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Michelle Obama Talks Stevie Wonder, Jackson 5 and Other Childhood Music Memories With Questlove: Exclusive

After Questlove tailored not just one but three playlist odes to Michelle Obama around her Becoming book tour, the former first lady has repaid the favor with an appearance on The Roots drummer's…

After Questlove tailored not just one but three playlist odes to Michelle Obama around her Becoming book tour, the former first lady has repaid the favor with an appearance on The Roots drummer’s podcast.

Speaking on the latest episode of Questlove Supreme, which will be released Wednesday on Pandora, the two discussed Obama’s relationship with music and ran through the first experiences that shaped her love of the art.

Discussing her earliest albums, Obama recalled the first record she received as a gift was Stevie Wonder‘s Talking Book, which she was actually given twice one Christmas. “That’s how good an album it was,” she said in a clip premiering exclusively with Billboard. One copy came from her parents and the other from her maternal grandfather, Southside, who she described as the “musical core of our family.” That version included the lyrics in braille, which she studied while she listened to the music, hoping to better understand the artist behind it all.  

Obama on Talking Book:

“I remember spending time not only listening to the record over and over again, but trying to feel the brail and understand the words,” she said. “And I would memorize the cover because there’s something about that cover with Stevie without his glasses sitting like in a canyon area in that dashiki afghan sort of thing with the braids and all of that was… That cover to me was as much the experience of the album for me. I was really trying to figure out what goes on in his mind: What is he thinking? What does it feel like being blind? How does he feel music?”


That was the first album she ever owned as a child. But as music fans know, there’s a big difference between the first album you ever received and the first one you bought for yourself. Those early purchases were reserved for the Jackson 5, whose “ABC” and “The Love You Save” she bought on 45 RPM single vinyl records and mostly only played in her bedroom, dancing and singing along.

“Those were the 45s that you played on your little makeshift record player thing — it wasn’t the big stereo that your parents allowed you to use but the thing you plugged in and you had to put that little round thing in the hole, you know,” she said. “That was the music that I was allowed to play on my own, keep the record in my bedroom kind of thing. But the Jackson 5, that was what young people… We grew up imitating the Jackson 5 and putting the record on and cousins would be Tito and I’d be Michael and my brother would be on the drums, you know. We spent the whole afternoon just shaping our performance to ‘Stop the Love you Save,’ so those were some of my first memories.”

To this, Questlove suggested the Jacksons were like “the first superheroes” to a lot of black children growing up at the time. Obama responded, noting The Osmonds‘ own popularity at the time as the other big family group of the time — only white — sparking “big debates about who was better.” While she would still enjoy listening to Osmond hits like “One Bad Apple,” she said her allegiances were undoubtedly with the Jacksons.  


“You had your little groovin’ dance to that too,” she explained. “But where was your heart? Your heart was with the Jackson 5.”

While Obama grew up with music playing an important role in her home life, she said her family was “too broke for concerts” and it wasn’t until she was a sophomore in college that she was able to attend a live show for the first time. Fittingly, it turned out to be Stevie Wonder, who was performing with an orchestra at an arena in Philadelphia. She and her friend went to the show and wound up — much to their surprise — with front row tickets.

“We both walked in not knowing where our tickets were and then we realized it was like, ‘We are in the front row! What happened?'” she said. “We were looking around waiting for somebody to tell us to move.”

Obama on Being ‘Too Broke’ for Concerts:

The experience got even better, though, when Obama and her friend were part of a group asked to join Wonder onstage and stand around his piano to sing “Ebony and Ivory.”

She exclaimed, “So I was standing onstage, with Stevie, by his piano, thinking, ‘What?‘”