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U2, Gladys Knight, George Clooney among 2022 Kennedy Center honorees

Kennedy Center honorees U2 (Larry Mullen Jr., Adam Clayton, The Edge, and Bono), George Clooney, Tania León, Amy Grant, and Gladys Knight.
Gail Schulman
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CBS
Kennedy Center honorees U2 (Larry Mullen Jr., Adam Clayton, The Edge, and Bono), George Clooney, Tania León, Amy Grant, and Gladys Knight.

The stars turned out in Washington, D.C. on Sunday night for the 45th annual Kennedy Center Honors. Gladys Knight, Amy Grant, George Clooney, Tania León and U2 were celebrated for their contributions to American culture.

Julia Roberts, Matt Damon, Don Cheadle, Eddie Vedder, Brandi Carlile and a host of others offered praise for the artists at the event. President Biden, first lady Jill Biden, Vice President Harris and second gentleman Douglass Emhoff were among those attending the gala.

Nancy Pelosi and her husband, Paul, who was attacked at their home a month ago, received a standing ovation.

President Joe Biden, first lady Jill Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and second gentleman Doug Emhoff attend the 45th Kennedy Center Honors at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. Sunday.
Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP
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AP
President Biden, first lady Jill Biden, Vice President Harris and second gentleman Doug Emhoff attend the 45th Kennedy Center Honors at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., on Sunday.

The honorees received medallions at a State Department dinner Saturday night, with Garth Brooks hosting and Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken serving as honorary chair.

"Ultimately, these artists remind us of our common humanity, that no matter who we are or where we're from, we can and we are all moved by the arts," Blinken said.

On the red carpet, actor George Clooney — a big Gladys Knight fan — recalled to NPR a moment from the dinner where the honorees received their medallions. "Gladys got up and sang and, you know, just a cappella started to sing. ... The only thing that was terrible was that I had to follow. So there's 300 people in the room going, this is transcendent — and I'm like 'God, this is horrible! I have follow Gladys Knight!"

Seven-time Grammy winner Gladys Knight grew up in Georgia and started singing gospel as a little girl. She and her brother Bubba, sister Brenda and two cousins formed the original Pips. The classic Gladys Knight & The Pips was her brother Bubba and two cousins.

Clooney might not have Gladys Knight's musical chops but there was plenty of love for him as an actor, activist and friend on Sunday. Don Cheadle praised his philanthropy. Julia Roberts called him a "renaissance man," and Matt Damon ribbed him.

"I know a lot of people think you have movie star looks, but let's be honest: It takes a village to style a star into being People magazine's Sexiest Man Alive. I've been there. Those experts can transform anyone," Damon joked.

Honoree Tania León, a conductor and composer, was one of some 300,000 refugees who left Cuba on the so-called Freedom Flights in 1967. She co-founded the Dance Theatre of Harlem two years later. Dancers from the company and pianist Chloe Flower performed one of Tania León's compositions. In 2021, León won the Pulitzer Prize in Music for her work on Stride, commissioned by the New York Philharmonic.

At the State Department dinner, León talked about calling up her ancestors when she creates.

"If I'm going to conduct a concert I say, 'Hey, you better come with me because this is difficult.' If I'm going to write a piece, I call on my ancestors and say, 'You better help me because the deadline is in two weeks," she said.

Six-time Grammy winner Amy Grant is the first Christian pop singer to receive a Kennedy Center Honor. CeCe and BeBe Winans, along with the Howard Gospel Choir, performed a medley of Grant's songs.

On stage at the Kennedy Center Honors Sunday, left to right: Amanda Shires, Dianne Reeves, Natalie Hemby, Sheryl Crow, Hozier, Brandi Carlile, Jamala, Mickey Guyton, BeBe Winans, Michael W. Smith, Ariana DeBose, and Maren Morris.
Mary Kouw / CBS
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CBS
Onstage at the Kennedy Center Honors Sunday (from left): Amanda Shires, Dianne Reeves, Natalie Hemby, Sheryl Crow, Hozier, Brandi Carlile, Jamala, Mickey Guyton, BeBe Winans, Michael W. Smith, Ariana DeBose and Maren Morris.

And singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile told NPR that one of the things she admires about Grant is how inclusive she is: "The way that she's come out in support of LGBTQIA people, specifically me, has — it can't be easy for her. You know, she has had to have taken a bit of heat from her evangelical fans and followers. And I have so much respect for her constantly pushing the boundaries of other people's capacity to love."

Many of the Kennedy Center honorees use their art and their platform to advocate for social justice. And that is very much the case with the Irish band U2, including members Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr. The band has won 22 Grammys and Amnesty International's Ambassador of Conscience award.

"Bono has often said that being famous is nonsense, celebrity is nonsense," said actor Sean Penn. "But it is currency. And the band has spent its currency to show the usefulness of art in the world."

The Kennedy Center Honors airs on CBS, and streams on Paramount+, on Dec. 28.

The audio and web editions of this story were edited by Meghan Collins Sullivan. Ajani Daniel assisted with production.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.