WASHINGTON (CBSLA/AP) — Veteran entertainers were honored in the nation’s capital Sunday night, including “NCIS: Los Angeles” star LL Cool J, Lionel Richie, and Gloria Estefan.
LL Cool J (real name James Todd Smith) called the evening “an amazing, amazing moment” for a hip-hop artist who officials said was the youngest-ever Kennedy Center Honors recipient at 49.
He said there were many deserving rappers and performers from his generation but would not go so far as to say that anybody deserved the honor over him.
“I’m humble, but I’m not going to play pseudo-humble,” he said before the program. “I’m the one!”
The Kennedy Center honors achievements in television, music, and the stage.
Norman Lear and dancer-choreagrapher Carmen De Lavallade were also honored.
Each honoree received a lengthy and personally tailored onstage tribute sprinkled with surprise guests.
Estefan was greeted with performances of her greatest hits and a solo performance by her daughter Emily. For LL Cool J, they recreated a club onstage with performances by Busta Rhymes and members of The Roots as well as a testimonial by Queen Latifah.
For Lear, a series of quick changes transformed the stage into the sets from “Good Times,” ”All in the Family” and “Maude,” with tributes from Rob Reiner, Dave Chappelle and Anthony Anderson from the current hit show “Black-ish.”
De Lavallade received a personal testimonial from 2011 Kennedy Center Honors recipient Meryl Streep, who was her student at Yale University. Richie was honored with a surprise performance of his hit “Hello” by Stevie Wonder, and the evening ended with everyone in attendance standing and dancing to “All Night Long.”
The annual event was in danger of falling victim to the nation’s current divisive political mood. Lear, whose political activism goes back decades, threatened to boycott rather than attend any aspect of ceremonies that involved President Donald Trump. With other members of the 2017 class of inductees expressing support for Lear’s position, a nasty showdown appeared to be looming — until Trump announced in late August that he and First Lady Melania Trump would not attend.
Trump’s withdrawal cleared the way for a Kennedy Center Honors ceremony Sunday night that actually managed to skip the political drama and focus entirely on the artists being honored.
The president usually sits in the same box with the honorees and other guests. In the past, most U.S. presidents have attended the ceremony, but it’s not unprecedented for a sitting president to skip it. Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton all missed ceremonies during their terms in office, but in all previous cases the first lady attended.
Kennedy Center officials didn’t hide their relief when Trump announced he wouldn’t attend this year. Kennedy Center President Deborah F. Rutter and Chairman David M. Rubenstein released a statement saying they were “grateful” to the Trumps for avoiding a conflict that would overshadow the ceremony.
“In choosing not to participate in this year’s honor’s activities, the administration has graciously signaled its respect for the Kennedy Center and ensures the honors gala remains a deservingly special moment for the honorees,” the statement said.
In addition to the Sunday ceremony, this year’s recipients were honored Saturday at a gala State Department dinner. The program will be televised Dec. 26 on CBS.
(© Copyright 2017 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)