The 40th annual Kennedy Center Honors last night (Dec. 3) recognized those in the arts who’ve made lifetime achievements in American pop culture and ushered in some new traditions in the process. This year’s honorees were dancer/choreographer Carmen de Lavallade, singer Gloria Estefan, rapper LL Cool J, TV writer Norman Lear and singer Lionel Richie.
LL Cool J becomes the first hip-hop artist to be recognized at the Kennedy Center Honors. In a career spanning more than three decades, the Queens-born MC helped pioneer the burgeoning rap genre, while often being cited as hip-hop’s first heartthrob. As Def Jam Recordings’ first signee, LL is best known for hits like “Mama Said Knock You Out” and “Doin’ It.”
Fellow golden-era rapper Queen Latifah immortalized LL on stage before he received the award. Q-Tip and The Roots members Questlove and Black Thought were in attendance for support while Busta Rhymes, DMC and DJ Z-Trip paid tribute to LL in a performance. A true chameleon in the industry, LL has earned many awards for rapping and acting, including two Grammys, but the legendary MC told NPR’s Morning Edition, the Kennedy Center Honors is different “because now you’re being recognized by your country.”
Another ‘first’ for the evening was Gloria Estefan’s induction as the first Cuban-American to receive a Kennedy Center Honor. Estefan, who’s served as front woman for the Miami Sound Machine for nearly two decades, is best known for crossover hits like “Conga” and “Get On Your Feet.” The latter song has later become the title of a Broadway production based on the singer’s life.
2001 honoree Quincy Jones, 1999 honoree Stevie Wonder, Kenny Rogers and Leona Lewis and paid tribute to R&B titan Lionel Richie in song, belting a rendition of his song “All Night Long.”
While the 2017 honorees graciously shared the spotlight, some of the night’s conversation pivoted to a famous face that was noticeably missing from the ceremony. President Trump notably did not go this year’s honors, breaking a presidential tradition of the first family attending the ceremony. President Trump announced he would be missing the ceremony back in August after Lear and de Lavallade said they would boycott the awards if he was there.