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Soul Music Pervades the White House

Barrington M. Salmon | 3/12/2014, 3 p.m.
First lady Michele Obama greets students who attended a workshop titled "I'm Every Woman: The History of Women in Soul" in the White House State Dining Room on March 6. Grammy Museum Executive Director Robert Santelli (seated, at left) moderated a discussion with artists (from left) Melissa Etheridge, Janelle Monae and Patti LaBelle. Photo by Shevry Lassiter

Some of this country's female singing legends descended on the White House Thursday to celebrate Women's History Month with the first family.

This year's White House Music Series had a cool twist, with the spotlight on soul music. Singing sensations Patti LaBelle and Melissa Etheridge and rising star Janelle Monáe spent part of the morning with 124 high school and college students from around the country at an interactive workshop.

First lady Michelle Obama stopped in the State Dining Room to greet her guests.

"Isn't this cool? Oh, my goodness! I'm thrilled," she said. "It's exciting to have these fabulous ladies and this gentleman here," she said. "I want to welcome you guys to the White House … We're marking Women's History Month by celebrating women with a whole lot of soul."

"… Today we're celebrating the kind of music that makes you move no matter who you are or where you come from; music that taps into feelings and experiences that we all share — love and heartbreak, pride and doubt, tragedy and triumph. It's called soul music."

The singers shared their personal stories, answered questions and offered advice to the students. Then they performed. Etheridge sang "Stormy Weather" while playing the piano, Monáe regaled the audience with her composition "Victory," and LaBelle tickled the crowd when she said she hadn't been asked to sing.

"Can I sing, can I sing please?" she asked in a plaintive voice, before captivating the crowd with an a cappella version of the "The Lord's Prayer."

Bob Santelli, Grammy Museum executive director, set the tone by explaining soul music's evolution from the church and gospel music, and the influence and infusion of Jazz, Rhythm and Blues, Swing, Dixie, Bop, Bebop and Cool that have given soul its singular sound.

"Americans … took the music of Africa and Europe, put them in a mesh and made something unique," he said. "Soul music may be the most powerful music form we've created. It speaks to others in a very powerful, emotional way. It's a deep, intense reflection of who you are inside. You have to have the talent and emotions to speak absolutely from the heart."

Santelli said soul and gospel music sustained those in the civil rights movement, theorizing that without it, the movement might not have succeeded

In answer to a student's question, LaBelle, 69, said soul music isn't the sole province of black people.

"You have to have soul," she said. "Adele is a beautiful, big ol' white woman and she has soul. I believe it comes from within; doesn't matter if you're black white, gay, straight."

LaBelle encouraged students not to let anyone influence them, telling them to sing often and sing loud. In her comments, Obama said LaBelle noted at one point that she succeeded because she took chances and sang her "butt off."

Obama tried to build on LaBelle's comments, without success.

"Embrace what makes you unique, take some risks, please take some risks. Find your own voice and be proud of it, and then sing your butt off. Or work your butt off. Or whatever you do, do it until your butt comes off," she said to laughter. "OK, that quote is going to be kind of funny in the papers. I already know it."