WASHINGTON — Whether belting out lyrics to Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together,” leading a mournful congregation through “Amazing Grace,” or tweeting his Spotify music playlist that includes Stevie Wonder and Nina Simone, President Barack Obama has shown that he’s a pretty soulful guy.
The president and his wife, Michelle, also have prominently showcased such R&B and soul talent as Patti LaBelle and B.B. King during state dinners, music history events and the annual Easter Egg Roll.
The latest installment of the PBS series “In Performance at the White House” celebrated the history of American music with performances by Queen Latifah, Smokey Robinson, Usher, Trombone Shorty, and Esperanza Spalding, among others. It is set to air on PBS stations Jan. 8.
Spalding landed on the first lady’s Spotify music playlist. The Grammy Award-winning jazz singer and bassist said the variety of musicians who have performed at the White House conveys a message of inclusion at what the Obamas have long touted as the “People’s House.”
“It seems like there is a theme of wanting to really support artists who are working hard— not just in their craft— but communicating about the issues of our time,” said Spalding, an advocate of human rights issues at the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Spalding, who has trained student musicians at a White House workshop, said the Obamas believe that “just because you’re not famous, doesn’t mean you’re not important. Everybody that is committed to their art” is an important part of American music.
Dalton Delan, an executive producer for “In Performance at the White House,” said WETA, the PBS station that serves the Washington, D.C., area and produces the series, largely selects artists based on the show’s theme, but with administration approval.
“Sure, I can suggest a show, but the administration has to feel like coming and attending the show,” Delan said.
He also consulted with White House social secretary Deesha Dyer on the best hip-hop artists and she suggested female rap pioneer MC Lyte.
The Obamas’ musical tastes are reflected in White House entertainment over the years. “Queen of hip hop and soul” Mary J. Blige, R&B crooner John Legend and jazz great Herbie Hancock have entertained dignitaries atObama state dinners.
Pop superstar Beyonce, a favorite of both the president and first lady, is a mainstay at presidential events. She sang at an inaugural ball in 2009 and a state dinner for the Mexican president in 2010, and performed a highly scrutinized rendition of the national anthem at Obama’s second inauguration ceremony in 2013.
“Queen of Soul” Aretha Franklin has also appeared at several presidential shindigs, including performing “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” at Obama’s first inauguration ceremony in 2009. Earlier this year, Franklin performed at a White House concert celebrating gospel music and put in a surprise appearance at the Justice Department to help bid farewell to Obama’s good friend, then-Attorney General Eric Holder.
Desiree Rogers, the Obamas’ first social secretary, said a combination of factors go into choosing entertainment for White House functions, including the first lady’s input, the president’s favorites and suggestions from White House staff members.
“It starts with whatever the event is,” Rogers said.
For state dinners, Rogers said the White House considers the interests of the country being honored. She said a main goal is to always keep in mind the tastes of the president and first lady “to ensure that it is someone they might enjoy. The Obamas enjoy showcasing diverse American talent.”
Lea Berman, who was a social secretary for President George W. Bush, said the entertainer selection process varies with each administration.
“Sometimes the Bushes would have suggestions of people they wanted to invite to perform, and sometimes I would come up with a few names for Mrs. Bush to consider for an event and she would choose one,” Berman said.
Berman said many times it’s also a matter of availability.
“Scheduling conflicts weeded out a number of prospects because big entertainers are so heavily booked months in advance,” she said.
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