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Kennedy Center Celebrates Latest Honorees, But Without The First Family


The 40th Annual Kennedy Center Honors were a chance to celebrate among others a dancer, a rapper and a TV-sitcom pioneer. Here's NPR's Elizabeth Blair.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: The Kennedy Center Honors are lifetime achievement awards. And for the first time, a hip hop artist was one of the recipients. LL Cool J grew up in a rough part of Queens, N.Y. Last night, Queen Latifah called him the first commercially successful rapper. Questlove called him volcanic. Here's LL Cool J's "Mama Said Knock You Out."


LL COOL J: (Rapping) Don't call it a comeback. I've been here for years. I'm rocking my peers, putting suckers in fear. Making the tears rain down like a monsoon. Listen to the bass go boom, explosion.

BLAIR: LL Cool J has won a number of awards, including two Grammys. He said the Kennedy Center Honor is different.


LL COOL J: Because now you're being recognized by your country.

BLAIR: TV writer and producer Norman Lear introduced generations of viewers to characters and situations other shows ignored - among his shows, "Good Times," "One Day At A Time" and "All In The Family."


ROB REINER: (As Michael "Meathead" Stivic) Well, what would our leaving solve? I mean, with or without protesters, this country would still have the same problems.

CARROLL O'CONNOR: (As Archie Bunker) What problems?

REINER: (Michael "Meathead" Stivic) Well, there's still war, the racial problem, the economic problem, the pollution problem.

O'CONNOR: (As Archie Bunker) Oh, come on. You want to nitpick.

BLAIR: Rob Reiner, who played Meathead, said Norman Lear was like a second father who both challenged the actors and viewers by showing them real people facing real issues.


REINER: His shows - they are a cultural document of America. And they represent the highest quality to which all of us storytellers aspire.

LIONEL RICHIE: I mean, Norman Lear, for example, let's talk about this. I'm in his class tonight. I can't talk about anything else about that.

BLAIR: Lionel Richie, another honoree, was full up with pride to be in the same class as Norman Lear. Richie, who was born and raised in Tuskegee, Ala., was a hit machine in the 1970s and '80s beginning as a member with the Commodores.


RICHIE: (Singing) That's why I'm easy. I'm easy like Sunday morning.

BLAIR: Last night, Stevie Wonder performed for Lionel Richie. Dave Chappelle paid tribute to Norman Lear. And American Ballet Theatre ballerina Misty Copeland performed for honoree Carmen de Lavallade. In a career that spans more than six decades, de Lavallade danced on and off Broadway, performed in movies and taught movement at Yale Repertory Theatre. One of her students was Meryl Streep. Last night, Streep said that's when she fell in love with de Lavallade.


MERYL STREEP: Her kind brown eyes, her rigor, her uprightness and her discipline - no one comes to this class late the second day. No, no.

BLAIR: The president and first lady typically attend the Kennedy Center Honors but not this year. After Lear and de Lavallade said they would boycott the annual White House reception, President Trump announced they would skip this year's event altogether. That was disappointing for Gloria Estefan, the first Cuban-American to receive a Kennedy Center Honor.

GLORIA ESTEFAN: I would have loved for him to see the example because on that stage are people, not just immigrants, but people that have battled against a lot of discrimination and prejudice.

BLAIR: At the same time, Estefan said she didn't want to make the evening political.


ESTEFAN: (Singing) Come on. Shake your body. Baby, do that conga. I know you can't control yourself any longer. Come on. Shake your body. Baby, do that conga. I know you can't control yourself any longer.

BLAIR: The Kennedy Center Honors will be broadcast later this month on CBS.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CONGA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.