The Kennedy Center Honors celebrated a star-studded group of artists and performers Sunday in a gala that took on decidedly political overtones with the presidential box sitting conspicuously empty.
It was one of just a handful of times in 40 years that a sitting US president skipped the event, and seen as the first not caused by a crisis or travel.
Norman Lear, known for his sitcoms including The Jeffersons and All in the Family that shed light on prejudice and social ills, seized on his moment in Washington to cite “equal opportunity” and “equal justice” as “the promises of this country”.
“Deep in our hearts, we still have promises to deliver,” said the 95-year-old World War II veteran, who received the lifetime artistic achievement award. “I want to call to attention in this room, with these people.”
President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania were not attending to avoid “political distraction” after several honourees said they planned or would skip the traditional White House reception preceding the event.
That decision came as the administration sank deep into political turmoil after Trump failed to definitively condemn the role of white supremacists in violent Virginia protests that ended in bloodshed.
But the move infused the usually non-partisan cultural celebration at the Kennedy Center Opera House with a decidedly political flavour.
The posh annual awards program — one of the US capital’s pre-eminent social events — this year honoured Cuban-American singer Gloria Estefan, dancer and choreographer Carmen de Lavallade, Lear, rapper LL Cool J and musician Lionel Richie.
LL Cool J’s nod marked the first time a hip-hop or rap artist has taken home one of the Kennedy Center’s rainbow ribbon medals.
Despite the backdrop of political drama, the show celebrating the arts went on, its attendees — which included a number of lawmakers and Trump administration members — decked out in tuxes and gowns.
Actresses Meryl Streep, Queen Latifah and Eva Longoria were among those honouring the award winners.The event, to be broadcast December 26 on CBS television, featured performances from singers Stevie Wonder and Chaka Khan, rapper DMC and ballet dancer Misty Copeland.
At an annual State Department dinner on Saturday lauding the performers, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson emphasised the role of the arts in championing free speech, saying this year’s class of awardees “affirm the American value of free expression to the whole world”.
Estefan, the Latin pop star known as “the conga queen” who immigrated from Cuba, alluded to political tensions over immigration.
“My dad brought us here to live in freedom and to live in a country that allows everyone to be who they are,” she said. “We all have to stand up for what this country is.”
Hip-hop trailblazer LL Cool J, 49, told the dinner “you’re looking at what every young black man in the inner city could be if they were given the opportunity.”
He later praised the Kennedy Center for acknowledging rap as a “high art”, telling journalists “I think they’ve embraced hip hop in a big way”.
Richie, now 68 and known for his slew of soulful hits including All Night Long, Hello and Endless Love, was all smiles as he entered the Kennedy Center, calling art “a unifier”.
The graceful de Lavallade — who like Lear had promised to shun the White House reception — strode the red carpet with perfect posture.
The 86-year-old doyenne of dance, who charmed Paris alongside fellow renowned performer Josephine Baker in the 1960s, disparaged the administration’s efforts in past months to eliminate federal arts funding and voiced satisfaction that the president had bowed out.
“I’m used to taking directions; I’m a team player — and this is the first time I said ‘no,’” she said, referencing her boycott threat. “I feel wonderful about it.”
Kennedy Center Honoree singer Lionel Richie arrives for the Kennedy Center Honors in Washington, on Sunday.