Remarks by the First Lady at "A Celebration of Song" PBS Workshop
MRS. OBAMA: What's going on? Just hanging out at the White House, huh? (Laughter.) Did you make it in okay?
MRS. OBAMA: Security didn't stop you or anything? You brought your IDs, everything is okay? You excited?
MRS. OBAMA: So are we, so are we. Well, welcome to the White House. We are marking the 50th anniversary of the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities. Do you guys know anything about the history of this endowment, these endowments? I will tell you a little bit about it. (Laughter.)
But to celebrate this milestone, we've invited a group of legendary artists and songwriters to share their gifts with us and to do some really fun things with you all. Are you guys -- you guys are budding artists, I understand. Is that true?
MRS. OBAMA: That's good, because we might have to make you leave if you're not. (Laughter.) Just kidding, just kidding. We have Keb' Mo', MC Lyte, Smokey Robinson, Esperanza Spalding and Trombone Shorty -- pretty cool, huh? (Applause.) And they're going to be performing tonight at an important performance with a lot of fancy people and some other entertainers -- I think Queen Latifah and Usher are going to be here, and Carol Burnett.
But we do these fancy events at night for, like, dressed-up people. But the most fun part of the day is when these entertainers take time to spend with you guys in particular. And we're just so grateful that they, in the midst of a very busy day, that they take time to come and talk to you guys, young people who want to do great things. And they're going to be spending some quality time.
We also have the one and only Bob Santelli, who is from the Grammy Museum. (Applause.) One of the reasons we can do these kinds of events and do this workshop is because Bob has been such a phenomenal partner, a passionate partner. And he always makes it a point to make sure that these workshops happen. It's been really a pleasure to work with Bob and the Grammy Museum over the years.
And in addition to the stars that we have up here on stage, we also have the most important stars in the audience -- all of you guys. We have students from Manassas, Virginia; Herndon, Virginia; and Landover, Maryland. Did I get everybody? Is that right? So you guys are all young people from the area who have expressed some passion for the arts in some way, shape or form. And we're excited to have you here, and we hope you have a great time. And we want you to relax, okay? I mean, after I leave, these guys will leave too, and then you'll be able to loosen up. (Laughter.) But we're excited to have you here, so we hope you guys are doing okay and you just enjoy this moment.
Way back in 1965, President Johnson created the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities. And he did this because he wanted to promote the creativity that makes our nation so special and so unique. He wanted to support great American artists and musicians like the folks we have on stage. He also wanted to do all of this because he knew that the arts and music could inspire and enrich folks across the country, particularly young people like all of you.
And that's why we wanted you all to be here today. That's why you all are hanging out in the same house in the same room where we entertain kings and queens, and, yes, even the Pope. In this very room we hold state dinners, and we do really fabulous things. And we think it's really important that you all experience this stuff here in this house just like what you think important people are. Because you all are just as important as those dignitaries that we invite here.
We want to make sure that you understand that you can transition from those seats right there to these seats up here. You can do it. If we can, you can. And whether you want to be in these seats up here, or any seats anywhere, you have the power and the potential to make that happen. And sometimes it takes sitting in this room to make you start dreaming about all that you can be.
Because all of us up here, we're not that much different from you guys. Speaking for myself, I didn't grow up in a household with a whole lot of money. My parents didn't go to college. We didn't have a ton of resources. We didn't live in a big, fancy house. This is the fanciest house I've ever lived in my entire life -- (laughter) -- will probably always be the fanciest house I will ever live in.
But I have to be honest with you, I never thought I would be First Lady. That wasn't even something that was in my realm of possibility. And I'm sure none of these folks up here ever dreamed that they'd be playing a concert for the President of the United States. Now, some of them have done it a couple of times. (Laughter.) So it's probably gotten to be old hat. Smokey Robinson is here like every other day, but that's okay with me. (Laughter.)
But everyone up here had one thing in common: We believed in ourselves. That's true from the very start. I always thought I could do great things, I just needed the opportunity. And we also worked really hard. I don't think there's anyone up here who hasn't put their 120 percent into whatever they do.
Let's take Trombone Shorty, for example. He started practicing when he was just a toddler. If you can imagine that, that's crazy. So you have to start practicing as a toddler if you're going to become a bandleader when you're six years old, which is what he did.
Esperanza was sick and she was stuck at home for most of her elementary school. See, I love doing this because I learn so much about these guys. But she took that time that she was at home to study music, and when she was just 15 she had her first gig in a blues club -- at the ripe old age of 15.
