WASHINGTON — This year’s Kennedy Center honorees will include two singers, a television writer, a dancer – and for the first time, a hip-hop artist.
The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts on Thursday announced the recipients of the 2017 Kennedy Center Honors. They are: hip-hop artist LL Cool J, singers Gloria Estefan and Lionel Richie, television writer and producer Norman Lear and dancer Carmen de Lavallade. It’s the 40th year of the awards, which honour people who have influenced American culture through the arts.
The honorees will be celebrated at a gala on Dec. 3, featuring performances and tributes from top entertainers and attended by President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump. The show will be broadcast on Dec. 26 on CBS.
Here’s a look at this year’s honorees:
LL Cool J
“Yo, this is amazing.” That was LL Cool J’s reaction to being the first hip-hop artist awarded a Kennedy Center Honor.
“To be able to go from the corner in Queens beatin’ on a garbage can to getting a Kennedy Center Honor with this type of company and to be first is just an amazing feeling. You know, it just adds another level of legitimacy to hip-hop culture,” he said in a telephone interview.
LL Cool J, born James Todd Smith, began his rap career as a teenager. His debut album, “Radio,” was released in 1985 and more albums soon followed. In 1992, he won his first of two Grammy awards for best rap solo performance for “Mama Said Knock You Out.” He earned a second for “Hey Lover” in 1997.
Beyond music, he has branched out to working in television. Since 2015 he has hosted Spike TV’s reality show “Lip Sync Battle.” The show was nominated for an Emmy in 2016 and again in 2017. He also currently stars in the CBS drama “NCIS: Los Angeles,” where he plays special agent Sam Hanna.
Still, the 49-year-old says his “first love is hip-hop.”
“That’s always going to be my first love, but I’m an entertainer,” he said, adding that he likes to “create,” whether it’s music or TV shows, content that “entertains the world.”
His most recent album, “Authentic,” was released in 2013.
“There’s definitely more history to be written. You know, one day I’ll get back in the studio. You never know what can happen,” he said.
Singer Gloria Estefan was in a car on the way to the airport when she learned she’d be honoured by the Kennedy Center. Her husband got the news first, she said, and before announcing it told her to prepare herself. “Buckle your seatbelt,” he said, even though she was already strapped in.
The Cuban-American artist has won three Grammy awards and four Latin Grammy awards and sold more than 100 million records worldwide. These days there’s little the 59-year-old hasn’t done. She’s acted, written two children’s books, and she and husband Emilio Estefan own businesses including restaurants and hotels as well as a minority share in the Miami Dolphins. The couple was honoured by President Barack Obama with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015.
“I’d be greedy if I wanted anything else in life,” she said in a telephone interview.
Estefan shot to fame as the lead singer of the Miami Sound Machine, a group formed by the man who would become her husband. Her hits include: “Conga,” ”Rhythm Is Gonna Get You,” ”Get on Your Feet” and “1-2-3.” A musical based on the couple’s lives and music opened on Broadway in 2015 and closes later this month. Estefan called the show’s closing “bittersweet.” But a national tour of the show begins in the fall, what Estefan called a “new beginning.” The show will also make its international premiere in the Netherlands in October.
What hasn’t she done that she’d like to? “Take an extended vacation,” Estefan joked in an interview before adding that she’d like to write a book about how she got through a 1990 tour bus crash in which her back was broken. And, she said, she’d like perform in a “free Cuba,” one not led by Fidel or Raul Castro.
Estefan, who once hosted a fundraiser for Obama but says she and her husband are not affiliated with a political party, said her personal politics will be on hold in accepting the honour with Trump in the audience. But she said the image of a Cuban immigrant being honoured is important when Latino immigrants in particular have “taken a beating in the recent past.”
“I’m happy to be a very clear example of the good things that immigrants have done in this country,” she said.
