Janelle Monae, Melissa Etheridge and Patti LaBelle perform at the White House

Michelle Obama, Melissa Etheridge, Janelle Monae and Patti LaBelle at the White House on Thursday. (Photo by Helena Andrews) Michelle Obama, Melissa Etheridge, Janelle Monae and Patti LaBelle at the White House on Thursday. (Photo by Helena Andrews)

The first lady knew she’d flubbed things a bit.

“Whatever you do, do it until your butt comes off,” advised Mrs. Obama in a room filled with students. “That quote is gonna come off funny,” she knew. “But you all know what I meant.”

So what was her point exactly? That the 124 middle, high school and college-aged kids seated in the White House state dinning room on Thursday should work as tirelessly to fulfill their dreams as the three women sharing the stage with Mrs. Obama. That trio of talent would be chart toppers Melissa Etheridge, Janelle Monae and Patti LaBelle, who participated in a morning workshop on soul music introduced by Mrs. Obama and then led by Robert Santelli, executive director of the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles. Later they’d join Aretha Franklin, Jill Scott, Ariana Grande and Tessanne Chin in the East Room for “Women of Soul: In Performance at the White House,” a musical special taped by PBS. But for now Etheridge, Monae and LaBelle belonged to the students packing iPhones and philosophical questions.

“What was your biggest internal conflict once you became a star?” asked a student from North Carolina A&T State University. Etheridge answered, “I’m still me. The same things that make me happy still make me happy.” A student from Oregon wanted to know what the key components of soul music were. Ms. LaBelle, who repeatedly used the endearment “boo,” took that one. “You have to first of all have soul and you can be white, black, straight, gay, whatever.” A teenager from Memphis wanted to know how Monae came up with her second album’s title, “The Electric Lady.” Monae, who also paints, said she wanted to create the image of a super hero who “is the change she wants to see in the world.”

It didn’t take long for Etheridge to make her way to the piano, performing “Stormy Weather,” followed by Monae, who sang a slowed down version of her song “Victory.” Not to be left out, Ms. Patti inquired sweetly, “Can I sing?” And the resounding “yes” echoed off the ceiling, as did her a cappella rendition of the Lord’s Prayer.

But before everyone could go bouncing back home, a young woman from Memphis had one last question: “Do you like good music,” she sang, belting out the opening line of Arthur Conley’s 1967 hit “Sweet Soul Music.” On cue the rest of the practiced crowd joined in, serenading the surprised super stars.

Helena Andrews is the co-author of The Reliable Source. Follow her on Twitter @helena_andrews, and send your hot tips, sightings, and gossip to reliablesource@washpost.com.

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JulieAnn McKellogg · March 6, 2014