Star Gazing: Michelle Obama Honors Young Artists and the Arts

Michelle Obama and Briana Brown

Star Gazing: Michelle Obama Honors Young Artists and the Arts

First Lady Michelle Obama presents National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Awards.

Published November 12, 2014

The artist Pablo Picasso once said, "Every child is an artist. The problem is how do we remain an artist when we grow up." Not every child will follow in the footsteps of Yo-Yo Ma, Jean-Michel Basquiat, B.B. King or Misty Copeland, but if they are lucky enough to have their talents cultivated by organizations like those honored by First Lady Michelle Obama this week, their chances are exponentially higher.

"You light a fire in them," Obama said at the Monday ceremony during which she presented National Arts and Humanities Youth Programs Awards. "You help them grow emotionally and socially. You give kids a spring in their step when they get out of bed each morning. You give them something to look forward to after school each day."

And so much more: Statistics show that students who participate in these programs also are more likely to earn better grades and go to college.

"You look like a ballerina," Obama whispered to Briana Brown as the 17-year-old carried herself across the small stage with a little air underneath her heels and an elegance that most girls her age do not possess into the first lady's waiting arms. The Memphis native was there on behalf of the New Ballet Ensemble & School.

Ten years ago, ballet was just another after-school activity. Today it consumes her, Briana said in an interview with And if things go as she hopes, the high-school senior will one day pirouette and glissée across stages around the globe. The critics will compare her strength and surety of movement to that of her idol, Mikhail Baryshnikov.

She realized this was her dream at age 12.

"I was onstage and the curtain was closing" during a performance in a remix of the classical Christmas ballet The Nutcracker, Briana recalled. "And I remember thinking, 'I want to be here. This is where I'm supposed to be. It's something that I want to do for a really long time.'"

It is in those moments that she feels "limitless," she added, although there's still a lot of work ahead to hone her craft. The New Ballet Ensemble gives her that opportunity during the approximately 20 hours of practice she puts in each week and through exposure to professional ballet performances and artists in other fields, like the cellist Ma.

During a trip to New York this past summer, for example, Briana had the opportunity to see how a professional ballerina interpreted a lead role she had performed in a remix of Coppélia.

"It was my first principal role and the most fun I've had in my dance career," Briana explained. "But when I saw the New York City ballet perform Coppélia, it was amazing to see how I portrayed Swanhilda, but [their dancer] was Swanhilda."

Though just 17, Briana says has given much thought to life as a performer, adding that "the art world lets you tell your own story." 

Time froze when Cristone "Kingfish" Ingram, 15, learned that he would be performing at the White House in November.

"I didn't believe it," he told, and he had to be convinced that it was true.

Time also stopped for a moment when he and other young musicians from Delta Blues Museum Arts & Education Program delivered a powerful rendition of "Sweet Home Chicago."

"Wow, you guys are awesome!" the first lady gushed. "Wow! Give me some of that. Oh, man!  Oh! Oh! Oh! Oh, my goodness! We need to have these guys back when we do our music series on the blues, that’s what we need to do."

Cristone, who hails from Clarksdale, Miss., says that he comes from a "musical tree." Everyone on the maternal side of his family plays an instrument or sings and at the tender age of 4 or 5, he began with drums.

Fast forward ten years and Cristone, who is considered a blues prodigy, also has mastered bass and guitar. His voice blows audiences away. He mentors younger students who are as eager to learn as he is and performs professionally at concerts, club appearances and arts festivals at home and around the nation. He has shared the stage with renowned blues artists such as Bob Margolin and Guitar Shorty and met idols like the legendary B.B. King.

Still, he says, each time he goes onstage is like the first time and he's a little nervous until he feels out the audience.

"Then it's like a breathtaking moment. Everything just goes blank and I focus on my music," Cristone said. "Problems, personal issues, worries and troubles — everything just goes out the window."

The opportunities that both Cristone and Briana have been given to explore and engage in their respective arts have also given them a confidence and sense of assurance about their futures that many young adults might envy.

Still, they are teenagers at heart, and so for this week at last, there is nothing more awesome in their minds than being embraced by Michelle Obama.

"That one takes the cake out of everything," Cristone said.

"For her to touch me, I was like, "Oh my goodness, Mrs. Obama is hugging me," Briana gasped. "Her telling me I look like a ballerina and her touching me is the best part of my entire year."

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(Photos: Steven E. Purcell/METGROUP)

Written by Joyce Jones


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