Behind Michelle Obama's Anthem 'This Is for My Girls': Diane Warren & Missy Elliott Exclusive
Just over nine months ago on the morning of March 16, Michelle Obama took the stage at the Austin Convention Center to deliver the keynote address at South by Southwest. Leading the hour-long session promoting Let Girls Learn, the first lady’s initiative to help the more than 62 million girls around the world not in school, were Diane Warren, Missy Elliott, actress Sophia Bush and moderator Queen Latifah.
The occasion, which made global headlines due to Obama’s vow that she would not be running for president, also saw the launch of “This Is for My Girls,” a blazing R&B-style anthem written by Warren and featuring powerhouse vocal turns from Elliott, Lea Michele, Kelly Clarkson, Zendaya, Janelle Monae, Kelly Rowland, Jadagrace and Chloe x Halle that went on sale on iTunes midnight ET the same day.
This is what #LetGirlsLearn is about. It’s about telling the stories of these girls and girls like them across the globe - not just their challenges and their struggles, but their dreams and their aspiration. Their unrelenting bravery and determination - the miles they have to walk each day just to get to school. The hours they spend each night studying, making their families proud. Their refusal to give up, even in the face of some overwhelming odds that would stifle many of us. #WeWillRise
Within hours, the track hit No. 1 on the real-time Billboard + Twitter Trending 140. Since then, “This Is for My Girls” has sold over 50,000 downloads, been licensed around the world and generated millions of YouTube views, despite not having an official video and, so far, only being available in the U.S. But more important than its sales achievements has been the spotlight the track has shone on global women's rights and education issues, says Samantha Leibovitz, vice president of MAKERS, an AOL-owned women’s leadership platform that stepped up to executive produce “This Is for My Girls” after hearing Michele Obama’s global call for action.
“This was a first for us. We jumped right in,” says Leibovitz. “We really believed in creating this anthem to raise awareness and impact change.”
And singer/songwriter Diane Warren couldn't be more greatful. “Without MAKERS this never would have happened,” adds Warren. “When I wrote the song I always heard it being an anthem for female empowerment. I didn’t hear one woman. I heard it being a diva fest. It almost is like a modern Destiny’s Child record.”
The genesis of “This Is For My Girls” dates back to March 2015 when the President and First Lady launched the Let Girls Learn initiative. Keen to support the cause, MAKERS set about creating a millennial “We Are The World” all-star charity song. Through Desiree Gruber, Project Runway executive producer, CEO of brand management company Full Picture and personal friend of Warren, MAKERS learned that the multiple Grammy and Oscar-winning writer had the perfect anthem ready and waiting.
“I wrote it a few years ago and I always wanted to do something special with it. I didn’t want to give it to just one artist,” recalls Warren, noting that her original take had slightly different lyrics than the final version. “Mine had the line, ‘Don’t take no shit from nobody.’ We had to clean that up first for the White House,” she says with a laugh.
A cuss-free demo was subsequently played for Michele Obama, who immediately “jumped 100 percent on board” the idea of having “This Is For My Girls” become the anthem of Let Girls Learn. MAKERS then tapped AOL’s resources to fund its recording and, with the help of Warren, began recruiting guest vocalists. Zendaya – who counts Obama’s daughters, Sasha and Malia, among her fans – was the first to sign up. Then came Chloe x Halle, followed by Janelle Monae and Missy Elliot, whose rousing rap earned her a writing credit on the track.
One day before the final master recording deadline, a heavily pregnant Kelly Clarkson laid down her verse in her home studio in Nashville. Christina Aguilera and Fifth Harmony also agreed to contribute but were unable to record their parts in time. Warren and MAKERS won’t reveal who declined to be on the track, but its writer says she’s more than happy with the final line-up. “It’s kind of funny because to the ones that said no, it’s like, ‘Who cares?’ Look at the people we got!”
“We’ve always believed in the power of music to inspire and unite, so when MAKERS asked us to be a part of “This Is For My Girls” in support of Michelle Obama’s Let Girls Learn, we didn’t hesitate for a second,” says Chloe x Halle.
“Through my involvement, I was able to join Michelle Obama, the greatest First Lady in the world, and my friend Queen Latifah on stage at SXSW and inspire everyone in the room and beyond to believe in themselves,” adds Elliot. “Most importantly, I was able to use my voice to help raise awareness and funds for Let Girls Learn and for the 62 million girls around the world who are denied their right to an education.”
Elliot, like every one featured on “This Is For My Girls”, waived all fees and royalties - as did Warren, who surrendered publishing royalties - to ensure that 100 percent of the proceeds generated by “This Is For My Girls” go towards the Let Girls Learn Peace Corps fund. The song’s distributor Motown/Capitol Records also agreed to waive operating costs, as did Apple, its exclusive distribution platform at launch. To avoid conflicts of interest between any of the featured artists’ labels, MAKERS owns the master license in perpetuity.
“Everybody’s heart was in the right place. None of us make any money on this,” says Warren. Leibovitz adds: “We were the connective tissue between the First Lady, all these major recording artists and competing record labels, the US Peace Corps and Apple. It was a really unique position to be in.”
However, with little in way of radio and record industry backing “This Is For My Girls” needed a boost if it was to have an impact beyond its initial release. It received a huge one when Michelle Obama appeared on the Carpool Karaoke segment of CBS’ “Late Late Show” alongside host James Corden and Missy Elliot on July 20 and sang the track.
“I knew we had to do something,” says Warren, who talked the First Lady into taking part at a White House luncheon. “She didn’t want to do it. She was saying, ‘I don’t know how to sing.’ I was like, ‘You’ve got to do it. We’ve got to get the song heard.”
Digital sales of “This Is for My Girls” spiked 1,562% in the week after the segment aired, according to Nielsen SoundScan figures, and MAKERS’ social platforms gained over 415 million impressions. To date, the video has had over 48 million YouTube views.
“What we’ve really loved about this is that it hasn’t just been a onetime [thing] and then gone away,” says Leibovitz. “The goal is to continue to find ways where we can make it relevant across the world and make sure that it really truly becomes a global anthem.”
“I’d love there to be different versions all around the world. There’s a lot of things that we can still do with this song,” agrees Warren. “I think its life is just beginning.”