'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."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
Barn owls are among species that could be affected
charity appeal
Sport
After another poor series in Sri Lanka, Alastair Cook claimed all players go through a lean period
cricketEoin Morgan reportedly to take over ODI captaincy
Life and Style
food + drink
Voices
John Profumo and his wife Valerie Robson in 1959
voicesWard committed no crime, and the truth is still being covered up, writes Geoffrey Robertson QC
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
news... you won't believe how bad their skills were
News
people

Arts and Entertainment
Mark Wright and Mark Wright
tvStrictly goes head-to-head with Apprentice
Sport
footballPremier League preview: All the talking points ahead of this weekend's clashes
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas