First Lady Michelle Obama appears at SXSW 2016

Michelle Obama and Missy Elliott at Obama's SXSW keynote conversation. Suzanne Cordeiro/For American-Statesman

Michelle Obama and Missy Elliott at Obama’s SXSW keynote conversation. Suzanne Cordeiro/For American-Statesman

First Lady Michelle Obama’s appearance was billed as a keynote, but it unfolded as a loosely structured panel discussion with rapper Missy Elliott, actress Sophia Bush and songwriter Dianne Warren, moderated by rapper/actress Queen Latifah. The women responded to questions submitted by audience members online last week. In town to promote her Let Girls Learn project, which aims to provide education opportunities for girls in developing countries, Obama’s topic was only tangentially tied to music — the AOL Makers program released a pop song, “This Is For My Girls,” written by Warren, to benefit the project on Tuesday night. At times it felt like the panel was stretching to make the music connection clearer. Though the discussion was lively and entertaining, it was also unfocused.

SXSW 2016 has spotlighted gender issues with varying degrees of success. Several Interactive panels programmed to address the struggles women face in the technology industry were underattended, but the Convention Center ballroom filled to near capacity for Obama’s panel. A young man who asked what the best strategies are for men who want to help in the fight to empower women received an enthusiastic crowd response.

“When you have a seat at the table and you have access to power the question you can ask yourself is, ‘Is there diversity around the table?’” Obama said. If there are only men around the table, she said, it’s important to ask yourself “How can I do better?”

Obama dashed the hopes of many of her fans with the announcement that she has no plans to run for president. She said her daughters have endured enough public attention in the eight years their father spent in office. But, sometimes, she said there’s more you can achieve away from the spotlight of the White House. “There is always a platform and when I leave there will be another platform,” she said.

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