Spalding, Trombone Shorty and Keb’ Mo’.
Mrs. Obama encouraged the students to work hard and practice their craft – whether that was writing or mathematics.
“It’s really important that you all experience this stuff here in this house,” she said. “You all are just as important as those dignitaries that we invite here.”
She added, “Sometimes it takes sitting in this room to make you start dreaming about all that you can be.”
The National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act was signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965. It created the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts, two federal agencies that encourage scholarship and progress in the arts, culture and humanities.
The latest concert also marked the first hip-hop performance in the broadcast series with MC Lyte, a female rap pioneer.
“In Performance at the White House” will be broadcast Jan. 8 on PBS stations.