'Be loose, have fun' for first poetry jam at the White House

Guests treated to poetic feast from Shakespeare to jazz-infused rapping

White wine, candles, a DJ with a ponytail, jazz, rap and poetry. Looks like the grown-ups are trying a little too hard to be hip. But maybe these grown-ups – the President and First Lady of the United States – can actually carry it off. He is dressed a bit stiff but she is way cool in that off-the-shoulder blouse.

"Be loose, have fun," Michelle Obama admonished guests on Tuesday evening for what was probably the first full-blown poetry jam the White House has ever seen. True, Laura Bush tried to hold a poetry symposium in 2003 but that was cancelled for fear the artists might express their views about Iraq.

According to the Obamas, it is exactly the thrill of diversity that prompted them to host this as well as a series of other arts events in the mansion. Invited to the microphone this time were eight poets and musicians including the actor James Earl Jones, the writers Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman, the jazz bassist and vocalist Esperanza Spalding, the pianist Eric Lewis and the playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda.

"We have to remember that democracy is really, really big," Mrs Obama told the guests, who included the director Spike Lee and the political commentator George Stephanopoulos. "It has room for lots of voices, which sometimes take us out of our comfort zones, but that's what makes it so meaningful."

The President was apparently in an appropriately soulful mood himself, suggesting it was a night to "celebrate the power of words and music to help us appreciate beauty, but also to understand pain... to lift us up out of our daily existence, even if it's just for a few moments".

He surely appreciated the poem offered by the Chicago native Mayda del Valle about a grandmother she never met back in Costa Rica. He lost his grandmother in Hawaii on the eve of election day last year.

Written in the days before the jam, it offered the lines: "Some say faith is for the weak or small minded/ but I search for your faith everywhere/ I need it to reassemble myself whole from these shards of Chicago ice and island breezes so I can rewrite the songs of your silence and pain." How relaxed did Del Valle feel arriving at the White House? "Are you kidding me?" she responded to one reporter. "I can't keep my hands from shaking. I hardly slept all last night."

But spirituality and soothing was the vibe when proceedings got under way. Earl Jones, he of the sonorous timbre, offered Shakespeare – booming lines of Othello – while Miranda, the creator of the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical In the Heights, rapped across the small stage. The notes were supplied by Spalding and Lewis.

While this latest event seemed designed more than ever to project the Obamas as the first First Couple to be in tune with urban cool, there has in fact been an emphasis on opening the White House to artists almost since the inauguration (when the Jonas Brothers were called in to visit Malia and Sasha).

"Our goal really is to bring the house alive," explained Desiree Rogers, the White House social secretary. "We're all American, but all of us come from different backgrounds. We want to expose Americans to other Americans that are doing brilliant work." This is the President, after all, who invited gay parents of children to join the annual Easter Egg Roll on the South Lawn.

The change is refreshing also in a country where government is far less involved in promoting the arts than in most Western democracies. Others who have performed in the Obama White House since January have included Earth, Wind & Fire, Fergie, Tony Bennett and Stevie Wonder.

Some of those invited on Tuesday recalled that Mr Obama is himself a writer – his two memoirs have been praised for the quality of their prose as well as their bestseller success – and that indeed as a student at Occidental College in California in the late Seventies he was a contributor of poems to a campus magazine. "It's kind of cool that the President is a writer," Del Valle said. "We share a common goal for storytelling."

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