Next up at the Kennedy Center? A new focus on hip-hop

ASHRAF KHALIL | 3/12/2018, 11:34 a.m.
It was late October 2017 and a packed house of VIPs had gathered at Washington’s Kennedy Center to watch David ...
Q-Tip performs at the Kennedy Center in Washington, Oct. 6, 2017. PHOTOGRAPHER: Jati Lindsay of the Kennedy Center Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) – It was late October 2017 and a packed house of VIPs had gathered at Washington’s Kennedy Center to watch David Letterman receive the Mark Twain award for a career in comedy. A stream of comedians took the stage to sing Letterman’s praises, and several couldn’t resist taking good-natured shots at the crowd.

“It says a lot about America when people from different White backgrounds can gather together like this,” Martin Short deadpanned.

Jimmie Walker – J.J. from the 1970s sitcom Good Times – put it more bluntly, “Look at the diversity in this crowd! I feel like Ben Carson at a Trump Cabinet meeting.”

Walker may have been going for the easy joke there, but he spoke to a deeper belief – that the Kennedy Center exists to serve an elite White audience despite its presence in a largely Black city. That perception may linger for a while, but the reality is changing.

One of America’s pre-eminent performing arts institutions, the Kennedy Center is embracing hip-hop culture in a major way. The center has gradually introduced rap music into its programming, with rappers like Nas and Kendrick Lamar performing with the National Symphony Orchestra. Hip-hop has also been showcased regularly at the center’s daily Millennium Stage concerts.

The process is accelerating. The center has tapped two members of hip-hop royalty to act as bridges into the rap world. Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest has been named artistic director for hip-hop culture. Last year, LL Cool J became the first rapper inducted into the elite ranks of Kennedy Center Honors recipients.

“I consider them as important to our culture as Bach or any other composer,” said pianist Jason Moran, the center’s artistic director for jazz.

Moran is credited with pushing for this change. He was part of the committee that chose Q-Tip to found the hip-hop department.

“He’s the perfect person to advocate for us,” Moran said. “It had to be someone from the bedrock of hip-hop.”

Equally important was the hiring of a full-time staffer, Simone Eccleston, as director of the new hip-hop culture department.

“This is not a diversity effort. We’re not just checking boxes,” Eccleston said. “This is a firm commitment to having hip-hop as an ongoing program.”

Last year’s Kennedy Center Honors program – an annual centerpiece event – may have been one of the blackest nights in the history of the institution. In addition to LL Cool J – whose program included a speech by Queen Latifah and a performance by rapper Busta Rhymes – the honorees included African American singer Lionel Richie and dancer Carmen De Lavallade. Cuban-American singer Gloria Estefan was also saluted. The only White honoree was TV producer Norman Lear, the man who helped bring Black family life into mainstream culture with shows like Good Times and The Jeffersons.

The 2017-18 season, Q-Tip’s first at the helm, kicked off with a performance by him and Moran. The veteran rapper calls it “just a flash of our potential.”

He plans to appoint a “brain trust” council of fellow rappers and says the real impact will be felt around year four or five when both sides are more comfortable with each other.