George Clooney, U2, Gladys Knight Among 2022 Kennedy Center Honorees

The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts annually honors a select group of people for their artistic influences on American culture.
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WASHINGTON (AP) 鈥 A heartfelt Patti LaBelle praised her lifelong friend Gladys Knight. Sean Penn called U2 鈥渇our scrappy Dublin punks.鈥 Ballet dancers performed for conductor and composer Tania Le贸n. Matt Damon playfully teased his friend George Clooney 鈥 a lot 鈥 while Sheryl Crow delivered a heartfelt rendition of 鈥淏aby Baby鈥 to Amy Grant during Sunday鈥檚 Kennedy Center Honors.

Knight, Clooney, Grant, Le贸n and U2 were all celebrated at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, which annually honors a select group of people for their artistic influences on American culture. President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and their respective spouses were in attendance, as were members the President鈥檚 Cabinet and Congress.

One audience member from the political world 鈥 Paul Pelosi, husband of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi 鈥 drew some attention. He is recovering from a brutal attack in the Pelosis鈥 San Francisco home in October. The couple received a standing ovation from the crowd.

Normally performers like U2 or Knight would be headlining such a show, but during the Kennedy Center event the honorees sit in the balcony and watch as their peers laud them and perform their works.

On the red carpet, Clooney, with his wife, Amal, beside him, joked that after seeing friends like Don Cheadle and Julia Roberts in attendance he was worried his tribute would be more of a 鈥渞oast.鈥 And it was a bit like that, though his friends and family showed obvious respect.

Roberts set the tone by coming out onstage with a dress emblazoned with photos of Clooney. After an introduction that alternated between funny and heartfelt she turned to a set designed to look like a smoky bar 鈥 the type Clooney might enjoy. The actor鈥檚 father, Nick Clooney, regaled the crowd with stories of a young George, including the time the 7-year-old 鈥 heartbroken over the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 鈥 gave his father all his toy guns.

Damon took the funny road, joking about how Clooney once stole then-President Bill Clinton鈥檚 stationery and wrote notes to fellow actors on it. Cheadle highlighted Clooney鈥檚 philanthropic work. But it was Clooney鈥檚 father who probably had the strongest praise, telling the crowd and his son, sitting in the balcony between Le贸n and U2鈥瞫 Bono, 鈥淕eorge鈥檚 best and most important work is still ahead of him.

Standing on a stage lit by a massive sign reading 鈥淕ladys,鈥 LaBelle called Knight her 鈥渆verything,鈥 saying they had been friends for six decades and had seen each other through laughter and tears. 鈥淲e do everything together,鈥 LaBelle said. 鈥淚 am honored to honor you tonight.鈥

Actor and hip-hop star LL Cool J said that whenever Knight sings she connects with people. 鈥淚 once heard Gladys sing the ABCs and I thought I was in church,鈥 he said.

Knight 鈥 usually with her backup singers, The Pips 鈥 has recorded dozens of albums with such classic hits as 鈥淚 Heard It Through the Grapevine鈥 and 鈥淢idnight Train to Georgia.鈥 The challenge of singing that classic in front of the woman who made it famous fell to country music superstar Garth Brooks, who is a Kennedy Center honoree in his own right. He cited Knight鈥檚 鈥渞oots in country music鈥 before launching into the classic.

Each artist was introduced by a video compilation showing snippets of their lives. In Grant鈥檚, her children talked about their mother鈥檚 influence on them. Crow talked about Grant鈥檚 influence on her when she was a young college student.

鈥淎my also taught me that it was possible to be funny, irreverent and Christian all at the same,鈥 said Crow.

Five ballet dancers took to the stage to honor composer and conductor Tania Le贸n, who left Cuba as a refugee in 1967; her passport was stamped 鈥淐ancelado鈥 when she left the country. The performers were from the Dance Theatre of Harlem, which Le贸n helped found when she eventually made her way to New York City. She also instituted the Brooklyn Philharmonic Community Concert Series and in 2021 received the Pulitzer Prize for her work 鈥淪tride,鈥 inspired by women鈥檚 rights champion Susan B. Anthony.

鈥淗ow do I convey the extent of your musical genius?鈥 asked actress and playwright Anna Deavere Smith. Jazz pianist Jason Moran, singer Alicia Hall Moran and cellist Sterling Elliott played one of Le贸n鈥檚 creations, 鈥淥h Yemanja.鈥

The last honoree of the night was U2. In a video taped Saturday, U2 guitarist The Edge noted that a group of four 鈥淚rish lads鈥 were being honored for contributions to American culture and said there鈥檚 a bond between the group and America that can鈥檛 really be explained.

Pearl Jam鈥檚 Eddie Vedder sang U2鈥瞫 鈥淓levation鈥 and 鈥淥ne.鈥 Comedian Sacha Baron Cohen brought his alter ego Borat to the stage as part of the U2 tribute, pretending to mistake Biden for former President Donald Trump. Singers Brandi Carlile, Hozier and Jamala 鈥 from the U.S., Ireland and Ukraine, respectively 鈥 closed out the show with an emotional version of 鈥淲alk On.鈥

U2鈥瞫 Bono is also known for his philanthropic work to eradicate poverty and to raise awareness about AIDS. Jamala, whose home country of Ukraine has been embroiled in nearly a year of bloody warfare after the Russian invasion, touched on that history of social activism as she introduced the night鈥檚 final song.

鈥淚t鈥檚 fitting that on the night meant to honor them they have once again used their platform to spread a message of peace. Honestly to be here in this bright warm hall this evening is really something extraordinary for me, when there is so much darkness in my home country Ukraine,鈥 she said.

The honorees came to the theater from a White House reception where Biden praised them before a star-studded East Room crowd as an 鈥渆xceptional group of artists.鈥

鈥淭hank you for showing us the power of the arts and 鈥榃e the People,鈥欌 Biden said.

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AP White House Correspondent Zeke Miller contributed to this report. Follow Santana on Twitter @ruskygal.

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