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Beyoncé and Michelle Obama Hug It Out at Global Citizen Festival

 Beyoncé and Michelle Obama Hug It Out at Global Citizen Festival

By Kia Makarechi

By the time darkness fell over the Great Lawn in Manhattan's Central Park, the crowd of 60,000 or so attendees of the Global Citizen Festival had already seen performances by Coldplay and Ed Sheeran.

Celebrities of varying levels of fame had introduced a litany of C.E.O.s and government officials from companies and nations of varying size. Millions of "actions," Global Citizen's preferred term for tweets, Facebook posts, petitions, and other digital acts of advocacy were piling up. By the end of the night, 92,061,708 such actions would be taken.

But it wasn't until after dusk that the festival took on the feeling of a parade of heavy hitters. After Sheeran's endearingly goofy set, Vice-President Joe Biden and Dr. Jill Biden arrived.

"I know politicians aren't supposed to have strong views, but I don't care," the veep said. "I love Coldplay."

Biden then remarked that while it was obvious he had been in politics for decades, his wife doesn't look as old. "I married a much younger woman," he joked. "She's 30 years younger than me." (She is eight years younger.) President Barack Obama appeared via video screen.

A few minutes later, Common was performing "The Light," when Sting suddenly broke in to perform "I'll Be Watching You." Millennials, it turns out, love Sting.

Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg appeared via video. Then it was Stephen Colbert on stage, introducing Prime Minister Erna Solberg of Norway, who advocated passionately for women's education. Onto another video message, this time from First Lady Michelle Obama, who asked attendees to take out their phones and tweet using the hashtag #62MillionGirls, a number Obama said represents girls around the world who don't have access to education.

The rush continued. Salma Hayek Pinault arrived to introduce Swedish prime minister Stefan Löfven, whom she described as "pledging to run the first feminist government" — half of Löfven's top officials are women. Pinault remained on stage and, after an interruption from Gucci C.E.O. and Chime for Change partner Marco Bizzarri, leaned into the introduction of the night: "Please welcome, our partner, who is a mother, a philanthropist, a collector of Grammys, and a volcano of talent: Beyoncé​."

The crowd surged toward the stage. Overall, Beyoncé's performance was incredibly sharp. The crowd, like all crowds, seemed at times too busy Snapchat-ing and Instagram-ing to really cheer, but the sheer power of Beyoncé's choreography, vocals, and interstitial videos held them in a state of awe.

Beyoncé’s set ended with another surprise: Michelle Obama, this time in the flesh. The First Lady and the reigning Queen of Pop hugged each other tightly, and then Obama once again emphatically asked the audience to advocate for the education of girls. "These are our girls," she reminded the audience.

One highlight of the evening was Malala Yousafzai, who was greeted with rapturous applause when she appeared with four other young women from conflict zones around the world. "There is not a lack of money in this world," she said. "We have trillions of dollars. But the money goes to military and things that are useless for this world and for society."

The Global Citizen organization believes the private sector is a key partner in enacting change, which is bound to result in slightly awkward moments. One executive said that "doing good is good business, especially when you’re in the business of helping build brands," which sounds nice but means nothing. "There is no business case for enduring poverty," Unilever C.E.O. Paul Polman argued. That's not true, but Polman's next comment was more interesting: he asked consumers to research corporations and "withhold your dollars from companies that aren't doing the right thing."

Many speakers encouraged the audience to hold their leaders accountable. Sunday morning brought with it a follow-up New York Times op-ed from Bono and Zuckerberg, and an official e-mail from the First Lady.

A single concert will never be a significant milestone in the fights to end extreme poverty, to increase access to education, to end polio for good, and to make foreign aid more efficient, but by the end of Saturday evening on the Great Lawn, perhaps a few thousand people had been inspired to push for change. And that, as they say, can't hurt.

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Photo Credit: Taylor Hill via Getty Images