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LL Cool J to be first rapper to receive a Kennedy Center Honor

The Manhasset resident will be honored in Washington, D.C., along with Gloria Estefan, Lionel Richie, Norman Lear and Carmen de Lavallade.

Rapper LL Cool J performs in Miami Gardens,

Rapper LL Cool J performs in Miami Gardens, Florida, on March 19, 2017. Photo Credit: Getty Images for Jazz in The Gardens / Aaron Davidson

LL Cool J is set to receive the Kennedy Center Honors Sunday night, becoming the first rapper to achieve the nation’s highest award for a performer, the American equivalent of British knighthood.

The Manhasset resident, born James Todd Smith in Bay Shore, will be honored along with singer-songwriters Lionel Richie and Gloria Estefan, TV creator Norman Lear and dancer/actress Carmen de Lavallade for the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts’ 40th annual event.

The ceremony, which will air on CBS at 9 p.m. on Dec. 26, is historically a secret affair. Those being honored do not know which artists will be on hand to pay tribute to them at the center in Washington, D.C., only that it will be a celebration of their careers.

In LL Cool J’s case, that should mean spending some time on his work as a rapper, with tender songs like “I Need Love” and hard-hitting hip-hop like “Mama Said Knock You Out,” his current focus as an actor on the weekly series “NCIS: Los Angeles,” and as the host of the popular “Lip Sync Battle.”

At a State Department dinner Saturday night, LL told those gathered that his success is proof that anything is possible. “The inner city is a maelstrom,” he said in a portion of his speech released by the Kennedy Center on Twitter. “I liken it to a bunch of little creatures caught in this whirlpool... every now and then you’ll have someone make it out. You’re looking at what every young black man the inner city could be if they were given the opportunity.”

On Instagram before the event, he sought to be even more inspirational. “I believe that we are built to do anything we put our minds and proper actions to,” he wrote as the caption to a picture of him wearing his Kennedy Center Honor. “You have all the tools inside you that are required for you to fulfill your GOD given purpose. This one is for those who came before me and those who followed me. We were sent to this planet to love and inspire one another. Manifest our dreams and make them a reality. I hope you’re inspired by me because I’m absolutely Inspired by you.”

One change for this year’s ceremony, however, is that President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump will not be involved in the celebration, after Lear and de Lavallade announced they would not attend if he did following the president’s statements about the Charlottesville, Virginia, protests this past summer.

After those announcements and a statement from Richie that he would “play it by ear” on whether to attend, White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the Trumps would not participate in the event or hold the usual White House reception for the honorees “to allow the honorees to celebrate without any political distraction.” It marks the first time that neither the current president nor the first lady will attend the Kennedy Center Honors.

In previous years, politics was set aside for the honors weekend. President Bill Clinton paid tribute to staunch Republicans like Clint Eastwood and Charlton Heston. President George W. Bush welcomed Barbra Streisand, saying her outspokenness on politics “kind of makes me think of another Barbara who is not afraid to speak her mind,” referring to his mother, former first lady Barbara Bush.

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