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Remarks by the First Lady at a PBS Student Workshop for "In Performance at the White House: The Musical Legacy of Ray Charles"

February 24, 2016

MRS. OBAMA: You guys, rest yourselves. Hi!


MRS. OBAMA: How are you all doing?


MRS. OBAMA: This is a nice packed crowd. Welcome to the White House! Yeah, come on, let's get excited about it! (Applause.) We're in the White House! Loving it.

AUDIENCE: (Inaudible.)

MRS. OBAMA: What did you say, babe? (Laughter.) It's exciting, it's okay to be excited. Hi, sweetie. (Laughter.)


MRS. OBAMA: I love you all, and I'm glad you are in this house. It's going to be great fun. But I am thrilled to welcome you all here to our "In Performance at the White House" workshop as we celebrate the life and achievements of a legendary American musician, Mr. Ray Charles. (Applause.)

Now, today's event is a little bittersweet for all of us, because today marks the very last "In Performance" event that will take place while my family is living in the White House. We're going to have a lot of laughs coming up. And this is the last of one of my favorite events of all time. And these events have been such a wonderful part of our time here, in particular these workshops and being with all of you.

Since our first concert in 2009, we have hosted 11 of these workshops. We started out celebrating the music of the Civil Rights movement with the late, great Natalie Cole. She was here for that, and we are so blessed that we had her here. (Applause.) We went on to celebrate everything from Motown with Smokey Robinson, to country with Kris Kristofferson, to Memphis Soul with Justin Timberlake -- yes, he was here, and he spent time with young people. So we have had such a tremendous set of artists and focuses on music -- the best of all, we've been able to share this amazing cultural legacy with over 800 young people from around the country. (Applause.)

So our thinking, by bringing you all here, is that we have this wonderful action-packed celebration that's filmed, and it's shown on television. But we want to make sure that the kids in our country get to really experience these artists. So in exchange for what they're doing at night, they're here all day. They give up their time to come and really spend some quality time with you guys. And that's really what makes these performances so unique.

And today, I want to take a moment to recognize Bob Santelli from the Grammy Museum -- (applause) -- because he has been here for every single one of these events, and none of these workshops would happen without Bob's passion and focus for bringing the arts to our young people. He's been a champion of this cause. He's been an outstanding partner over these years, never failing, always enthusiastic here; just making sure we get the right artists and these conversations are lively and engaged. And, Bob, I just want to take a moment to thank you, truly, for your friendship and your support and for all that you do. And, as we said backstage, we hope that the next administration will continue this tradition, because it is a wonderful way to just reinforce our rich cultural heritage in the arts here at the White House. So thank you again, Bob. (Applause.)

So we figured we've got to go out with a bang, right? So to help us honor Mr. Charles's legacy, we've invited a group of wonderful artists to share their gifts with all of us. We have Yolanda Adams. (Applause.) Leon Bridges. (Applause.) Leon is a little shy; he said, "I haven't been much off my porch lately." (Laughter.) He's been everywhere now. We have Andra Day. (Applause.) Demi Lovato. (Applause.) And, last but not least, Jussie Smollett. (Applause.) You don't want to miss out on this cuteness over here. I'm sorry for those -- for blocking it. I'll be gone in a second. (Laughter.)

But finally, I want to give a special shout-out to all of you -- all of our amazing young people who come here from all across the country. I understand we have young people from California. (Applause.) We got some Ohio young people in the house. Come on, Ohio. You can whoop it up a little more. It's okay, it's okay. (Applause.) We've got folks from Mississippi. (Applause.) We've got a little Georgia in the house. (Applause.) And of course, we've got young people from right around the corner in Maryland who are here. (Applause.) Are you guys excited?


MRS. OBAMA: Yes. Well, me too, I'm really excited. We're celebrating an icon of American music, someone who's a longtime favorite in the Obama household and all across the country and, frankly, around the world.

For over half a century, countless people have been grooving to Ray Charles's signature sound -- that incredible blend of soul and gospel, and everything in between. Now, Bob is going to tell you more about Ray Charles in a few minutes, so I'm not going to steal his thunder. But I do want to talk a little bit about where Mr. Charles and the folks on this stage started out, where they ended up, and the journey they took to get here.

See, Ray Charles may have ended up as a cultural icon -- a man who won 17 Grammy awards, who performed for seven Presidents, and who was nicknamed "The Genius." But before all that, he was just a kid from a struggling family in rural Florida, where he was blind by the age of seven, and he was an orphan by the age of 15.

But Ray Charles loved music, and he was determined to pursue his passion. So he learned to read sheet music in braille. He started arranging music for his high school band. He became a backup musician in a series of bands, and when he got his big break, he toured for nine or 10 months every single year -- he was always on the road, spending long days and long nights performing as much as he could. Because, as Ray Charles put it

-- and these are his words -- he said, "If there's something I want to do, [I] won't be satisfied until I get it done."

