The famed cellist performed for more than 100 fans inside a gymnasium at Berston Field House during his visit to the city that is still feeling the effects of a lead-contaminated water crisis.
But Ma said he found a city that is about much more than "water problems."
"That's not Flint. That's one aspect of it. There's a huge part of Flint that has that knowledge base and the willpower and the history and the looking forward to what's new, what's coming down the pike," he told The Associated Press in an interview.
The visit to Flint, as well as one a day earlier in Ann Arbor, was hosted by the University Musical Society, which is affiliated with the University of Michigan. It is all part of an effort by the 63-year-old musician to demonstrate culture's power to create moments of shared understanding and spur a conversation about culture and society.
"I'm interested in conversations because the music is there for people," Ma said. "And the music helps me go through life. It helps certain people go through life. But there are lots of people that are helping others go through life."
The event at Berston, a nearly 100-year-old complex that offers athletics, arts, education and social services, was free and open to the public. It featured speakers and musical performances, including by Ma, who wowed the crowd by playing a piece by Johann Sebastian Bach. Ma also did an impromptu number with a member of an African drum company, posed for pictures with dozens of fans and gave out just as many high-fives and hugs.
Earlier in the "Day of Action," as the Flint stop was called, Ma convened a meeting of dozens of local community leaders who discussed how cultural collaboration might bring about social change in the city of 100,000.
As for a takeaway from his visit, Ma said it will be "an awesome respect for the people here and for the dignity that they have and for the inner resources that they have."