Michelle Obama on Motown: as Motown Rose, So Did the “Forces of Change” In This Country

By Kristina

Feb 24, 2011 5:21pm

ABC News' Sunlen Miller reports: Kicking off Motown day at the White House First Lady Michelle Obama said the lesson of Motown’s music is really a metaphor for life.

“Nobody’s name is printed on the Billboard Top 10 at birth,” Mrs. Obama said from the State Dining Room this afternoon, “with enough hard work and a willingness to take some risks, anyone can make it.”

Mrs. Obama spoke before a small group of music students from across the country with Motown greats Berry Gordy, Smokey Robinson, and John Legend by her side, who regaled the crowd with stories of their rise and the invention of the Motown sound.  The First Lady joked that she too was a teenager once and remembers how it feels to have big dreams that sometimes seem far away.

“I hope you realize through this experience that no one here is any different than you all are, whether that’s Smokey Robinson or John Legend or me or my husband, because we are all reflected in you.  We see ourselves in you,” the First Lady said, “And that's what today is about.  It’s about the dreams of kids who grew up knowing that they had a song to sing, and that everyone will want to hear that song.” 

Mrs. Obama spoke about what later Berry Gordy recalled himself, how he was a young man in Detroit with a big idea – to be one of the first African American to won a record label. He got an $800 loan from his family to start recording music out of his apartment – which ultimately recorded some of the most popular musicians of Motown: Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, the Temptations, the Supremes, the Jackson Five, The Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, Gladys Knight and the Supremes. 

But beyond just Gordy’s rise, Mrs. Obama said that Motown made music for all people – no matter what you looked like, or where you came from., helping to “pave the way” for people to look at each other differently.

“And as Motown rose, so did the forces of change in this country,” Mrs. Obama said, “During that time, it was the time of King and Kennedy, it was a time of marches and rallies and groundbreaking civil rights laws.  And Motown’s music was so much more than just a soundtrack.  It was a heartbeat. ….It was a change that happened.  Something changed when teenagers turned up the volume on the Temptations song, no matter where they lived, in Birmingham or Boston, in Detroit or Denver.  “

This evening the Obamas will host a Motown concert at the White House, celebrating Motown’s history and Black History Month.

“These are true trailblazers” Mrs. Obama said of the Motown greats, “because as you know, there wouldn’t be an Usher if there wasn’t a Smokey Robinson.  You know, there wouldn’t be an Alicia Keys without a Gladys Knight.”

Speaking to reporters afterwards John Legend took a step outside of music and into politics. When asked how tight budgets and the recession have affected student music programs he railed against those on Capitol Hill “fighting to give me – a millionaire – a tax cut this year” when he didn’t need it, and rather are cutting music programs and Planned Parenthood.

-Sunlen Miller

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