First lady Michelle Obama discusses Let Girls Learn initiative, sings Boyz II Men at SXSW keynote

Katie Walsh and Megan Hix

When first lady Michelle Obama answered a question about her thoughts on leaving the White House, she decided to break into a Boyz II Men song.

“It's so hard to say goodbye to yesterday,” Obama sang in response to moderator Queen Latifah’s question.

Obama and Latifah were joined Wednesday by actress Sophia Bush, hip-hop artist Missy Elliott and Grammy-winning songwriter Diane Warren for Obama’s South By Southwest Music keynote address that encompassed female empowerment, musical influences and education.

Promoting the White House initiative Let Girls Learn, a campaign dedicated to educating young girls around the world, Obama said there are about 62 million young girls unable to access education because of cultural norms, financial burden, limited accessibility and other reasons.

“All of these stories generate the same kind of anger and that sense of unfairness and inequity that makes you want to move,” Obama said. “[Taking action] usually starts with something that moves you personally, and for me, 62 million girls not getting an education, that’s personal.”

Each woman on stage offered their own take on what motivates them. Latifah offered her experience in a community battling substance abuse and AIDS, while Bush cited interactions with girls everywhere from summer camps to the developing world.

“The solution, for me, came from a lightbulb moment that had to do with education,” Bush said. “If we educate girls, if we empower girls, if we say, ‘yes, you can’ instead of, ‘no, you can’t,’ it all changes."

Inspired by her mother’s strength growing up, Elliott said she refused to let others determine her value or let others’ comments and expectations stop her from following her dreams.

“I’ve been told so many times: 'You don’t fit the mold; you don’t look like the way other artists look,'” Elliott said. “I sit here today, and I am a walking testimony by not listening to any of those things. Here I am out of all the things. I never thought I would be sitting here beside the first lady.”

Answering a fan’s question, Obama called for men, especially those in power, to make sure they are surrounded by diversity both in terms of gender and race.

“We reach better answers when we have a broader array of voices — when we have women and minorities at the table,” Obama said. “If you are a man at the table, and you look around and there are only men at the table, then you should ask yourselves, ‘How can I do better?’ because there are a lot of men-only tables in this country and around the world.”

While the discussion centered on girls’ educations and empowerment, it was not without music. The event opened with a three-song set from YouTube singers Chloe and Halle, and the panelists discussed the music that has affected their lives the most.

The FLOTUS picked Stevie Wonder’s 1972 album Talking Book as her most influential.

“He talked about unity, he talked about love and peace, and all of his songs were empowering and impactful,” Obama said. “They were songs that would push you to look at change, to look at how you can affect the world. He’s just one of the greatest songwriters on the planet.”

The Let Girls Learn initiative released a new song today called “This Is For My Girls,” which Chloe and Halle performed at the event. The anthem was written by Warren and features vocals by Elliott, Kelly Rowland, Kelly Clarkson, Zendaya, Lea Michele and other female artists. All of its proceeds will support the campaign.

“It’s just a sign of what a group of women can do together," Obama said. “We can change the world. We can have an impact on these girls. I want everyone to download that song and I want to hear us all singing that anthem.”

After leaving the White House, Obama said she plans to continue using her platform to support young people and inspire change.

“These are not issues that go away in a presidential term — they don’t go away in a lifetime,” Obama said. “Why I work so much with young people is that you all are going to be the ones who take on these issues. You’re going to be the ones that carry these things over the finish line.”