America celebrates the performing arts with Kennedy Center Honors

Artists have long enriched and shaped cultural life in America. Recently, the United States celebrated five extraordinary talents for their ingenuity and influence. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was there to toast them.

“Artistic expression represents perhaps the highest form of freedom of speech — the words and the messages conveyed through music, through dance, the content of film, television, to reflect the free society that we are, even with our many flaws,” Tillerson said during a December 2 dinner and awards ceremony at the U.S. Department of State for the 40th annual Kennedy Center Honors. (Executives of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, in Washington, choose the artist honorees each year.)

Artistic expression, Tillerson said, “bridges our differences, it celebrates our diversity and it draws us ever closer as a free people. Regrettably, in large parts of this world today, such conditions do not exist. Regimes that are intolerant of artistic expression are intolerant of freedom itself.”

The 2017 Kennedy Center honorees come from the worlds of dance, television and music (rhythm and blues, Latin pop and hip-hop). Learn more about their exceptional talents:

Gloria Estefan singing into hand-held microphone (© AP Images)
(© AP Images)

Cuban American singer-songwriter Gloria Estefan was born in Havana, but her parents fled Cuba shortly after the Castro revolution. Her father subsequently joined the U.S. military. Gloria’s band, the Miami Sound Machine, became successful in Latin America before gaining notoriety in the United States. By the mid-1980s, Estefan and her group were scoring hits with “Words Get in the Way,” “Anything for You” and “Conga!” Estefan has won seven Grammy Awards, as well as a Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Carmen de Lavallade in gesturing pose (© Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post/Getty Images)
(© Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post/Getty Images)

Dancer and choreographer Carmen de Lavallade, the daughter of Creole parents from New Orleans, began studying dance at a time when most black Americans were excluded from the field. She excelled not only at ballet, but at modern dance as well. Her distinguished career has included dancing as prima ballerina at New York’s Metropolitan Opera and performing in groundbreaking works by choreographer Alvin Ailey, her frequent collaborator. She had an equal influence on generations of dancers and actors as a teacher of movement at the Yale School of Drama.

Lionel Richie at piano singing (© AP Images)
(© AP Images)

Against his parents’ wishes, Lionel Richie left school as a young man to pursue a career in music. First with group The Commodores and later as a solo artist, Richie recorded a string of hits — including “Three Times a Lady,” “Brick House” and “Hello” — that put him in the top echelon of recording artists. In 1985, he co-authored “We Are the World,” which raised $60 million for humanitarian relief in Africa. Throughout his career he has sold 100 million records.

Norman Lear standing in a garden, holding a coffee cup (© Bob Riha Jr./Getty Images)
(© Bob Riha Jr./Getty Images)

Television writer and producer Norman Lear brought a very different kind of comedy to American television in the 1970s — one that incorporated social issues such as equal rights for women, race relations and economic inequity. All in the Family, One Day at a Time, The Jeffersons and other shows let Americans look at their world honestly and sympathetically with plenty of laughs along the way.

LL Cool J holding microphone and performing (© AP Images)
(© AP Images)

American hip-hop artist LL Cool J grew up in the New York borough of Queens as James Todd Smith. As LL Cool J (short for Ladies Love Cool James), he had his first hit single at the age of 16. His 1985 debut album Radio helped bring hip-hop to music’s mainstream, and he was among the first successful solo rap artists. In 1987, his song “I Need Love” was among the first hip-hop songs to find success in the international market.

“Each of this year’s honorees became known to and loved by the world because of their complete originality and bold genius,” said Kennedy Center President Deborah F. Rutter. “They are creators of the highest order, and as President Kennedy’s living memorial, the Kennedy Center is proud to shine a light on their boundless ‘contributions to the human spirit.'”

Performers from New York, Hollywood and the arts capitals of the world saluted the 2017 honorees December 3 through performances and tributes at the Kennedy Center Opera House.