June 24th, 2024

Actors, musicians and politicians among those attending White House state dinner honoring Kenya

By Will Weissert And Fatima Hussein, The Associated Press on May 23, 2024.

WASHINGTON (AP) – The White House was throwing one of its biggest-ever state dinners for Kenyan President William Ruto on Thursday night, and catering to the African leader’s tastes by showcasing two uniquely American types of music: gospel and country.

Guests arrived to a red carpet rolled out at the booksellers area of the White House, which was also decked out with red roses and hot pink orchids while Toto’s hit “Africa” played on violin. Invitees included actor LeVar Burton of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” fame, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and former President Bill Clinton and his wife, Hillary, the ex-secretary of state and 2016 Democratic presidential nominee, and her former top aide Huma Abedin.

Other actors on the guest list were Wilmer Valderrama, Sean Penn and Michaela Coel. Assorted Democratic leaders included Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens, Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego and Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar, who said she was “looking forward to having all the conversations.” Close Biden ally and Delaware Sen. Chris Coons and his son, Jack, attended after traveling to Kenya last year.

Singer-songwriter Don McLean arrived in an early wave of guests, as did Barbara Kingsolver, author of “The Poisonwood Bible,” which is set in Africa. Asked what about the continent inspired her, Kingsolver replied “everything.”

The dinner in a pavilion erected on the South Lawn will feature performances by country star Brad Paisley and the gospel choir of Howard University in Washington. Paisley said he planned to start his performance with his hit “American Saturday Night.”

The menu includes fruitwood-smoked beef short ribs, poached lobster, chilled heirloom tomato soup and a white chocolate basket.

It’s the first White House state dinner for an African nation since 2008, and President Joe Biden is expecting up to 500 guests. It’s the sixth and largest of the state dinners his administration has hosted.

The festivities are part of the administration’s efforts to build ties with Africa. Biden failed to keep a promise to visit the continent last year, but this week he said he plans to visit “in February, after I’m reelected” – a show of optimism about his prospects in November’s election.

State dinners are a key tool of U.S, diplomacy reserved for America’s top allies. This one is coming at a delicate time for Washington’s relationship with Africa, following a coup in Niger where the military government has ordered U.S. troops to withdraw from that country, and amid efforts by China and Russia to expand their African political and economic influence.

Other attendees included the former contestant on TV’s “Top Chef” Kwame Onwuachi, and top Democratic donor Mark Gallogly. Sheryl Sandberg, who helped to transform Facebook from a tech startup into a digital advertising empire, philanthropist Melinda Gates and Hunter Biden, the president’s son, who is scheduled to stand trial on federal tax charges in September, were also among those expected.

The Rev. Al Sharpton, a longtime, leading Democratic voice and former presidential candidate himself, was asked while arriving about Biden’s chances against his predecessor and the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Donald Trump. He responded that “democracy is going to win in ’24″ while adding that Africa has not been properly recognized on the world stage – which he said made Thursday night’s dinner especially important.

Another guest, NBC news anchor Lester Holt, noted this was the second state dinner he’d attended, joking, “I don’t get out much.” Former Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms brought her 16-year-old son, but confessed to reporters that he didn’t want to hold her hand.

Ruto is on a three-day state visit as his East African nation prepares to deploy forces to Haiti, part of U.N.-led effort to try to calm a spiraling security crisis there.

First lady Jill Biden said the dinner entertainment was chosen to honor Ruto and his wife, Rachel’s “love of gospel and country music.”

Ruto is a former evangelist and often leads praise and worship songs during his speeches in churches in Kenya.

Gospel music has its origins in the American South, and grew out of musical traditions of Africa and hymns enslaved people sang. Country music’s roots trace to the American South and West, and were influenced by a variety of sounds, including Appalachian, folk and African music.

The dinner’s decor features fuchsia and purple African orchids and American roses. That’s a pairing that symbolizes enduring U.S.-Kenyan friendship, the first lady said, while recalling her own visit to Kenya as part of a five-day, two-country 2023 African tour.

The setting in a transparent pavilion was meant to give guests a view of the sun setting and the Washington Monument. More than 1,000 candles were placed along the pavilion walls, while a suspended centerpiece with 15,000 layered reflective metallic strips was there to amplify the candlelight.

Kenya last had a White House state dinner in 2003. No African nation has had one since President George W. Bush honored Ghana President John Kufuor five years after that.

“It is long overdue,” White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said.

The Bidens previously hosted post-pandemic state dinners for France, South Korea and India – which featured the Biden administration’s previous attendance high of nearly 400 guests – as well as for Australia in October and Japan last month.

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Associated Press writer Evelyne Musambi contributed to this report from Nairobi, Kenya.

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