Days after President Barack Obama delivered a keynote address to open the South by Southwest Conference in Austin, Texas, First Lady Michelle Obama participated in a panel to kick off the event’s music programming.
Flanked by actress Sophia Bush, songwriter Diane Warren, and musicians Queen Latifah and Missy Elliott, Obama spoke extensively about her global education initiative Let Girls Learn and the music that inspired her growing up — but most notably addressed her plans for after her husband leaves the White House.
“I’m going to continue to work with our young people all over the world. Not as president. I will not run for president,” Obama stated unequivocally when asked whether she’d consider a run of her own for the White House. As a collective sigh rippled through the crowd convened at the Austin Convention Center, she elaborated on her remarks.
“Here’s one of the reasons why: Because I’ve got these two young people at home and being the kids, the daughters of a president… just think about it. Come on, young people. Not so easy. They’ve handled it with grace and with poise but enough is enough,” Obama said. “There are so many ways to impact the world. You don’t have to be president of the United States to do marvelous, wonderful things. I don’t plan on slowing down anytime soon.”
Obama indicated that feeling throughout her statements on the panel, repeatedly referencing the 62 million girls around the world who aren’t in school and her mission to reduce that figure. “What I could do as a little girl, which is just try my best to control my own fate, I’m trying to carry that spirit over to these 62 million girls with the help of hopefully millions and millions of Americans,” she said. “But it usually starts with something that moves you personally. And for me, 62 million girls not getting an education, that’s personally.”
During the conversation, Obama’s fellow panelists also provided their thoughts about what spurred them to activism and how young people can affect change today. Elliott prefaced her remarks by saying she was “super shy,” but made moving statements about how the women on stage “didn’t just roll out of bed without a struggle.” He comments eventually prompted Obama to jokingly add, “Missy was like, ‘I’m shy, I don’t like to talk!'” Meanwhile, Bush discussed strategies for incremental progress and Warren added that “nothing was handed to us.”
But the focus was on Obama, who brought humor and musical flair to her remarks. When Latifah initially mentioned the nearing conclusion of the president’s second term, the first lady commented that “time is almost up,” before singing a line from Boyz II Men’s 1991 single “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday.”
She also responded to an audience question about the album she loved most as a kid. “My very first album of my whole life was Talking Book, and this bonded me to my grandfather,” she recalled of the Stevie Wonder album. “For my birthday he bought me Talking Book. … I played that album over and over and over again — until Songs in the Key of Life, and then I played that over and over and over again. So Stevie Wonder, because he talked about unity. He talked about love and peace. All of his songs were empowering, they were impactful. They were ones that would push you to look at change, to look at how you could effect the world. He’s just one of the greatest songwriters on the planet.”
Latifah’s comment when she fielded the same question moments later? “FLOTUS took my answer!”
In the lead up to Wednesday’s event, the charity single “This Is For My Girls” — featuring Elliott, Kelly Clarkson, Lea Michele, and more, and written by Warren — was released by Obama to support the Let Girls Learn fund. Obama also wrote about girls’ education in a piece for Lena Dunham’s Lenny Letter, noting how “personal” the cause is for her.
“Because as I’ve traveled the world as First Lady, I have met these girls, and they are so smart and hardworking, and so hungry for an education,” she wrote. “I’ve met girls who make long, dangerous journeys each day to school and then come home and study for hours each night. I’ve met girls studying at rickety desks in bare concrete classrooms who are raising their hands so hard they’re almost falling out of their chairs. […] I see myself in these girls — in their ambition and their determination to rise above their circumstances. And I believe that because you’re Lenny Letter readers — women who are talented, passionate, and ambitious — you’d see yourselves in these girls too.”