A two-day gathering that culminated in a concert on the evening of November 1, the first inaugural Obama Foundation Summit kicked off last Tuesday with over 450 young leaders from around the world coming to Chicago’s Marriott Marquis to share ideas and pave avenues for collaboration.
The summit featured speakers such as actor, musician, and native Chicagoan Common, Prince Harry, who visited Hyde Park Academy High School with Michelle Obama, and the University’s own installation artist Theaster Gates, as well as professors, writers, and entrepreneurs around the globe.
The event served as a way to promote the vision of the Obama Presidential Center, due to be completed in 2020, and unite international voices to build a transnational, cross-cultural community. At the heart of the Obama Foundation is a deep commitment to community engagement and renewal, and “train the next generation of leaders.”
As former president Barack Obama said on Wednesday night at the Wintrust Arena, institutions such as the presidential center and events like the summit will provide a network for “the next person who’s got a vision of spreading justice and love and peace around the world.”
“[The Presidential Center is] a project that I will be spending the next 20 years, 30 years, 40 years on,” he continued. “It will be a labor of love that we are gonna build together.”
And when asked about why they decided to establish the center in Hyde Park, Michelle Obama’s response, “The question isn’t why would we be here in Chicago on the South Side, but why not?” was met with thunderous applause. Throughout the evening, sporadic chants of “eight more years” and “2020” swelled throughout the arena, filled with members of the South and West side communities and school groups.
Wednesday evening’s concert was curated by Chance the Rapper, whom Michelle Obama declared “a great representative of this great city” (and fondly referred to as “my baby brother Chance”). The concert brought together an eclectic lineup of performers, from Cuban-American legend Gloria Estefan to the Grammy-winning band The National in a celebration of the power of change and hope.
R&B singer Andra Day kicked off the concert with a stirring performance of her hit single “Rise Up.” The lyrics “I'll rise unafraid./ I'll rise up/ and I'll do it a thousand times again” powerfully framed Obama Foundation’s core mission: a call to action for young people around the world to overcome adversity and inspire their communities.
The message was a recurring theme of the evening’s performers as Michelle Obama and Chance the Rapper introduced iconic hip hop artist Nas for a rousing set that had the stadium on its feet. He sang his 2003 hit “I Can,” which incorporated elements of Beethoven’s “Für Elise” and hopeful lyrics such as “I know I can/ Be what I wanna be/ If I work hard at it./ I'll be where I wanna be.”
As part of the evening’s mission of inspiring civic engagement, there were promotional videos from the Obama Foundation between sets featuring global and community leaders, from Rihanna to a Dutch member of the European Parliament to the founder of a teen fathers’ group in Chicago, talking about how to change their communities and the world.
Another other headliner, Cincinnati-based The National, sang hits such as “Bloodbuzz Ohio” and “Fake Empire” accompanied by joyous sax crescendos and energetic drums. As emcee of the evening, Chance the Rapper was the final artist to perform, with songs like “First World Problems” and “Summer Friends.” He was later joined onstage by his friend and singer Francis Starlite of Francis and the Lights for a charmingly quirky coordinated dance routine to “May I Have This Dance?”
More surprise guests joined throughout the evening, including country band Brandi Carlile who performed a whiskey-smooth rendition of “Hallelujah,” comedian Aziz Ansari and his Chicago-born collaborator Lena Waithe, and perhaps the most memorable cameo of the night—Lin-Manuel Miranda, who joined Chance onstage to perform “Dear Theodosia” from Hamilton. “If we lay a strong enough foundation/ We’ll pass it on to you, we’ll give the world to you/ And you’ll blow us all away.” What better way to celebrate active community engagement and a passionate belief in a better world than the story of the American Revolution.
“Bringing the foundation here was important to us because we love this city,” Michelle Obama said at the beginning of the night. “[This city has an] amazing array of resources, organizations culture, music, talent, history, [and] beauty.” The summit’s astounding international scope reflects the valuable civic work being accomplished worldwide, but the presidential center, rooted in Chicago, is a testament to the community engagement, artistic creativity, and passion for change thriving in this very city.