Kennedy Center Honors sees Queen Latifah make history among glam gala honorees

Washington DC – A diverse class of music legends plus comedian Billy Crystal gave Washington a glow-up Sunday, gathering with the US capital's politicians for one of the city's glitziest events of the year.

The 2023 Kennedy Center Honors honorees included (from l to r) Renee Fleming, Barry Gibb, Queen Latifah, Billy Crystal and Dionne Warwick.
The 2023 Kennedy Center Honors honorees included (from l to r) Renee Fleming, Barry Gibb, Queen Latifah, Billy Crystal and Dionne Warwick.  © KENT NISHIMURA / AFP

The annual Kennedy Center Honors see entertainment A-listers descend on Washington – a city known more for buttoned-up business casual than black tie – to celebrate their icons.

The 2023 class included the beloved comic and actor Crystal as well as rap pioneer Queen Latifah, soul legend Dionne Warwick, star soprano Renee Fleming, and the sole surviving Bee Gee Barry Gibb.

The inductees were seated aside President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill to receive the highest American arts award.

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"You can't campaign for this. It's unexpected," Gibb – who penned hundreds of songs over his career including smashes Stayin' Alive and Nights On Broadway" – told journalists on the red carpet.

The concert gala closed with a tribute to Gibb as well his late brothers, as the Oscar-winning performer Ariana DeBose performed a hip-shaking medley of Bee Gee classics accompanied by a troupe of dancers in shimmering halter-neck jumpsuits.

"It's very emotional," Gibb said, adding the presence of his brothers, Robin and Maurice, was palpable as he accepted the award. "There's something going on in the air, and you just feel it."

The Grammy-winning rapper Latifah was the first woman in hip-hop to receive the accolade, decades after she released her debut album, All Hail The Queen.

Kerry Washington along with Missy Elliott were among the peers who inducted the 53-year-old Latifah, just a month after the Ladies First singer herself introduced Elliott into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Kennedy Center Honors sees an evening avoiding Israel-Gaza conflict

First Lady Jill Biden (l.) and US President Joe Biden stand for the National Anthem during the 46th Kennedy Center Honors gala on Sunday, where Queen Latifah (r.) became the first woman in hip-hop to receive the honor.
First Lady Jill Biden (l.) and US President Joe Biden stand for the National Anthem during the 46th Kennedy Center Honors gala on Sunday, where Queen Latifah (r.) became the first woman in hip-hop to receive the honor.  © Collage: KENT NISHIMURA / AFP

Actors Sigourney Weaver and Christine Baranski turned out to celebrate the globally renowned soprano Fleming, the opera phenom who's played a large role in popularizing the form to wider audiences.

She's graced the world's top stages but Fleming (64) said "the thing that scares me is sitting in the box."

"It's all joy, but it's also overwhelming," she told journalists, floating across the carpet in a shimmering purple gown.

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Warwick (82) was all smiles in the box, as proteges including Chloe Bailey – who delivered a rendition of the soul classic Walk On By – performed in her honor.

Calling it a "privilege" to accept the award, Warwick told attendees of the medallion ceremony at the State Department earlier this weekend that they were just as lucky as her.

"The 62 years I've given to you is now being recognized," she said with a knowing smirk.

The gala that sees Washington's political elite rub shoulders with the cream of the cultural crop this year comes as distress and anger deepen over the mounting civilian death toll in the Israel-Gaza war.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, just back after another trip to the region, was among those swaying to the hits of Queen Latifah and other honorees in the house's mezzanine.

Top members of Congress including Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi were also in attendance, with the latter praising Biden's unwavering support for Israel's devastating response to Hamas' bloody attacks.

On the whole, attendees avoided the topic at Sunday's gala, which is a fundraiser for the performing arts center that serves as a living monument to slain president John F. Kennedy.

"We make a point of talking to all of our performers and saying this is an apolitical evening, this is not a time when we're here to be advocating for one thing or another," Deborah Rutter, president of the Kennedy Center, told journalists.

Cover photo: Collage: KENT NISHIMURA / AFP

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