Standing in the East Wing of the White House on Wednesday, 16-year-old Anthony Allmond handed a demo CD of his band, Failing Acts of Society, to platinum-selling singer-songwriter Demi Lovato.
The Mount de Sales Academy junior joined 10 other Macon high school students for two days in Washington, D.C. as special guests of first lady Michelle Obama.
Moments earlier, Michelle Obama addressed the students, along with those from 10 other organizations across the U.S., in an intimate gathering in the State Dining Room of the White House.
It was the "opportunity of a lifetime," said Otis Redding Foundation Executive Director Karla Redding-Andrews.
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The White House and the Grammy Museum had invited the young performers from the Otis Music Camp to participate in educational events supporting the final "In Performance at the White House" concert of the Obama administration.
"Getting to explore Washington, D.C. is like a dream come true because I've always stayed in Macon, Georgia," Southwest High School sophomore Nadiyah Wilmore said. "It was very overwhelming. And getting into the White House -- Oh, my God! -- not many people get to do that!"
Joining the first lady were Grammy Museum Executive Director Bob Santelli and five popular musicians: Lovato, Yolanda Adams, Leon Bridges, Andra Day and Jussie Smollett. The musicians were there to speak to students and perform songs for President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama in tribute to Ray Charles.
"The reason we invited you all here today," she told the gathering, "is we wanted you all to understand that no matter who you are or what challenges you face, you all have the power to get from those seats down there to these seats up here or anywhere else you want to go in the world. But it's going to take some real effort on your part."
Michelle Obama exhorted the students to focus on their education and to learn from failure.
"Failure is a key part of success. You don't get here," she said, gesturing to include the musicians behind her, "unless you fail real bad, real big and real hard somewhere. And that includes my husband, the president of the United States. The question is how do you get back up from those failures."
Bridges debuted an unfinished song inspired by Charles. The students then broke into groups to interview the featured artists.
The students said they found the words from the first lady and the musicians inspirational.
"As an artist, you can get down because it's not easy," said Joshua Garner, a home-schooled junior and another member of Failing Acts of Society. "Them saying that and hearing that from someone who has made it gives me a lot more hope, a lot more courage."
On Tuesday, the students participated in a daylong workshop at the National Museum of American History hosted by the Grammy Museum and the Smithsonian Institute.
During the workshop, students learned what goes into the six-month preproduction for the hourlong concert. Producers and musicians such as Anthony Hamilton and Smollett offered career advice. And Smithsonian curators provided up-close-and-personal views of artifacts such as one of Michael Jackson's famous hats, John Coltrane's saxophone and a 1970 Kermit the Frog puppet.
"In Performance at the White House" began in 1978 during the Carter administration. In 2009, Michelle Obama added the educational component in conjunction with the Grammy Museum and the Smithsonian Institute.
"I think (the students) got a good appreciation for what artists do," Redding-Andrews said. "They have inspired them to keep working on fulfilling their dreams."
The Ray Charles tribute is the 56th production in the series and is set to air Friday night on PBS. It should also be available for streaming at pbs.org and whitehouse.gov. Additional performers included Usher, Brittany Howard and Sam Moore.
Tim Regan-Porter is director of the Center for Collaborative Journalism at Mercer University.