Miami is set to represent at Washington’s glittering 40th annual Kennedy Center Honors in December when singer-songwriter Gloria Estefan becomes the latest hometown icon to receive the prestigious award and the first Cuban American to earn the distinction.
Estefan’s Kennedy Center Honors recognition, for lifetime contributions to American culture through the performing arts — be it in music, dance, theater, opera, motion pictures or television — is only the fourth for a Latina artist. Chita Rivera was the first in 2002, followed by Rita Moreno (2015) and Argentine pianist Martha Argerich (2016). Among men, Spanish opera star Plácido Domingo, in 2000, and Mexican-American rock guitarist Carlos Santana, in 2013, received the honor.
Estefan, 59, is the first of these women, or men, to base her entire career from Miami.
Estefan, the daughter of a Bay of Pigs veteran who served in Vietnam, has won seven Grammys, an Ellis Island Medal of Honor, a National Artistic Achievement Award from the U.S. Congress and, most recently in 2015, President Barack Obama presented Estefan and her husband, Emilio, with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.
But the Kennedy Center honor, coming at a time when funding for the arts is embattled and immigration reform sparks debate, is special, she said.
“It’s a cultural thing, they look at many different things. So I’m happy to receive this award. It’s important to show our contributions to the U.S. that we so dearly love. And it’s one of the highest honors you can get in this avenue,” Estefan said in an interview with the Miami Herald.
Joining Estefan as a 2017 honoree are dancer and choreographer Carmen de Lavallade, hip-hop artist and actor LL Cool J, television writer and producer Norman Lear, and musician-songwriter Lionel Richie.
Last year, Lear called the Estefans to have them update the theme song for his “One Day at a Time” Netflix reboot by adding congas, salsa horns, Cuban jazz licks and Gloria’s vocals to the familiar tune originally written in 1975. “I absolutely adore Norman Lear,” she said.
She has also crossed paths frequently with Richie. In 2010, she wrote Spanish lyrics for the 1985 Richie/Michael Jackson anthem “We Are the World.” Proceeds from the resulting single “Somos el mundo 25 por Haiti” went toward earthquake relief on the island.
The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts officially announced the five honorees Thursday.
The Dec. 3 Washington gala, with its broadcast set for CBS on Dec. 26, will be a night of other firsts, too: LL Cool J, whose hits include “Going Back to Cali” in 1988 and “Mama Said Knock You Out” in 1990, is the first rapper to receive a Kennedy Center honor.
“To be the first rap artist honored by the Kennedy Center is beyond anything I could have imagined,” LL Cool J said in a statement. “I dedicate this honor to the hip-hop artists who came before me and those who came after me. This simply proves that dreams don’t have deadlines.”
Also, President Donald Trump, as every commander in chief before him since President Jimmy Carter hosted the first five recipients in 1978, is expected to receive the honorees, alongside first lady Melania Trump, at the White House just prior to the gala performance.
Given the president’s proposed budget cuts to groups that fund the arts, such as the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, and his desire to build a Mexican border wall and his partial reversal of President Obama’s Cuba policy, Trump’s participation could be the most-discussed topic to emerge out of the colorful affair, which attracts the Washington power elite and stars’ surprise tribute performances to the honorees.
Lear, the 95-year-old mastermind behind such television landmarks as CBS’ “All in the Family” and the new re-imagined Cuban-American version of his ’70s sitcom “One Day at a Time” for Netflix, has long fought for liberal causes as a political and social activist.
After he learned he had been selected, Lear said the timing was especially appropriate given the political climate at the Trump White House.
“As a people, we — our values, our institutions — are being tested,” Lear said in his statement. “It is more important now than ever that we stand up for artists, for artistic expression, and for the valiant fight that artists fight to reveal the wonder and oneness of the human spirit.”
Estefan stops short of saying she’ll use the Kennedy Center honor as a platform for politics but recognizes the significance of standing with this ethnically diverse group of artists.
“I do think for me, as an immigrant, it’s incredibly important to receive this award in front of the president whose immigration policy, and some of his other policies, I don’t agree with,” Estefan said. “I do respect the office of the presidency and the people who voted for him, and for that reason I try to keep politics out of it. It’s not my style to do it from the stage. Feels a bit self-indulgent.
“But if I get an opportunity at any point in that process, for me, I’ve always been outspoken,” she said, noting occasions when she has counseled previous presidents like Obama at her home in Miami Beach on issues regarding human rights offenses in Cuba.
“We have a history of being loudmouths with presidents.”
SOUTH FLORIDA KENNEDY HONOREES
Singer/songwriter Gloria Estefan is the latest Miami artist to receive the prestigious Kennedy Center Honors award. Here are some of the previous recipients who had Miami connections.
1979: Tennessee Williams. The late playwright behind “The Glass Menagerie” and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” had a home in Key West.
1982: George Abbott. The Broadway legend (“Damn Yankees,” “Pal Joey”) was a writer, director, producer and actor and a longtime Miami Beach resident who died at 107 in 1995.
1993: Marion Williams. The late gospel singer was born in Miami.
1994: Harold Prince. The Broadway director had a home in Miami Beach and helped launch Broward Center for the Performing Arts with a production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Phantom of the Opera” in 1991.
1995: Sidney Poitier. The Oscar-winning actor in “Lilies of the Field” was born in Miami.
1996: Edward Albee. The late Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright (“Three Tall Women,” “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”) had a home in Coconut Grove.
1997: Edward Villella. The dancer was artistic director of Miami City Ballet when he was honored.
2010: Jerry Herman. The Broadway composer (“Hello, Dolly!”) was a University of Miami theater student and Miami Beach resident. The Jerry Herman Ring Theater bears his name on UM’s Coral Gables campus.
2016: Eagles. Perhaps a stretch to include the California-based rock group, however, the honored members — among them, Don Henley and the late Glenn Frey — recorded their most famous music from albums like “One of These Nights,” “Hotel California” and “The Long Run” at North Miami’s famed Criteria Studios (now Hit Factory) and the former Bayshore Studios in Coconut Grove.
2017: Gloria Estefan. The Cuban-American music icon moved to Miami in 1959, lives in Miami Beach, and has based her career in South Florida. She has reportedly sold more than 100 million records worldwide, and the Broadway biomusical “On Your Feet! The Musical: The Story of Emilio & Gloria Estefan” tells her story and opens its road tour at Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in October.