WASHINGTON - LL Cool J became the first hip-hop artist ever to receive the Kennedy Center Honors, the nation’s highest distinction for performers, as artists ranging from Queen Latifah to Uniondale native Busta Rhymes paid tribute to his career Sunday night.
The 49-year-old Manhasset resident, born James Todd Smith in Bay Shore, was 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.
“LL was iconic from the start,” The Roots’ Questlove said in his tribute. “He pioneered the whole aesthetic of being an MC. He invented the three-minute rap song. . . . He was a superstar who got to the top and then had to defend his honor like a championship boxer.”
As is tradition for the Kennedy Center Honors, LL did not speak at the ceremony, which will air on CBS at 9 p.m. Dec. 26. However, he did accept his award at a State Department dinner Saturday night. “I never dreamed that I would ever be in a position to be able to talk to a room like this with all these beautiful people,” he said. “What you’re looking at is what every young black man in the inner city could potentially be if they were given the opportunity and if somebody put their arm around them.”
On the red carpet before the event, LL said he wanted to use this honor to help bring a focus to the arts, brushing aside questions about it being the first time in the awards’ history that neither the sitting president nor the first lady was involved in the event. After Lear and de Lavallade said they would not attend the event if President Donald Trump attended, the Trump administration decided to skip this year. “The political climate can be a distraction, but tonight it’s about the arts,” LL said. “I’m not looking to use this as a soapbox or to take shots or to be divisive. I don’t want to go there.”
There wasn’t much mention of politics during the three-and-a-half-hour ceremony. In his tribute to “All in the Family” creator Lear, comedian Dave Chappelle joked about the print of the Declaration of Independence that Lear purchased and put on a national tour. “God bless this great land where everything is for sale including our founding document,” said Chappelle, adding that it would likely be sold for many rubles. Singer Renée Fleming performed “Take Care of This House” from the Leonard Bernstein musical “1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.”
When Rita Moreno paid tribute to Lear’s hit 1970s sitcom “One Day at a Time,” which dealt with many issues including sexual harassment, she added, “Look how far we’ve come.”
The star-studded event also drew Meryl Streep to pay tribute to de Lavallade, Stevie Wonder to serenade Richie and Eva Longoria to honor Estefan.
“Without the arts, there is nothing,” de Lavallade said accepting her honor Saturday night. “This is how we exist, is being created. And that’s what I’m about.”