Yolanda Adams, Alicia Keys, Sara Bareilles and a reunited En Vogue were among the more than 1,200 artists and music industry executives who gathered Thursday night (Oct. 10) to fete Sylvia Rhone. The Epic Records chairman/CEO made history as the first African-American woman recipient of the City of Hope’s Spirit of Life Award at the cancer and diabetes treatment organization’s 46th annual gala dinner, held at the Barker Hangar in Santa Monica, Calif.
“Sylvia has been smashing glass ceilings for decades, not only for women but for people of color,” said Universal Music Publishing Group president, North America Evan Lamberg, who also serves as president of City of Hope’s Music, Film and Entertainment Industry Group executive board, as he opened the evening. “Every single woman and person of color owes a huge debt of gratitude to the path that Sylvia Rhone has blazed and continues to blaze.”
That theme was repeated throughout the night and tied in with City of Hope’s groundbreaking work in health justice to ensure that people of color receive equitable health care by doing research on the genetic link between the African-American community and the higher rates of cancer.
Adams delivered the evening’s first scintillating performance as she ran through a medley of her hits, including “Just a Prayer Away,” “Through the Storm,“ “Never Give Up,” and “Open My Heart.”
“She has inspired me to continue to be a hard worker, a kind person and a great mother, so this one is especially for you,” Adams said of Rhone. “Most of those songs that you heard me sing Ms. Sylvia Rhone made sure that they were heard by the world and so I owe you so much. You are just impeccably amazing, I love you dearly,” Adams said before concluding with “Someone Watching Over You.”
One of the most moving moments of every Spirit of Life dinner comes when a cancer survivor delivers a testimony about how City of Hope saved his or her life. This year, five-time Grammy winner Kuk Harrell, who has worked with Mary J. Blige and Rihanna and among others, talked about how after being diagnosed last September with prostate cancer, City of Hope provided treatment that led to his being in remission. Following his stirring speech, a number of cancer survivors treated at City of Hope stood at their seats and told brief, inspiring stories of how they had beaten cancer because of City of Hope.
Keys and Bareilles followed the testimonies with a spirited segment that opened with Bareilles singing Keys’ smash, “If I Ain’t Got You,” accompanied by Keys on piano, before the pair switched and Keys sang Bareilles’ hit “Gravity,” while Bareilles played piano. The two then performed a mashup of Bareilles’ “Brave” and Keys’ “Girl On Fire.”
“You are such an amazing mentor and a guiding light for me and my career,” Bareilles said to Rhone. “I think tonight is so powerful because it shows what purpose that you walk in and what intention that you walk in and the desire to continue to grow and to continue to shine light in the places that we can,” Keys added.
Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder presented the 2019 Spirit of Life award to Rhone, noting “She has been called, and this is a quote, ‘the most influential female executive in the history of the music business’… As a woman and as a woman of color, she has broken countless barriers in a career spanning more than four decades…She actively plays a role in raising up the people around her. She’s dedicated and committed to the artists with whom she works.”
Walking on to Chaka Khan’s “I’m Every Woman,” Rhone, who’s career also includes stints at Elektra and Motown, triumphantly declared “Finally, finally, finally, finally we have arrived in the house. In the big house…It was not a hard decision to be the Spirit of Life honoree because I sat in these rooms for 20 years, wondering if there would be anybody up here who looked like me getting an award. And I sat there with a great deal of respect for those honorees, no question about it, they were amazing men, but it was time for a change. I want each and every one of you, especially for women and people of color to understand one of my motivations. Jon [Platt] got the award last year, I got it this year and I particularly did it because it will open doors for everybody else and so this is for us…To be able to stand up here on this stage tonight to be celebrated as the first black woman to ever receive this award is an honor beyond words. I’m grateful to be the first and I know I won’t be the last.”
Rhone then spoke emotionally and eloquently about her career in music and “the mission of finding something and creating a superstar is the best reward that you can get,” before praising City of Hope’s “commitment to health justice for all communities is a cause that became closest to my heart and my drive and what I would like to be a part of. City of Hope has pushed the frontiers of health equity forward more than any other health organization and what’s more, they haven’t left anyone behind.”
The evening closed with an invigorating performance by 90s hitmakers, En Vogue, who reunited to honor Rhone. The funky divas— Dawn Robinson, Terry Ellis, Cindy Herron, Maxine Jones and Rhona Bennett— performed several of their biggest hits, including “Giving Him Something He Can Feel,” “Free Your Mind,” “My Lovin’ (You’re Never Gonna Get It)” and “Hold On,” before a dancing audiences. The festivities continued with an after party featuring DJ Trauma.
The amount raised for the evening was still being tallied at press time but was expected to be exceed $5 million.