And make no mistake about it, that story of dedication and hard work even in the face of all kinds of obstacles -- that's the story of every single person on this stage. And it's one of the reasons why we wanted to have them here, one of the reasons why they wanted to share their stories with you, because they've seen that struggle.

For example, Andra has been called a "newcomer" to soul music, but the truth is that she's been rehearsing and performing since she was 11 years old. So just think about it -- this "newcomer" has been working on this craft since she was a baby.

Yolanda Adams -- her father passed away when she was young, so she had to help raise her five brothers and sisters with her mother. But she kept on singing in the church choir on the weekends, and then she used her free time, whatever little she had, to record and travel to gigs. And today, she's one of the biggest names in gospel. She's one of the phenomenal voices of our time. And she is a dear, dear friend, in addition to hosting radio and doing all kinds of other things.

And then there's Leon -- young Leon Bridges over there, looking pretty sharp. (Applause.) Trying to, trying to. As a kid, Leon was so shy -- he's still a little shy -- he couldn't have dreamed of singing in front of other people at all. Just two years ago, he was working as a dishwasher and playing to crowds of just 10 people -- sometimes while still wearing his dishwashing apron. (Laughter.)

But he kept on rehearsing and practicing and taking advanced dance classes -- he's a dancer -- and practicing his guitar. And soon, folks started to realize that Leon had some talent. He started getting bigger crowds, and the record labels took notice, and eventually, as you may have seen last week, Leon made it to the Grammys, where his very first album was nominated for best R&B album of the year. (Applause.) And may I ask, how old are you?

MR. BRIDGES: Twenty-six.

MRS. OBAMA: Twenty-six. (Laughter.) Now, to you all, that may sound old, but to me, he's a baby. (Laughter.) See, we've got to flip it now, we got teenagers now.

So the folks on this stage have faced plenty of challenges. Demi Lovato, as you all know her story, overcame addiction and mental health issues, and is now an activist empowering others. And she has really used her voice in a very powerful way, something that artists don't often do, but she's taken that risk.

Jussie spoke out about the civil rights issues he cares about, even when TV executives told him that that would harm his career. He did not let that stop him. He is a role model, a representative, and a voice for so many young people.

No matter what, these folks kept on going. They kept on practicing, and studying, and believing in themselves. When they made a mistake or experienced a failure, they just didn't say, well that's it, I'm giving up. They just picked themselves up and got right back to work.

And that's really one of the reasons why we invited you all here today -- because we wanted you all to understand that no matter who you are or what challenges you face, you all have the power to get from those seats down there to these seats up here, or anywhere else you want to go in the world. But it's going to take some real effort on your part.

Nothing comes easy. It may look easy when you see it from the outside, but everyone who is a star, who gains fame, they've had to really work and invest. So you all need to start early -- and that means starting with your education, having that education as your foundation. Because whether you want to be a musician or a teacher or a doctor, or anything else that you feel passionately about, you're going to need a good education. And I can't say that enough. I talk about it all over the country. This is the best investment you could be making for yourselves right now, is being in school and being focused.

And that doesn't mean just showing up. That's not enough. It means really putting your effort into school, paying attention in class. It means taking good notes. It means listening to your teachers and your parents. It means putting real effort into your homework -- doing your math problems over and over again, rewriting that essay again and again and again until it's the very best that you can be. You start practicing that behavior now so that when you get on this stage, or whatever stage is going to be yours, you're ready for the challenge.

And if something doesn't work for the first time, if you fail -- fail a test, get a bad grade on anything -- it's okay to feel sad. It's okay to be disappointed. But here's the thing -- you've got to figure out where you fell short, and then you've got to get right back up and out there and try even harder. I mean, I can't say that enough -- failure is a key part of success. You don't get here unless you failed real bad, real big, and real hard somewhere. And that includes my husband, the President of the United States.

The question is, how do you get back up from those failures? How resilient are you? Because, as Ray Charles said, if there's truly something you want to do in the world, you can't be satisfied until you do it. And today is your chance to learn from him as well as all these extraordinary folks on stage.

So I want you to take advantage of being in the White House today. And I want you guys to relax, and feel at home, and ask questions. Because everybody is here for you -- truly. The only reason we are doing this is because we love you deeply, we care about you, and we know you're the future.

So this is your house right now, okay? So I'm going to stop talking, and I'm going to turn it over to Bob and our esteemed artists. And you guys have fun. Raise your hands. And say goodbye to the cameras, because they're not going to be here for too long. (Laughter.)

All right? You guys, have a lot of fun. And thank you. We love you. Work hard, okay? (Applause.)

Michelle Obama, Remarks by the First Lady at a PBS Student Workshop for "In Performance at the White House: The Musical Legacy of Ray Charles" Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/320914

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