Lionel Richie could be forgiven for being tired by the time of the Kennedy Center Honors in December. The four-time Grammy winner is in the middle of his “All the Hits” tour and still has more than two dozen scheduled performances in the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand before the tour ends in late October. Mariah Carey is joining the singer-songwriter on tour and Richie says “so far she has killed it.”
As for Richie, fans are there to see him perform some of his most popular songs including: “Three Times a Lady,” ”Hello,” ”All Night Long,” ”Dancing on the Ceiling” and “Say You, Say Me,” which won him a Golden Globe award and an Oscar. Then there’s “We Are The World,” which he wrote with Michael Jackson.
Outside of music, Richie is involved in other ventures. He has a homeware line and is an investor in an app that lets people request a doctor come to their home. He’s also producing a movie about entertainer Sammy Davis Jr.
Richie, 68, says it’s good to be busy.
“I always say that the word ‘busy’ in show business is the most important word. You want to be busy,” he said in a telephone interview.
The father of three has also said he’s writing a book called “How to Survive Your Children,” but said he’s “still doing research.” His youngest, model Sofia Richie, will need to turn 19 before he has enough experience to finish it, he said.
“I don’t want to put the book out if I didn’t make it,” he said.
Richie said there’s no better word than “honoured” to describe how he feels about being given a Kennedy Center Honor: “Lionel Richie just had to stop and go ‘oh my God,’” he said.
“You’re just going to catch a guy who’s going to just sit down and enjoy the show and from time to time kind of restrain myself from crying,” he said.
At 95, Norman Lear ties the record for oldest honoree. Born in 1922 in New Haven, Connecticut, Lear served in World War II before beginning his career in television writing. In the 1970s and 1980s he produced “All in the Family,” ”Good Times,” ”One Day at a Time” and “The Jeffersons,” among other shows.
Ask him for television recommendations these days, though, and he’s at something of a loss.
“There’s too much of everything and I can’t keep up with it all,” he said in a telephone interview before mentioning “Orange is the New Black,” ”Black-ish,” and the work of Jill Soloway, creator of “Transparent” and “Six Feet Under.”
He said it was a “thrill of thrills” to be honoured by the Kennedy Center but he was skeptical about meeting the president.
“Given his indifference or worse regarding the arts and humanities, I don’t even know he’ll be there,” he said of Trump, who has called for cutting arts funding. Lear added that he “wouldn’t care to say anything to him.”
“The world has spoken to him, is shouting in his ear every bloody day,” he said.
He added: “I have absolutely no idea at this moment what I would say to the president, but whatever I feel passionate about at the moment I have no hesitation saying.”
Lear’s work extends beyond television. In 1981, he joined with the late Texas congresswoman Barbara Jordan and others to found People for the American Way, a non-profit founded to “to fight right-wing extremism and defend constitutional values under attack.”
Lear, the winner of four Emmy awards, was honoured with the National Medal of Arts by President Bill Clinton in 1999 and a Peabody Lifetime Achievement Award in 2017.
Playwright and director George Abbott, who was honoured by the Kennedy Center in 1982, was also 95 when he was honoured.
Carmen de Lavallade
Dancer, choreographer and actress Carmen de Lavallade has been going to the Kennedy Center for 30 years and performed a solo show on its stage in 2014. She was still “a little speechless” when told she’d be honoured there, she said.
Now 86, the Los Angeles native made her dancing debut at 17. She has appeared on and off Broadway and in films, and was one of the first African-Americans dancers with the Metropolitan Opera.
Over her career she worked with a range of influential choreographers including Alvin Ailey, John Butler, Lester Horton, and Glen Tetley. She also taught movement for actors at Yale. Most recently she has toured a work about her life called “As I Remember It.”
De Lavallade met her late husband Geoffrey Holder in the cast of “House of Flowers,” her Broadway debut. Like his wife he was a multi-talented dancer, choreographer and actor. Their marriage was portrayed in the 2005 documentary “Carmen & Geoffrey.” He died in 2014.
De Lavallade says these days she’s doing a lot of mentoring of other performers. She said her advice is always: “Don’t compete. Be yourself.”