Kennedy Center Honors recipient LL Cool J walks the red carpet on Dec. 3. (Evelyn Hockstein for The Washington Post)

Think of the red carpet before the Kennedy Center Honors ceremony on Sunday night as a warm-up act to the big show, kind of like when actors do those pre-curtain voice exercises. Before they take the grand stage, the five honorees and the high-profile folks who will be paying tribute to them stride past a gantlet of cameras and reporters to give a glimpse of what’s to come —  and offer a peek at the super-secret list of VIP performers. (OMG, was that super ballerina Misty Copeland? R&B legend Chaka Khan?)

This year, the theme of the night seemed to be “arts, not politics” — a sentiment made necessary by the high-profile decision of President Trump and first lady Melania Trump not to attend the ceremony or host the traditional pre-game reception at the White House. The snub — marking the first time in the event’s 40-year history that a president or first lady hasn’t participated — came after three of the five honorees said they either planned to skip it or were thinking about ditching if the Trumps were involved.

“No distractions! This is about the arts,” declared rapper-actor LL Cool J, the first rap or hip-hop artist to ever have one of those Kennedy Center signature rainbow-ribbon medals hanging around his neck. “It doesn’t help for me to get up on a soapbox and be divisive,” said LL, who wore a velvet hat to match his tux jacket. “It’s about the art tonight — it’s about Lionel and Gloria. It’s about Carmen and Norman.”


Honoree Norman Lear. (Evelyn Hockstein for The Washington Post)

That wasn’t just random name-dropping — those would be his fellow-honorees, musicians Lionel Richie and Gloria Estefan, dancer and choreographer Carmen de Lavallade and television producer Norman Lear.

But some of the other honorees who followed him weren’t so willing (able?) to hold their tongues when it came to the president. Many attendees said they were relieved not to have Trump in the front-and-center box (he would just spoil the “party mood,” said radio host and Richie pal Tom Joyner).

Lear arrived sporting his signature white hat (natch) and with zero regrets about turning down the invite to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. “I didn’t wish to accept whatever the hell the White House had to offer,” he said. “From a White House that doesn’t care for the arts and the humanities. Not just not helping, but cutting, and turning its back totally on the arts and humanities, and that’s the opposite of what tonight’s about.”


Honoree Carmen de Lavallade walks the red carpet at the Kennedy Center. (Evelyn Hockstein for The Washington Post)

De Lavallade, who looked positively regal in a purple satin gown, agreed. “I don’t hold grudges against anyone, but I thought, ‘I just can’t,’ ” she said. “Why would I shake hands with someone who doesn’t like you, who wants to take away your livelihood?”

Okay, so not having a president or first lady in attendance is unprecedented for the prestigious event — but there was another Kennedy Center Honors first: The 2017 red carpet had what might be its inaugural rap performance, courtesy of Busta Rhymes, who broke out a verse or two of LL Cool J’s 1990 hit “Mama Said Knock You Out.”

“Don’t call it a comeback / I’ve been here for years / I’m rocking my peers / Puttin’ suckers in fear…” he said, punctuating the lyrics with a swing of a white tuxedo-clad arm.

In another sign that 2017 is a new era, Estefan, the first Cuban American to receive the Kennedy Center Honors, hinted that the rest of evening wasn’t going to be staid, either. “We’ve done the conga in places you’d never imagine,” she said with an arch of an eyebrow.

Richie was the final honoree to make his way down the red carpet, stopping to pose for pictures with his family, including daughter Nicole Richie, and a posse of longtime pals. Asked about what he hoped Trump might get out of the program if he were to watch it on TV (the show airs Dec. 26 on CBS), Richie found a way to neatly fold in an implied criticism of Trump with a plug for arts funding. “I think we should get some more money for the arts,” he said. “Lots of money!”

Politics aside, the red carpet offered a glimpse into some unlikely bonding among the diverse group of honorees and tribute performers, many of whom attended several other events throughout the weekend.

Among the unexpected mashups were triple threat Rita Moreno and LL Cool J.

Moreno, a 2015 honoree and a performer in this year’s ceremony, said that LL Cool J had approached her the night before and told her he loved “The Electric Company,” a PBS kids show of which she was an original cast member. “I thought, ‘I can’t believe he’s a fan of that show!’ ” she gushed.

Busta Rhymes, too, met a childhood favorite. “I had a crush on Lynda Carter when I was 12,” he said, referring to the original TV “Wonder Woman,” who is also a regular attendee of the Kennedy Center Honors. “Here I am, I’m 45, and I get to meet her. … She looks incredibly stunning — she’s still a superhero to me.”