LL Cool J and Lionel Richie

  From left to right back row: LL Cool J and Lionel Richie; Front row, left to right: Carmen de Lavallade, Norman Lear and Gloria Estefan. The five recipients of the 40th Annual Kennedy Center Honors pose for a group photo following a dinner hosted by United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in their honor at the US Department of State on Dec. 2, 2017 in Washington, D.C.

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The 2017 Honors program looked set to become a political affair until President Donald Trump announced in August he would not attend.

A Cuban immigrant, the first hip-hop artist to be inducted, and a television legend who spotlighted racial bigotry were among the honorees at Sunday (Dec. 3) night’s 40th edition of the Kennedy Center Honors. If this year’s class wasn’t purposefully curated as a tapestry rich in diversity during this first year of Donald Trump’s presidency, then it resonated with more than a little poetic irony.

Without ever naming the elephant that wasn’t in the room, the celebration honoring Gloria Estefan, LL Cool J, Lionel Richie, Norman Lear and dancer/choreographer Carmen de Lavallade was a lively, hitch-free night that will air as a special Dec. 26 on CBS.

Marking only the fourth time in four decades the sitting president hasn’t attended the Honors, Trump in August opted to sit this one out amid a swirl of suggested boycotts. And that decision was just fine with the honorees and those who performed for them, who this year were happy to have a separation of arts and state.

“What I’m going to do tonight is not focus on that,” Richie said before the show when asked about Trump’s absence. “I’m going straight to the fact that, ‘Have you seen this [rainbow lanyard] on my neck?’ That’s where we’re going -- celebrating the arts. I can talk about all kinds of things that are going on but tonight this is the center of my world.”

Richie hailed music’s power to unite. “I travel around the world, twice a year maybe, and they sing every word, every song, in English. And everyone was married, engaged, partied to the same songs we do right here in America. As time goes on you start realize, isn’t that fabulous?”

LL was also on the unity bandwagon. “I don’t even want to feed into that whole distraction,” he said on the red carpet. “Right now in this environment the political climate can be a bit distracting and tonight it’s all about the arts. I’m not looking to use this a soapbox to take shots or try to be divisive. I want hip-hop to be remembered as a unifying force. Tonight is going to be about and music and art and love.”

Estefan called Trump’s decision to stay away “very thoughtful… I’m thankful he chose not to come because all he does is overshadow the accomplishments of people who have spent a lifetime trying to do something. It’s kind of a bummer when that moment is overshadowed by politics and controversy, so I’m very thankful he allowed us the freedom to just revel in this accomplishment.”

She said she wished “certain things could be improved” about Trump’s governance, citing in particular his current policies regarding Cuba, from where she and her family emigrated when she was young. “I wish he wouldn’t have pulled back the travel restrictions on Cuba because I think person-to-person travel is incredibly important, although I don’t particularly like the Castros.”

Becky G, a second-generation American whose family hails from Mexico, was part of Estefan’s tribute. “I always say I’m the 200 percent -- I’m 100 percent Latina just as much as I’m 100 percent American. And I feel more empowered than ever as a young brown girl,” she told Billboard. “This is one of the events that combine the arts and politics, and we really need to be reminded about the unity and I don’t think it's worth speaking about somebody who doesn’t represent that or connect to that at all.”

Lear, reportedly the first to threaten a boycott of some of the Honors fanfare, was not surprisingly less diplomatic. “I think he was smart to stay away and stay out of town -- which is something he does on weekends anyway. Nothing new,” he told reporters before show time.

While the three-hour spectacle was the arts immersion its participants had hoped for, there were some moments that lingered with added resonance.

Caroline Kennedy opened the event bearing her father’s name by lauding his advancement of the arts as well as other virtues including religious freedom, nuclear disarmament and science. She then offered a poignant JFK quote: “The men who create power make an indispensable contribution to the nation’s greatness, but the men who question power make a contribution just as indispensable… for they determine whether we use power or power uses us.”

With that intro, and without a president in the balcony or a show host (Stephen Colbert had emcee’d the previous three years), the 2017 Honors got down to business.

Estefan was lauded by longtime friend Eva Longoria and received musical love from Jon Secada, the cast of On Your Feet! (the Broadway musical based on the life and music of the honoree and her husband/collaborator Emilio), and Becky G and Chaka Khan, whose rendition of “Coming out of the Dark” was a show highlight. 

Lear’s tribute included a conveyer belt of set changes -- notably Archie and Edith’s original chairs on loan from the Smithsonian -- as well wishers including J.J. Abrams, Rob Reiner and Dave Chappelle, who stepped up to laud him and his perspective-bending series All In the Family, The Jeffersons, Good Times, One Day at a Time, Maude and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.

The diversity of this year’s class was an obvious source of joy for Lear, at 95 the Honors’ oldest inductee to date. At a clip shown from the State Department dinner the previous night, he quipped to a wave of laughter, “I’m very proud among these honorees to be representing my race.”

Rita Moreno also got some chuckles, albeit uncomfortable ones, when during her One Day at A Time tribute she noted the show dealt with timely “topics such as sexual harassment… and look how far we have come.”

LL Cool J, who bookends this year’s class as the youngest-ever honoree, carries the distinction of being the Honors’ first hip-hop inductee. Joyfully, the Kennedy Center, and the music community, made a big, bass-thumping big deal about it. Queen Latifah, Questlove, Darryl “DMC” McDaniels, Busta Rhymes, MC Lyte and DJ Z-Trip were part of a tribute that turned the stage into a club scene.  

“It’s nice to be first, nice to be the guy they chose, and I want to represent hip-hop to the fullest and really continue to love this culture, elevate the culture and push it forward,” LL told Billboard. “Dreams don’t have deadlines, we can keep evolving.”

“We’re a legitimate part of entertainment, we’re a legitimate part of American history and culture,” McDaniels said of the genre. “L’s going to go in, Run-D.M.C.’s gonna go in, Public Enemy’s gonna go in. And once we’re all in I think it’s important that we let the world know about the pre-'Rappers Delight' artists who came before us -- the real first rappers, people don’t know about them yet, but they will.”

De Lavallade was feted among others by one of her former students in the Yale drama department, Meryl Streep.

Richie’s rousing tribute was the obvious show-closer. Stevie Wonder took to the piano to glide gorgeously through “Hello” and “Easy.” Quincy Jones praised Richie as a humanitarian and pioneer as an architect and co-writer of “We Are the World.” Kenny Rogers shared stories of his longtime friend, Luke Bryan crooned “Penny Lover” and “Sail On,” and Leona Lewis picked up the tempo with “All Night Long.”

Daughter Nicole Richie provided a touching tribute and spilled a few fun facts. Some were little known, like the fact that her father always answers the phone with the salutation “Showtime!” Others are more industry legend, like this statement: “He’s the most thankful person I know, and he’s also the happiest person I know."