WASHINGTON (AP) – Artists such as Gladys Knight or the Irish group U2 would usually headline a concert for thousands of people, but at the Kennedy Center Honors on Sunday the roles will be reversed as they and other artists will be the ones celebrated for their lifetime of artistic contributions.
Actor, director, producer and human rights activist George Clooneyrevolutionary composer and conductor Tania Leónand contemporary Christian singer Amy Grant will join Knight and the entire U2 team honored by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
The organization honors a select group of individuals each year for their artistic influences on American culture. President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and their respective wives are expected.
Biden paid tribute to the honorees before the ceremony at the White House on Sunday afternoon, praising them before a star-studded crowd in the East Room as an “outstanding group of performers.”
“Thank you for showing us the power of the arts and ‘We the People,'” Biden said.
He highlighted Clooney’s work on camera and his charitable endeavors off-screen, ranging from helping the families of 9/11 victims to supporting a gun control campaign led by survivors of the shooting at the Parkland School.
“He’s relentless and fearless,” Biden said. “That’s the character in real life. And that’s George Clooney.
Biden hailed Grant’s voice as “a true gift from God that she shares with everyone,” thanked León for “breathing new sounds into the soul of the nation” and said he had all Knight’s songs on his iPhone.
“We’re going to get on that midnight train,” Biden said of Knight. “Because I speak for all Americans when I say we’d rather live in your world than be without you in ours.”
Biden, noting his love of Irish poets, called U2 “four sons of Ireland, poets in their own right” whose music “changed the world”.
“We would do well to remember today at a time when there is too much hate, too much anger, too much division here in America and, quite frankly, around the world,” Biden said. “We have to remember today, as their song goes: ‘We are one but we are not the same. We learn to carry ourselves.
Clooney, 61, has TV credits dating back to the late 1970s, but became a household name with the role of Doug Ross on the TV show “ER.”
From there he starred in films such as “Three Kings”, “Ocean’s Eleven” (and “Twelve” and “Thirteen”), “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” and his most recent film, “Ticket to Paradise.” He also has numerous directing and producing credits, including “Good Night, and Good Luck.” He and his wife, humanitarian rights lawyer Amal Clooney, established the Clooney Foundation for Justiceand he produced telethons to raise funds for various causes.
Knight, 78, said in a statement that she was “humbled beyond words” upon receiving the Kennedy honor. The Georgia-born Knight started singing gospel music at the age of 4 and went on to a career that spanned decades.
Knight and his family members founded a band that would later be known as Gladys Knight & The Pips and produced their first album in 1960 when Knight was just 16 years old. Since then she has recorded dozens of albums with classic hits such as “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”. and “Midnight Train to Georgia.” Along the way, she starred in TV shows and movies. When Knight and the band were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Mariah Carey described Knight as “a textbook you learn from”.
U2’s strong connection to America goes back decades. They performed in Washington on their first trip to America in 1980. In a statement, the band – made up of Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr. – said they originally came to America with Big Dreams “fueled in part by the common belief among us that America smiles on Ireland.
“And it turned out to be true, again,” the statement read. “It has been a four-decade love affair with the country and its people, its artists and its culture.”
U2 have sold 170 million albums and been honored with 22 Grammys. The band’s epic singles include “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”, “Pride (In the Name of Love)”, and “Sunday Bloody Sunday”. Lead singer Bono has also become known for his philanthropic work to eradicate poverty and raise awareness about AIDS.
Grant is well known for his crossover pop hits like “Baby, Baby”, “Every Heartbeat”, and “That’s What Love is For”. She has sold over 30 million albums, including her 1991 record “Heart in Motion,” which introduced her to a wider pop audience.
León said in an interview when the winners were announced that she wasn’t expecting “anything spectacular” when the Kennedy Center initially approached her. After all, she’s worked with the Kennedy Center many times over the years since 1980, when she was commissioned to compose music for a play.
But the 79-year-old Pulitzer Prize winner said she was stunned to learn that this time the ceremony was going to be for her.
León left Cuba as a refugee in 1967 and eventually settled in New York. She is a founding member of the Dance Theater of Harlem and instituted the Brooklyn Philharmonic Community Concert Series.
AP White House correspondent Zeke Miller contributed to this report. Follow Santana on Twitter @ruskygal.