Even before Barack Obama was officially sworn in as president in January 2009, he set the tone for his presidency with “We Are One: The Obama Inaugural Celebration at the Lincoln Memorial.” What the President seemed to be saying with the star-studded event was that Black arts and culture would take center stage during his administration. Unlike with other presidents, Black artists were well-represented in the Obama White House, across all genres and ages.
From the hip-hop soul of Mary J. Blige to the jazz innovations of Herbie Hancock to the pop-stardom of Beyoncé and the sophisticated song styling of throwback Bettye LaVette, “We Are One” refused to box Black music in. It also achieved the same when Black actors such as Jamie Foxx, Samuel L. Jackson, Denzel Washington, Forest Whitaker and rapper-turned-actor Queen Latifah recited historical passages throughout the event.
Weeks later, President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama honored the incredible Stevie Wonder with the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song in the White House. Gospel duo Mary Mary, versatile entertainer Wayne Brady, opera singer Anita Johnson, rapper will.i.am and singer India.Arie all performed songs from Mr. Wonderful’s extensive catalogue.
Stevie Wonder’s Talking Book, Michelle Obama shared, was the first album she ever bought, plus “You & I” was the first song she and Barack danced to as husband and wife at their 1992 wedding. “I think it’s fair to say that had I not been a Stevie Wonder fan,” confessed POTUS, “Michelle might not have dated me. We might not have married. The fact that we agreed on Stevie was part of the essence of our courtship.”
Their similar outlook on Black art has also been the essence of their role as cultural gatekeepers and ambassadors. It’s very fitting that the seeds of Hamilton, the unlikely hip-hop Broadway juggernaut about founding father Alexander Hamilton had an epic preview during the White House Evening of Poetry, Music and the Spoken Word in May 2009. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s creation has now made stars of Leslie Odom, Jr., Daveed Diggs and Renée Elise Goldsberry, who all won 2016 Tony Awards for their roles.
Poetry and spoken word, hip-hop, old school and new, also found its rhyme and reason at the White House. Just this year alone, “King Kunta” Kendrick Lamar, who commemorated his visit on social media, checked into the White House on the Fourth of July to perform and chill with President Obama. De La Soul and The Roots have also represented, as has “I thought it was me” R&B/hip-hop trio, Bell Biv Devoe who also join the “I performed for Obama” ranks. Common, who shares Chicago ties with the first family, has been the White House an incredible five times.
In other genres, the late great Prince, Janelle Monae, Aretha Franklin, Jill Scott, Trombone Shorty, Smokey Robinson, blues singer Keb’ Mo’, soul man Sam Moore and blues God B.B. King have also been White House musical guests. And, even when President Obama wasn’t officially able to bring a Black art form like Chicago house music into the White House in a major way, he was sure to acknowledge it publicly, as he did with a video message for the 25th anniversary of the Chosen Few Picnic in Chicago last summer.
Music, poetry and theatre haven’t been the Obamas’ only artistic imprint. They screened Selma in the same White House where President Woodrow Wilson once viewed D.W. Griffith’s sadistically racist The Birth of a Nation in 1915.
Trailblazing Black female director Ava DuVernay, lead actor David Oyelowo, old Chicago friend Oprah Winfrey and civil rights icon John Lewis, who is portrayed in the film, were all in attendance. The Obamas hosted Idris Elba and Naomie Harris for a Mandela screening about a month before the great leader’s passing.
This year, the Obamas officially recognized filmmaker Deborah Riley Draper’s documentary Olympic Pride, American Prejudice about Jesse Owens and the other 17 Black Olympians who competed in Hitler’s 1936 Olympics in Berlin. They also commemorated the 25th anniversary of the Spike Lee classic and their first date film, Do the Right Thing via video for a celebration hosted by the Oscar-granting Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in L.A. To top it all off, they just honored legendary actress Cicely Tyson with the coveted Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest honor for civilians.
On the White House walls the Obamas have hung abstract works by such Black artists as Alma Thomas, the first Black woman to have her own solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of Art, as well as those by conceptual modern artist Glenn Ligon. Michelle Obama has showcased Black designers by prominently wearing the pioneering designs of Tracy Reese and Byron Lars.
Because President Obama and FLOTUS have never downplayed their full investment in Black arts and culture, it’s hard not to fathom that their unabashedly “Black and proud” attitude isn’t part of the reason Queen Sugar, Insecure, Atlanta as well as Moonlight, Hidden Figures and Fences have made it to the small and big screen. While the Obama Black Arts Golden Age will never be duplicated, let’s hope its impact lasts forever.
Ronda Racha Penrice is a freelance writer living in Atlanta. She is the author of African American History for Dummies.