Nile Rodgers wears many hats. Beyond his recognizable backwards Kangol cap, Rodgers is a prolific chart-topping songwriter, record producer, and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee. On Friday, he put on his founder hat to welcome hundreds to the annual celebration and fundraising gala for his and his wife and co-founder Nancy Hunt’s We Are Family Foundation at Hammerstein Ballroom in New York.
The foundation, which empowers and supports youth around the world with game-changing ideas and innovations to bring those ideas to life, brings the “global family” together to celebrate and acknowledge those who continue to challenge the status quo. All eyes were on hip hop heroes LL Cool J and Grandmaster Flash, while U.S. Congressman Charles Rangel, B52’s Kate Pierson, radio personality Sway, and musician Paul Shaffer also joined for the evening.
The night’s first award, the Mattie J.T. Stepanek Peacemaker Award, was posthumously awarded to Nelson Mandela and accepted by his grandson Ndaba Mandela. He continues his grandfather’s legacy with projects such as Africa Rising Foundation.
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“I feel like a kid in a candy shop because I grew up on hip hop music. So when I see the likes of LL Cool J, Grandmaster Flash walking into the room, the man himself, Sway, I just get excited. And I’m really happy to be here with all of you,” Mandela told the audience in his speech.
Through Africa Rising, Mandela is planning celebrations for his grandfather’s centennial in 2018. Mandela said, “We want to take this opportunity to work with people like yourselves here in this very room tonight. To see how we can make sure we’re building the next generation of Nelson Mandelas who will become the next leaders all over the world.”
He also led the crowd in a chanting salute for his grandfather. “In our movement, the African National Congress, when we see our leaders, we salute them. And say ‘Viva Nelson Mandela, Viva!’ And I want you to join me tonight,” to which the audience complied.
Accepting the We Are Family Humanitarian Award that night was former NBA player Dikembe Mutombo, who UNICEF USA president and CEO Caryl Stern affectionately calls “Deke” and describes as a big thinker, “and his heart is even bigger.”
During the live auction and dinner portion of the evening, LL Cool J dished out some surprises including donating $10,000 to sponsor a Global Team Leader and a last-minute auction item for a lucky winner to go behind the scenes of his hit Spike TV show “Lip Sync Battle,” which sold for $20,000.
Rodgers also auctioned off the guitar he played just a few weeks ago during the opening monologue of the first-ever simultaneous time zone broadcast of “Saturday Night Live” for $18,000. Rodgers said he received a call at 4 a.m. the day of and “they said we’re doing a song that won’t sound the same without you. I got every single cast member, every single person who was on that show to sign my guitar.”
For the winner, he had a bit of advice. “Stevie Ray Vaughan taught me a little trick. Put regular Scotch™ tape across the signatures. It will stay like that for the rest of your life.
The last award of the night went to A Tribe Called Quest.
“We’re truly humbled to receive this Unity Award. We put this up for Phife Dawg obviously,” Q-Tip told the crowd. Fellow member Jarobi White showed the audience that he has Phife Dawg tattooed across his “microphone hand.” Q-Tip continued, “He fought to get back with us not only to make this music but to be with us again, as our boy, as a family, as tribe. And it’s something we were conscious of when we made our music to look at it like we’re all a village and we’re all one.”
Nile and his band Chic then took the stage to play hits like “Let’s Dance,” “Upside Down,” “Le Freak,” and “I’m Coming Out.” Rodgers even clarified for the audience, “We don’t do covers. All of the songs we’re playing I co-wrote. They’re my songs, too!”
He also played the Sister Sledge song “He’s the Greatest Dancer” before the group’s lead singer Kathy Sledge joined Rodgers onstage for a rendition of “Thinking of You” as a tribute to Joni Sledge, the eldest of Sister Sledge who passed away in March.
The night capped off with LL Cool J and Grandmaster Flash joining Chic for “Good Times” while they rapped “Rapper’s Delight” over the beat. Several kids from the foundation joined the stage to steal the show with their dance moves. The final and fitting song of the night was Sister Sledge’s “We are Family.”