A flock of global entertainment notables and politicos, including France’s first lady, Carla Bruni, toasted Nelson Mandela’s 91st birthday with an all-star concert at Radio City Music Hall.
The tribute, held Saturday night, celebrated the anti-apartheid icon’s birthday with a diverse collection of musical collaborations that ranged from pop to disco to gospel.
Bruni made her American stage debut at the show paired with Eurythmics founder Dave Stewart as her husband, President Nicolas Sarkozy, sat cheering in the audience. She paid homage to Mandela’s social activism by covering Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” calling it a song by another famous activist.
For her first song, a slow French ballad, she told the crowd: “This one’s not good for dancing. Butit’s good for dreaming.”
But from an early performance by disco queen Gloria Gaynor to the star-studded finale led by Stevie Wonder, the crowd was on their feet for most of the night.
The 22-year old pop singer Jesse McCartney, one of the evening’s youngest performers, performed his hit, “How Do You Sleep?” Italian artist Zucchero, who has appeared at every Mandela foundation concert, chose to sing the soulful “You Are So Beautiful.”
While the South African freedom fighter could not make the festivities, his presence was felt inside and outside of the theater. African artists such as Suzanna Owiyo, Yvonne Chaka Chaka, Sipho Mabuse, and the Soweto Gospel Choir played backup for the night and were part of the one of the strongest performances.
Queen Latifah performed a booming rendition of “There’s a Light” that ended with thunderous applause. She originally recorded the song for the 2007 movie, “Hairspray.”
Among the eclectic collaborators were the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, who joined Josh Groban for his “You Raise Me Up.” After the song, Groban told the crowd that performing with Franklin was “the thrill of a lifetime.”
Alicia Keys and African artist Angelique Kidjo performed the spiritual “Afrika.” Rapper Lil’ Kim’s duet with Cyndi Lauper offered a stripped-down rendition of Lauper’s “Time After Time.”
Before the show, the rapper spoke of how Mandela inspired her, saying: “He was very instrumental in my experience in prison.” Lil’ Kim spent a year in prison on conspiracy and perjury charges.
Mandela appeared last year for a concert in London’s Hyde Park to celebrate his 90th birthday but since then, Mandela’s doctors advised that he no longer travel internationally. The concert Saturday, therefore, culminates the first ever “Mandela Day” as a means of honoring his inspiration by observing the day annually.