WASHINGTON — LL Cool J will make history as the first rap musician to be saluted at the Kennedy Center Honors, which marks its 40th anniversary this year with a slate of artists that includes TV writer/producer Norman Lear, singer Gloria Estefan, dancer Carmen de Lavallade and musician Lionel Richie.
“I am blown away. This is the biggest musical award you can receive,” the Queens-born musician and actor said by phone from Los Angeles, where he stars in the CBS hit, “NCIS: Los Angeles.” “To be recognized by your country, and to be able to represent hip-hop as an art form is amazing. I’m surprised, grateful, humbled and honored.”
The annual awards for lifetime artistic achievement — set for Dec. 3 in the Kennedy Center Opera House — will be the first under President Donald Trump, who angered many in the arts when he introduced a budget that called for dismantling the National Endowment for the Arts. Although given by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the Honors’ weekend features a dinner at the State Department and a White House reception before the culmination in the Opera House, where the honorees watch from the president’s box as their peers celebrate their legacies. The show will be broadcast at 6 p.m. Dec. 26 on CBS.
Kennedy Center officials said Trump plans to attend the festivities, but Lear said it was unlikely he would attend a White House reception.
“I can’t see myself visiting a White House, what (Trump) called a dump, that dumps on the National Endowment for the Arts,” said the producer of “All in the Family” and “The Jeffersons.” “It troubles me that this administration, this president, has chosen to defund the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.”
The 2017 roster of honorees continues to favor popular culture at the expense of theater and classic music. This year’s celebration will spotlight three pop musicians who have collectively sold hundreds of millions of recordings. Absent are big-name Hollywood actors and Broadway stars.
Kennedy Center President Deborah Rutter is on vacation and was not available to discuss the impact of Trump on the ceremony. Spokeswoman Eileen Andrews declined to say whether any artists refused to accept, writing in an email that “the selection process for Honors is completely confidential – the same as it has been for the previous 39 years.”
At 49, LL Cool J is the youngest artist to receive the award, according to the Kennedy Center. Born James Todd Smith, the rapper/actor and two-time Grammy winner was one of the first artists to sign with Def Jam Records. He is the first rap musician to release 10 consecutive platinum-selling albums and has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The musician said that the Kennedy Center Honor “is not about the current administration” and that he wasn’t concerned about potential fan backlash, which caused some artists to pull out of Trump’s inauguration.
“The difference is, and I could be totally wrong and face a waterfall of backlash, but this is celebrating me, and the inauguration was celebrating the president,” he said. “I’m not going to shy away from being recognized as an artist. It has to be about the art for me.”
Lear transformed television — and American culture — with popular comedy series that grappled with class, race, homophobia and abortion, including “Good Times,” “Maude” and “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.” A World War II veteran, the 95-year-old has been awarded the National Medal of Arts and is co-founder of People for the American Way, a nonprofit organization that fights the religious right. Lear is currently working on a comedy series for Netflix and hosting a podcast.
“I like it very much when the arts are taken seriously and honored from the top of our nation,” he said. “That’s why the Kennedy Center Honors are so important. Honoring the arts, the formality of it, it’s a giant spotlight on the arts at a time when corporate America has no interest, as does not this administration.”
Cuban-born musician Estefan expressed gratitude for representing her culture at the event, which has been criticized for overlooking Hispanic and Latino artists. “That’s not just the Kennedy Center, that’s across the board. That’s another reason why I’m incredibly blessed, I’m representing my culture,” the seven-time Grammy Award winner said on the phone from Miami.
Estefan began performing with the Miami Sound Machine in the 1970s, releasing a string of hits over several decades, including “Conga,” “Anything for You” and “Rhythm is Gonna Get You.” The recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Estefan is the most successful Latin cross-over artist in music history, according to Billboard magazine. Her life story was the basis for the Broadway hit “On Your Feet,” which begins a three-week engagement at the Kennedy Center in January.
“Little do you imagine when you’re an immigrant child playing your guitar in your room that one day you’d be receiving this amazing honor,” she said.
For de Lavallade, the dancer, choreographer and actress of distinctive grace, life as an artist has meant constant work. “Challenge, challenge, challenge,” she said by phone from her home in New York, “and not being afraid of going in any direction.” The 86-year-old once shared the stage with Josephine Baker in Paris; Duke Ellington, Bill Evans, and Benny Goodman – along with their bands – accompanied her solo performances. But there’s no end in sight, she says. In 2014 she toured a solo show drawing on her life, “As I Remember It.” She’s hoping to take it on the road again.
When asked to name the highlights of her long and varied career, she points to her years as a professor at Yale, where she was also a leading member of the Yale Repertory Theatre Company, in the 1970s. She played Titania in Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” a play she choreographed as well as acted in. Christopher Lloyd was her Oberon, and an unknown named Meryl Streep was Helena.
“That was the best thing that ever happened to me,” De Lavallade says, her voice a soft purr, “because my dancing got richer. Actors question everything. Dancers don’t question, they just do.”
Musician-producer Richie’s career began with the Commodores in the 1970s. The five-time Grammy winner’s hit include “Still,” “Easy,” “All Night Long” and “Endless Love.” Co-writer with Michael Jackson of “We Are the World” for the USA for Africa fundraiser, Richie has sold more than 100 million albums worldwide.
“This is rare air. I’ve been a fan of the Kennedy Center Honors, I participated with Neil Diamond, who is one of my heroes,” Richie said. “You always hope you’ll be recognized somewhere down the line, but when it happens, there’s a ‘Really?’ moment. I’m humbled by this.”
The Kennedy Center Honors began in 1978 to celebrate artists who have made lasting contributions to the nation’s culture. The winners are chosen by the Kennedy Center’s board of trustees, the artistic community and members of the public, who are encouraged to submit nominations through the arts center’s website.