SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Good evening.  Welcome to the State Department and welcome to what is a very special event.  For us, this is something that I look forward to every year.  And for those of you who were with us when we launched our Global Music Diplomacy Initiative a few months ago, rest assured no guitars tonight.  (Laughter.)

To Deborah Rutter and the Kennedy Center Board, thank you.  (Applause.)  Thank you for your incredible stewardship of President Kennedy’s legacy and for bringing the arts into every home in America.

And I especially want to recognize David Rubenstein for all that he has done to support this department and also to support our democracy.  (Applause.)  We have David to thank for loaning us that original copy of the Declaration of Independence that you might have seen in the John Quincy Room just next door.  It is a national treasure.  So is David.  Thank you.  (Applause.) 

I also want to welcome our friends from Congress who are here tonight and from across the United States Government.  Our outstanding Second Gentleman, Doug Emhoff, is in the house.  (Applause.)  And a tremendous champion of the arts and of all Americans, Speaker Nancy Pelosi.  (Applause.)

I have to now say what a thrill it is to have Rita Moreno here as our master of ceremonies.  (Applause.)  Rita’s unforgettable performances in films like West Side Story remind us of why we “like to be in America” – (laughter) – and also why we continue to work to try and realize our nation’s highest ideals.  Now, her talent earned her the rare EGOT – an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony.  And, Rita, you’ve won over this Tony as well.  (Applause.)

We’re here in this magnificent Ben Franklin Room because the arts are not only beautiful to listen or to look at.  They are a powerful tool for our diplomacy.  Art connects us – one human being to another – transcending differences of language, of geography, of background, of belief.

And I get to experience this on a regular basis traveling around the world.  In February, I was in Kazakhstan and I got a tutorial in their national instrument, the dombra.  It is a distinctly Kazakh instrument.  It sounds little bit like galloping horses going across the steppe.  But it’s also not that unlike the too many guitars – my wife will tell you – that I have at home.  (Laughter.)

It’s a reminder that music – like dance, like sculpture, like comedy – captures what’s unique and essential about our countries and our cultures, even as it binds us together through something universal.  We could use more connection, we could use more empathy, we could use more understanding in the world around us.

But that’s the spirit that animates the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.  It uses education, the arts, sports, and other exchanges to try to increase understanding between Americans and people around the world.

Through our Arts Envoys program, for instance, we send visual artists, musicians, poets, chefs, and others to perform and hold workshops overseas – and that’s building communication across borders and it’s cultivating the next generation of artists.  The Kennedy Center has been our longtime partner in our cultural diplomacy work, including our new Fulbright Award that will bring artists in residence to the Kennedy Center from around the world.

Lee Satterfield, our assistant secretary of state who runs these efforts, is here tonight.  (Applause.)  I’m grateful for her leadership every day.   And we’re also joined by one of her predecessors that I have a special fondness for – my wife, Evan Ryan.  (Laughter and applause.)

Now, when it comes to bridging cultures, there are few better ambassadors than the five artists that we celebrate this weekend.  Each of our honorees created space for people across the globe to feel seen, to feel joy, to feel heartache and longing – quite simply, to feel alive.

Billy Crystal – (applause.)  Billy Crystal honed his mischievous sense of humor early.  As a kid, Billy would silently mouth words to his grandfather to make him think that his hearing aid wasn’t working.  (Laughter.)  And the jokes haven’t stopped since.  

From Saturday Night Live to Mr. Saturday Night, from voicing an animated monster in Monsters, Inc. to that iconic New Year’s Eve monologue in When Harry Met Sally, Billy’s work has been both hilarious and also deeply human.  He’s a wiseguy, but a wiseguy who dispenses real wisdom. 

Renée Fleming – (applause) – considered one of the greatest sopranos of all time, and at the State Department we are particularly proud that she got her professional start as a Fulbright Scholar in Europe.  (Applause.)

Known as “the people’s diva,” Renée’s soaring voice has transfixed audiences well beyond the opera stage – from the Olympics to the Super Bowl to Sesame Street.  (Laughter.)  Her range extends to neuroscience and health, where she’s partnered with the Kennedy Center and the National Institutes of Health to support research into how music helps stimulate and repair the brain.  Listen to Renée singing; you’ll understand how music can indeed heal.  (Applause.)

Barry Gibb – (applause.)  As an eight-year-old on a street corner in the UK, Barry told his two brothers that he wanted to be a pop star.  Their response: “Can we be pop stars too?” (Laughter.)  One move to Australia and 21 chart-topping singles later, Sir Barry Gibb and his brothers Robin and Maurice – known to the world as the Bee Gees – have become some of the most successful songwriters in history.  Barry’s iconic falsetto, starting with Nights on Broadway, has made an indelible mark on our musical landscape.

Now, this is really extraordinary.  Medical professionals – there seems to be a common theme here – even use Stayin’ Alive to train people how to administer CPR.  No joke.  The song’s beats per minute is synced with the recommended number of compressions.  So I think it’s fair to say that for six decades, Barry and the Bee Gees have moved our feet, lifted our spirits, and quite literally made our hearts beat.  

On this Saturday night, we are happy to catch the fever.  And tomorrow, the Kennedy Center will show Barry just “how deep our love” is.  (Applause.)

We host a lot of royalty here at the State Department, but America has only one Queen Latifah.  (Applause.)  In the 50 years since a Bronx party gave birth to that unique American genre of hip-hop, few artists have shaped its sound and shaped its culture like the star that we honor tonight.

After becoming the first solo female rapper with a gold album – paving the way for a generation of women MCs – Queen Latifah decided that redefining one genre wasn’t enough.  She followed up with two jazz records, more than 60 films, a CoverGirl modeling contract, and a starring role in The Equalizer on CBS.  (Applause.)  We might need The Equalizer for a little help.  (Laughter.)  Tonight, we echo what 19-year-old Queen Latifah proclaimed on her very first album – “All Hail the Queen.”  (Applause.)

Dionne Warwick – (applause.)  Dionne received her first standing ovation after singing Jesus Loves Me to her grandfather’s AME church in Newark.  She was six years old.  Since then, she has earned half a dozen Grammys and many, many other ovations.

Her extraordinary collaborations with Burt Bacharach and Hal David provided the soundtrack for so many people around the globe – including me:  I Say A Little Prayer, Walk on By, I’ll Never Fall in Love Again.  (Applause.)

We don’t just hear the purity and soulfulness in Dionne’s voice, we see it as she advocates for AIDS awareness and research, raises funds for refugees, invests in greater opportunity for people in her adopted country of Brazil.  In her music, in her life, she reminds us that what the world needs now really is love, sweet love.  (Applause.)

President Kennedy, promoting the cultural center that now bears his name, once said this, and I quote:  “Art knows no national boundaries.  Genius can speak at any time, and the entire world will hear and listen.”

The artists that we honor have let their genius speak powerfully at home and all around the world.  And in doing that, they have lifted us up.  They have made our lives more meaningful and brought us closer together.  What a remarkable gift.  What an extraordinary legacy.  For that and so much more, we are honored to honor you.

Welcome to everyone and have a great evening.  (Applause.)

U.S. Department of State

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