The Obamas attend Kennedy Center's annual King tribute featuring India.Arie

Enjoying the music: Michelle Obama, center, attended with, from left, Valerie Jarrett, Marian Robinson and Sasha Obama.
Enjoying the music: Michelle Obama, center, attended with, from left, Valerie Jarrett, Marian Robinson and Sasha Obama. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/associated Press)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Chris Richards
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 19, 2010

A chatty India.Arie took the stage sporting a tangerine shawl and what seemed like a case of the butterflies. When she left the stage, she was actually dressed as a butterfly.

It was a weird sartorial finale to her performance at the Kennedy Center's annual Martin Luther King Jr. tribute Monday night, a free concert attended by President Obama, his wife and daughters and first grandma Marian Robinson. After a standing ovation, the Grammy-winning singer emerged for her encore wearing a pair of butterfly wings -- the kind a child might wear trick-or-treating.

Arie has donned the get-up in concert before, but it still felt odd -- even as she performed before a diversely dressed audience. One by one, they filed through the metal detectors wearing sparkly brooches and chunky winter scarves, crisp suits and hooded sweatshirts carrying all-caps declarations: "I AM THE DREAM."

As ushers nudged the crowd of 2,400 into the Concert Hall, it felt as if America itself was scrambling to find a seat. Many came to catch a performance from Arie, others to celebrate the holiday in the presence of America's first black president.

And while Obama's name wasn't listed in the program, the evening's most distinguished guest was greeted -- sorry, no way around this -- like a rock star. The audience cheered with a welcome-wail rarely heard in the Kennedy Center's stately halls, with hundreds of camera phones flashing like sunlight glimmering off the sea.

Before the show, the president spoke of the civil rights movement and of music, of devastation in Haiti, of King's legacy and its resonance in today's America -- a sobering speech that still couldn't mute the crowd's glee as he waved goodnight and exited to take his balcony seat.

"The music you're going to hear tonight is really about the oneness of all things," Arie said after taking the stage alongside a choir of students, faculty and community members from Georgetown University, the concert's co-presenter. She slung a green Stratocaster over her shoulder and fired up the choir for her 2001 single "Strength, Courage & Wisdom," crescendoing with a playful, if not forceful, call-and-response finale.

The Kennedy Center has been pairing an esteemed singer with the "Let Freedom Ring" choir for MLK Day tribute concerts since 2003. (Past performers include Aretha Franklin, Yolanda Adams and Brian McKnight.) The event has been a highlight in the Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage programming, which offers a free concert at 6 p.m., 365 nights a year.

About 2,000 tickets for the event were distributed to a throng of early birds who began lining up at 6 a.m. Monday. (The others went to pre-selected guests.) An hour before showtime, scores lingered in the Hall of States, waiting for extra tickets to materialize.

The dozen people near the front of the line sat cross-legged on the floor. They weren't camping out for a glimpse of the president -- they were India.Arie fans.

An hour before the show, Cherell Gerald sat at the front. She didn't know the president would be attending until after she got in line. "It's Martin Luther King's day," she said. "And I love India.Arie."

Moments later, an usher arrived to tell Gerald she was in luck: a spare ticket. Her face registered joy while trying to deflect the cranky stares from nearby hopefuls who had been on their feet for hours.

But that tension felt a million miles away as Arie performed "There's Hope," her final number of the evening. The tune was a staple on the Obama campaign trail and the first family applauded dutifully -- presumably for the song and not for the outlandish outfit.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company