MC Lyte was tired of only seeing rappers who didn't look like her, so she worked hard to find her own style as a rapper. And at 17 years old, she became the first female rapper to release her own album -- yes, pretty good.
Keb' Mo', he took a little longer. (Laughter.) Maybe he was a little slow. (Laughter.) When his first album didn't sell, he waited almost 15 years until he released the next one. But now he is a three-time Grammy Award winner who played at one of our presidential inaugural balls. And he is amazing.
And then there is the great Smokey Robinson. Let's just take a moment, take that in. (Laughter.) Smokey Robinson -- some of you all may be too young, but no one is that young. Yes, we have one maybe. Well, let me tell you something about Smokey Robinson. Just listen. (Laughter.)
Back when Smokey Robinson was growing up -- he was growing up in a rough part of Detroit, and he was a passionate songwriter; wrote song after song, working hours on drafts. So by the time he was in high school, he had put together this huge book of songs that he had written -- even at that age. And when he and his bandmates got this big audition with a record label, they were already ready. They had been ready. They were born ready.
MR. ROBINSON: So you say. (Laughter.)
MRS. OBAMA: At least that's what -- how the story goes. (Laughter.) I believe it.
So they walked into this audition and they played a few songs. And of course, some crazy manager there wasn't impressed. He told them, no, go on about your way; thanks, we're not interested. (Laughter.) What a mistake.
But sitting in the back of that auditorium was a songwriter who worked at the record label, and the songwriter looked through Smokey's book and he thought the stuff was pretty good. It happened that this songwriter was Berry Gordy. And I don't know if you know anything about Berry Gordy -- he created a company called Motown. And that made Smokey Robinson and the Miracles some of the biggest stars in the world. That's just the short version of their story. There is a Broadway musical about the whole thing that I would advise you to go check out. Today, Smokey has dozens of Top 40 hits -- songs you probably don't even know he's written are his. You were probably humming them. They're everywhere. He's in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
And as Smokey says –- these are his words -- he says, "You just had to be ready to work. You had to be ready to work and to compete." And that's true for everyone on this stage. Everyone worked hard –- whether that meant rapping until their throats were sore, or going through dozens of drafts of songs, or going through practices and scales until your fingers are raw -- so that when that big break came, they were ready.
And that same principle holds true for everything you all will do. And that's something we just want to emphasize -- you don't get here without a lot of hard work. And that starts in school. I know teachers tell you this, your parents tell you this; now we're going to tell you this. It takes a lot of time to perfect any craft -- writing, mathematics. It takes doing it over and over and over again.
And failure is a part of that whole process -- failure and rejection. Everyone up here has failed big and been rejected over and over again. But you just learn to pick yourself up. And the quicker and more resilient you become, the better you are. So you don't want to push off failure or rejection. You don't want to reject rejection. It's part of the process. You just want to ask yourself, where did I go wrong, and how do I improve?
So speaking of getting better and improving -- that's exactly what we want to do with you guys today. We've got a special treat. Bob is going to talk to you a little bit about the history of songwriting, and then we're going to break you guys into small groups where you get to spend some intimate time with these artists who are going to work with you to compose some songs of your own. So you're going to get one-on-one attention with these masters up here. Do you know how many people would give anything to get the opportunity you're about to have here, at the White House?
So are you ready for this?
MRS. OBAMA: All right. So what I want you all to do is I want you to be loose and relaxed in this whole process. Get the most that you can. So you can't be nervous through it, okay? And I want you to ask questions, okay? Don't be afraid. The whole point is you got to open up your mouth and make your voice heard, ask questions, take advantage of this opportunity, okay? Don't be shy. Now is not the time to be shy. And listen as much as you can. Listen to the advice. And don't talk about music, but talk about life. Talk about your dreams and how you get where you want to go. Because these folks have done some amazing things, and they're willing to share some of their most intimate secrets with you guys, all right?
But most of all, I want you to have fun. I hope this is a day that you will remember for the rest of your lives. And when you hit a bump or a hurdle, that you think about the words you'll hear today -- that we believe in you, that you're just like us, and that you can make this happen for yourselves no matter what you decide to do. All right?
I'm going to leave so you guys can get this done. And I am just so proud of you and happy to have you in our home. So have fun, okay? All right. Take care. (Applause.)
Michelle Obama, Remarks by the First Lady at "A Celebration of Song" PBS Workshop Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/321775